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27 January 2017

Theresa May’s Philadelphia speech sets British foreign policy in new directions

May's speech has big repercussions for British foreign policy, and not just towards the United States. 

By Stephen Bush

Theresa May gave a remarkable speech last night that was far more complex and nuanced than the pre-briefed extracts suggest. It also contained a few major shifts in British foreign policy that have not been fully discussed, some of which I’ll outline below. 

What Downing Street briefed in advance suggested an exercise in obeisance, and there was a little of that, with a lengthy section linking the PM’s values with the Republican Party’s:

“For I speak to you not just as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, but as a fellow Conservative who believes in the same principles that underpin the agenda of your party. The value of liberty. The dignity of work. The principle of nationhood, family, economic prudence, patriotism – and putting power in the hands of the people.”

But there was also plenty of red meat for those in her own party and outside it who are concerned that she is being overly deferential to a man who is nothing like the Republican Presidents of times past. There was a robust defence not only of Nato, but the United Nations’ role in the world too:

“Some of these organisations are in need of reform and renewal to make them relevant to our needs today. But we should be proud of the role our two nations – working in partnership – played in bringing them into being, and in bringing peace and prosperity to billions of people as a result.

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She repudiated Trump’s desire to unpick the Obama’ administration’s nuclear deal with Iran, warning that it would risk global security:

“The nuclear deal with Iran was controversial. But it has neutralised the possibility of the Iranians acquiring nuclear weapons for more than a decade.”

implicitly criticised his plan to ban people from majority-Muslim countries from coming to the United States:

We should always be careful to distinguish between this extreme and hateful ideology, and the peaceful religion of Islam and the hundreds of millions of its adherents – including millions of our own citizens and those further afield who are so often the first victims of this ideology’s terror.”

and sounded a warning on trusting Vladimir Putin:

When it comes to Russia, as so often it is wise to turn to the example of President Reagan who – during his negotiations with his opposite number Mikhail Gorbachev – used to abide by the adage ‘trust but verify’. With President Putin, my advice is to ‘engage but beware’.”

Adding this on the Crimea, an implicit rebuke to the ideas laid out in Trump’s inaugural speech:

“[We must] particularly after the illegal annexation of Crimea, give assurance to Russia’s neighbouring states that their security is not in question. We should not jeopardise the freedoms that President Reagan and Mrs Thatcher brought to Eastern Europe by accepting President Putin’s claim that it is now in his sphere of influence.”

There were wider foreign policy nuggets too. She made another defence of Britain’s commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of its GDP on foreign aid, which she explicitly tied to its Nato commitment to spend two per cent on defence as part of Britain’s commitment to a wider policy. Significantly, the commitment to two per cent was further extended into the future. 

“it is why Britain is the only country in the G20 – other than yours – to meet its commitment to spend two per cent of GDP on defence….it is why Britain is the only country in the G20 to spend 0.7 per cent of gross national income on overseas development.”

And there was a major shift in our tone and policy towards China, explicitly differentiating it from India, another emerging Asian power:

“The rise of the Asian economies – China yes, but democratic allies like India too – is hugely welcome. Billions are being lifted out of poverty and new markets for our industries are opening up.”

and rolling China into a list of new and revived threats:

New enemies of the West and our values – in particular in the form of radical Islamists – have emerged.

And countries with little tradition of democracy, liberty and human rights – notably China and Russia – have grown more assertive in world affairs.”

It’s a speech with a good idea of its three audiences: Republican Senators who really hold the fate of a US-UK trade deal in their hands, who it praised unequivocally, and British voters and MPs who wanted a tough line against Trump, which it delivered as well.

What about the third audience, Trump himself? We know already that Donald Trump prefers not to read, and gets his information through cable news and listening to anecdotes. His understanding of the job is still not what you’d wish, with the President reportedly confused as to why his CIA Director wasn’t at the Republican’s annual gathering, a party-political event. 

Left to his own devices, the warm words that made headlines will be enough for Trump, who only has to sign the trade deal, one which will be negotiated further down the White House bureaucracy.
We also know that he dislikes even the smallest criticism. How today goes will tell us a lot about whether the dysfunction is contained in the President’s personality or has already paralysed the ability of his aides to bring him all the information he ought to have.

If it hasn’t her joint press conference with the President might turn out to be very dramatic indeed.