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27 January 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 3:31pm

Theresa May meets Donald Trump – but what does she hope to gain?

Two foreign policy experts give their views. 

By Rachel Rizzo

On Friday, the Prime Minister Theresa May will be the first foreign premier to meet the 45th US President, Donald Trump. Never has the special relationship been so controversial. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been pelting May on social media with messages to take to Trump, such as “no waterboarding”. But even those who think the PM should stick to trade talks are sceptical about the results.

Here, two specialists in US and UK relations give us their view of what will go on behind the scenes. 

Dr Jacob Parakilas, Deputy Head, US and Americas Programme, Chatham House 

As Prime Minister Theresa May sits down for her first meeting with President Trump, both sides have been at pains to reaffirm the continuing importance of strong US-UK ties. After a rocky start marked by Trump’s apparent preference for Nigel Farage over the actual leadership of Britain, Trump is now rolling out the red carpet for the PM. The British press is jubilantly suggesting that this will be the second coming of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

Unfortunately, the pomp and circumstance hides the fact that this relationship will not be easy for the United Kingdom. The special relationship has always been asymmetrical – both in terms of the outright power balance and the extent to which the relationship is considered unique. But the collision of Brexit and the aggressively idiosyncratic beginning of the Trump presidency has left the UK in a much less advantageous position than normal. 

The British government has explicitly stated that Brexit is not about isolationism – it is about looking beyond the EU and fostering closer ties farther afield. At a time when those relationships with its closest neighbours are complicated, it is absolutely crucial that the UK’s other critical relationships can be seen as resilient and improving. And none of these are more important – symbolically or practically – than the relationship with the US.

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To that end, May will no doubt discuss continuing close bilateral co-operation on counter-terrorism, and emphasise the prospects for a US-UK bilateral trade deal – something Trump has indicated he is willing to support. But the much larger US economy wouldn’t be profoundly affected by a trade deal with the UK, and the political incentives for Trump are limited. While it would help his image as a deal-making leader, his stated and explicit priority is securing American jobs and profits for American companies. That suggests that he will push for a trade deal written on Washington’s terms, not London’s – and May will have little leverage to push back.

Nor have President Trump’s actions over the first week made things easy for the PM on other fronts. With talk of re-opening CIA black sites, adding new detainees to the detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, and potentially resuming torture of suspected terrorists, Trump is raising the spectre of a return to the excesses of the George W. Bush administration. The extent to which the Blair government was aware of, or complicit in, those activities, is still hugely politically sensitive in British politics (compounded by the decision to take part in the war in Iraq). A US return to those policies would force the British government to either curtail its mutually vital security cooperation with the US or abandon its commitment to the international legal regime. Neither is an appealing option for Britain.

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In the longer term, Trump’s desire to build a closer relationship with Russia and challenge China stands diametrically opposed to Britain’s positions, which are more hawkish on Russia and more amenable to economic collaboration with China. Such disparities can probably be papered over in the absence of a crisis – but a crisis under these conditions might very rapidly put British foreign policy in an untenable position.

May is therefore in an exceptionally tricky position. She has little choice but to reaffirm the strength and importance of the US-UK relationship, and to hope that doing so will buy her influence that she can use to gently steer President Trump away from some of his more outlandish promises. But she is not the first British leader to hope for the ear of their American counterpart – and no modern American president has been as unpredictable or fickle as Trump thus far seems to be. For the UK, then, the hardest part lies ahead.

Rachel Rizzo, Research Associate, Strategy and Statecraft Program, Center for a New American Security

Both the Brexit result and Trump’s surprise election signal the beginning of a new political climate on both sides of the Atlantic – and set the stage for the UK and the US to redefine the future terms of the special relationship. As they meet today, both President Trump and Prime Minister May bring to the table their own set of objectives. The question is, will those objectives overlap or conflict?

First and foremost, Trump will use the meeting with May as an opportunity to burnish his credentials as a credible world leader, in contrast to the controversial nature of his election and his lack of political experience. 

In terms of substance, Trump will want to talk to May about trade, and to see how fast the two countries can move forward on a common trade agenda. He may be surprised, though, by the limits on how far that conversation can go, given the fact that the UK has not yet invoked Article 50. Nonetheless, the topic of Nato defence spending will also be a top priority and, moving forward, he’ll likely seek to use Prime Minister May as a partner in encouraging Nato allies to meet their mandated defence spending targets. Trump also believes he and May will find common cause in their anti-EU views, but he’ll soon learn that this doesn’t mean May wants the overarching European project to fail.

Second, President Trump will most likely reassure May that he plans to place the special relationship higher on his foreign policy priority list than his predecessor. This is good news for her, as politics are equally as shaky on the UK side of the Atlantic. Since the Brexit vote, Prime Minister May has experienced a tough regional political climate. In short, she needs a win during her trip to the United States. She cannot simply visit Washington, return to the UK, and say it was a “productive meeting”. Instead, she will want to discuss potential trade deals with the United States, although, it is important to note that those are largely dependent upon the future trade relationship that the UK works out with the EU post-Brexit. She will want to hear more about Trump’s strategy regarding relations with Russia, whether a grand bargain of some kind is on the table and where Europe fits in all of that.

Perhaps most importantly, May wants Trump to reaffirm early on in his presidency his commitment to the special relationship, especially post-Brexit. Trump will most likely deliver in this regard, especially given his recent statement saying that he does not believe the “EU matters very much for the United States”.

It will be unsurprising to see Trump emphatically reassure the UK that his presidency means a new era for the special relationship. Still, one must question where the safeguarding of the broader transatlantic relationship will fall on the presidential priority list.