Theresa May faces familiar challenge in Donald Trump

All prime ministers gloss over differences in order to maintain the ‘special relationship’

Donald Trump and Theresa May: Trump is reported to have referred to her as “my Maggie”, hoping to nurture a relationship similar to that enjoyed between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Photograph: PA Wire

Donald Trump and Theresa May: Trump is reported to have referred to her as “my Maggie”, hoping to nurture a relationship similar to that enjoyed between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Photograph: PA Wire

 

Donald Trump is such an extraordinary president that it is tempting to view Theresa May’s first meeting with him on Friday as an unusual, or even unprecedented, challenge. In many ways, however, she will tread the same path as each of her predecessors who greeted a new incumbent in the White House.

There will be the standard invocation of the “special relationship”, the usual organisational chaos of trying to deal with a White House team not fully in place, and the routine attempt to establish a warm personal relationship with the most powerful man in the world. London and Washington have never been on precisely the same page on every global policy issue, so May’s efforts to gloss over their differences will follow a long-established pattern too.

The prime minister does face a special challenge, however, insofar as Britain’s decision to leave the European Union has left it more than ever dependent on American goodwill. She is expected to tell Trump that Britain and America can “rediscover our confidence” and “lead together again” in the wake of Brexit and his election.

Diminished influence

Her problem is that leaving the EU will almost inevitably diminish Britain’s influence in a world which Trump has shown no enthusiasm for leading. And her key objective of securing a free trade deal with the US could be complicated by the president’s strident protectionism, and his view of international relations as a zero-sum game.

It is true that Trump favours bilateral trade deals over multilateral ones, but any such agreement could face fierce political resistance in Britain. Already, opposition politicians have warned May against any deal that could weaken Britain’s food safety standards by admitting hormone-filled US beef, or allow US healthcare companies to provide services to the National Health Service.

During the US election campaign, May criticised Trump’s offensive remarks about women, and British politicians united in denouncing his call for a ban on Muslims entering the US. She can ignore the president’s endorsement of torture as an interrogation technique as long as he confines himself to fantasising about it.

Difficult questions

If Trump actually authorises the use of torture, however, May will face difficult questions about intelligence sharing – the most important, substantive element of the special relationship. Given her explicit rejection of torture, would British intelligence services accept – or act on – intelligence acquired by the US through torture? And could suspected terrorists be extradited from Britain to the US if there is a chance they would be tortured in custody?

Trump is reported to have referred to May as “my Maggie”, hoping to nurture a relationship similar to that enjoyed between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. For now, the prime minister’s most important objective will be to reinforce such warm feelings and to establish herself as the new president’s closest friend among world leaders.

Soon, however, she will face tough foreign policy choices if Trump continues to trample over the global order, and a major task of domestic political management when the disappointing reality of a new trade deal becomes clear.

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