While the many different aspects of defence tend to occupy the majority of my professional life these days, it is of necessity that politics and diplomacy should continue to take a large place. So it is that later today our Prime Minister, Theresa May will be in the USA for what, as far as I am concerned, could well be the most important visit made by a British Prime Minister to the political heart of the world’s largest economy since those much publicised visits by Harold Macmillan to see John F Kennedy over fifty years ago and by Margaret Thatcher to see Ronald Regan in the 1980’s and that in the case of the latter, led to our shared views in respect of globalisation.
Leave aside the Brexit issue, the uncertainty of a new President who comes to the White House without any political baggage, the point is surely that Mrs May is absolutely right to meet the President Trump with all haste and re-emphasise the strong ‘special relationship’ that exists between us and binds us together.
Relationships between those former leaders I mention above and that maintained the tradition established by Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill have been unparalleled in terms of international diplomacy. Neither should I ignore or indeed, criticise the extremely close relationship established between Tony Blair with George W. Bush as we worked together as allies in the invasion of Iraq. This amongst all the others has its place in our respective histories.
Later today, in Philadelphia and ahead of a planned meeting with President Trump to be held on Friday in Washington DC, Mrs May will meet and address Republican leaders at their annual retreat. She will we are told stress the unique contribution that the US and UK have together made to the modern world and the institutions that underpin it, such as NATO and the United Nations.
We are told that Mrs. May will say in her speech that “just as the two nations have worked hand-in-hand to defeat evil and to open up the world in the past, they now have an opportunity to lead, together, again. To this she will add that “the UK is by instinct and history a great, global nation that recognises its responsibilities to the world and that as we end our membership of the European Union, we have the opportunity to reassert our belief in a confident, sovereign and global Britain, ready to build relationships with old friends and new allies alike”.
This should not, as implied by some headlines, be interpreted as Mrs May suggesting that the ‘US and the UK can lead the world again’. It is not her place to do that and neither would it be right or is it intended. But it is to re-emphasise that we in Britain have a genuine desire to build or, if you prefer, rebuild the special relationship between our two nations and that we, as indeed do so many Americans, recognise because we have so many shared values and common interests.
I recognise that amongst my own audience this morning there will, in this day and age, be a number of cynics who might argue that we no longer matter to the US today, that we are not essential to them and that in their view we no longer have power to influence. The world has changed and we are no longer the only country in Europe to be considered mature when it comes to handing matters of international diplomacy.
It is certainly true that we are no longer to be regarded as ‘world power’ in that regard despite being the sixth or is it now, the seventh largest economy in the world. We are certainly not as strong as we were and we have made a choice to spend less on defence and diplomacy and more on health and welfare.
But, despite such reservations and indeed, home truths, we should never forget that no matter how the world has changed, no matter who would seek to challenge us, we will always stand side by side with the US and rightly so. NATO is just one of many aspects that binds us along with our membership of the Security Council and the UN itself. Equally important to remember is that no matter what might occasionally divide us politically or sensitively when we hear rhetoric that we disdain, the US and UK have far more in common than either of the two nations does with any other nation in the world. We share language, culture, freedom of speech, democracy and so much more besides and long may that continue.
In Theresa May we have a Prime Minister who will also stand her ground – someone who is not afraid to speak her views or be bullied. She and Donald Trump could not be more different in terms of their individual approach but they share the ability to speak candidly and to respect each other’s view. For his part, President Trump has already emphasised his strong relationship with Britain and that we must all welcome.
Mrs. May will of course show her desire to see NATO strengthened and she will seek reassurance from President Trump in regard of this. As he does, she recognises that other European members of NATO need to pay a larger share of the cost of NATO and that the burden that America has carried for so long must be reduced. She will promise to work toward reducing that burden and that she will play her part in attempting to persuade her European NATO partners to increase their spending on defence and rightly so.
While we have clearly been alarmed by Trump rhetoric particularly in regard of NATO we should, as I said in my piece in regard of the new US Secretary Defence, James Mattis, be reassured that President Trump has strongly emphasised an intention to allow those to whom he has passed responsibility to decide policy. If that is so, and I do not doubt that it is, we can in James Mattis be in little doubt that as the most important and successful military alliance in the world “the fundamental and enduring value of NATO for the security of both Europe and America” will remain.
President Trump has already said that the UK will move to the top of the queue when it comes to the time of the two nations formulating a trade agreement and I for one do not doubt the sincerity of view or purpose. Mrs. May is not in the US to negotiate a trade agreement and neither does she have a mandate to do this ahead of our having left the EU. But, I have no doubt that Donald Trump will make clear that he sees Britain as a valuable and trusted friend and one that America wants to do business with.
As to others issues, and there are many, that Mrs. May and Donald Trump would disagree on and that have emerged from comments he made during the presidential election campaign I suspect that each on this meeting occasion will hold their own counsel. That said, I suspect that Mrs. May will emphasise that Britain does not share the new President’s view that some elements of torture, such as waterboarding, do have a place.
I’ll leave it at that and sign of by saying ‘good luck Prime Minister’.
CHW (London – 26th January 2017)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785