May calls on US to ‘renew special relationship’ with UK

British PM urges Americans not to go it alone in world ahead of meeting with Trump

British prime minister Theresa May told a Republican retreat in Philadelphia that the US and the UK could not return to "the failed policies of the past" by intervening military in foreign countries.

Speaking ahead of her first meeting with US President Donald Trump at the White House on Friday, Ms May drew a line under the foreign interventions of the Bush-Blair era.

The British Conservative leader will become the first world leader to hold face-to-face talks with the property tycoon since his inauguration on Friday as she seeks to lay the groundwork for a post-Brexit free trade deal between the two countries.

In her speech, she urged the Americans not to withdraw from the world or multilateral institutions, putting her at odds with Mr Trump’s “America First” strategy outlined in his inaugural address.


She said that the two countries should not stand back when their interests are threatened and rejected some of Mr Trump’s foreign policy positions.

“The days of Britain and America intervening in sovereign countries in an attempt to remake the world in our own image are over but nor can we afford to stand idly by when the threat is real and when it is in our own interests to intervene,” she said.

In a forceful speech aiming to renew the “special relationship” between the countries at the start the Trump administration, Ms May said that that Britain and the US can “lead together again.”

"We must be strong, smart and hard-headed, and we must demonstrate the resolve necessary to stand up for our interests and, whether it is the security of Israel in the Middle East or the Baltic States in eastern Europe, we must always stand up for our friends and allies in democratic countries that find themselves in tough neighbourhoods too," she said.

‘American renewal’

Addressing the Republicans at what she called the start of a “new era of American renewal” under Mr Trump, the British leader said that a strong America at home could lead abroad.

“A newly emboldened, confident America is good for the world,” she said. “An America that is strong and prosperous at home is a nation that can lead abroad but you cannot and should not do so alone.”

Casting the UK as an internationalist country, Ms May spoke of the importance of the United Nations and Nato, which Mr Trump has criticised, saying that they could be made "more relevant and purposeful" to serve the needs and interests of the people of the nations that formed them.

The Tory leader, the first foreign leader to address the annual Republican meeting, said that she and Mr Trump had the opportunity and responsibility "to renew the special relationship for this age" in a speech that evoked the strong ties of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

She broke from Mr Trump on his conciliatory stance toward Russian leader Vladimir Putin – a man the US president admires and wants to restore US relations with – advising not to trust him.

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

She urged the US not to jeopardise the freedoms Reagan and Thatcher brought to eastern Europe by accepting Putin’s claim “that it is now in his sphere of influence.”

Ms May deviated from Mr Trump’s aggressive stance against radical Islamic terrorism, drawing a more nuanced view of the risks posed by Islamophobia. She has previously called Mr Trump’s suggestion for a ban on Muslim immigration “divisive, stupid and wrong.”

“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,” she said.

Prior to landing in the US, Ms May told reporters that her government “absolutely condemn the use of torture.” Mr Trump said that he “absolutely” believed torture worked and that he would consider reinstating waterboarding and other severe interrogation techniques.

Trade agreement

Drawing parallels between Mr Trump’s election and Britain’s “Brexit” – two events that the US president linked as populist uprisings against political elites - Ms May said: “We have chosen a different future for our country, a future that sees us restore our parliamentary sovereignty.”

Hopes for a trade deal between the countries are high following Mr Trump’s surprise victory in the presidential election.

In contrast to Barack Obama who said that Britain would be at the "back of the queue" for a trade in the event of Brexit, Mr Trump has praised the decision to exit the EU and said earlier this month that his administration would work "very quickly" to secure a trade agreement with the UK.

In addition to trade, the two leaders are expected to talk about security, intelligence co-operation and the future of Nato in their talks at the White House on Friday. Mr Trump and Ms May will hold a joint press conference after their meeting.

Ms May has said that she could forge a strong relationship with Mr Trump, arguing that “sometimes opposites attract,” but equally that she “won’t be afraid” to speak candidly with him.

The British leader will present Mr Trump with a quaich, a two-handled Scottish cup of friendship, to reflect his ancestry - his mother is from the Isle of Lewis – and hamper of produce from her country residence Chequers to First Lady Melania Trump.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is News Editor of The Irish Times