Trump bigs up Brexit at press conference with Theresa May
US president hogs the microphone but strikes all the right notes for British audience
British prime minister Theresa May and US president Donald Trump during a joint news conference at the White House in Washington, DC on Friday. Photograph: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
In his joint press conference with Theresa May at the White House on Friday, Donald Trump struck all the right notes for a British audience, extolling the “special relationship”, flattering the prime minister and talking up Britain’s prospects outside the European Union. The two leaders appeared more relaxed in each other’s company than in the Oval Office an hour earlier, when they exchanged awkward chit-chat before the cameras as they stood next to a bust of Winston Churchill.
The president sidestepped the most difficult questions, sounding less fulsome than before about his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, with whom he is due to talk by phone on Saturday. Trump restated his belief in the effectiveness of torture, but said he would defer to his defence secretary Gen James Mattis, who opposes it.
In his praise of Brexit, he referred to difficulties he faced in Ireland, which he referred to only as “another” EU country, when he tried to develop a golf course. The president praised the actions of the Government but complained that EU regulations made the project impossible.
The prime minister had less to say during the press conference, partly because Trump hogged the microphone, even answering May’s questions for her on a couple of occasions. She did place on record that, during their private conversation, the president had told her he was 100 per cent behind Nato, an organisation he has previously dismissed as obsolete. And she made clear her opposition to lifting sanctions against Russia until it implements the Minsk agreement on Ukraine.
In a speech to Republican legislators in Philadelphia on Thursday, May offered a robust defence of Nato and the postwar, liberal, global order in general. She also made clear that, although Britain is leaving the EU, it believes that the success of the European project is in both the British and American interest.
She warned the US against turning away from the world, counselled Trump to proceed warily in his dealings with Putin, and defended the Iran nuclear deal. In an important shift in British foreign policy, however, she rejected the doctrine of liberal interventionism outlined by Tony Blair in a speech in Chicago in 1999.
May’s rejection of attempts “to remake the world in our own image” reflects the shift in British public opinion away from foreign military adventures since the invasion of Iraq. But it must also be seen in the context of the shrinking of Britain’s military capacity in recent years, which has seen army numbers, for example, diminish to the point where Britain would be unable to provide even a division in a joint campaign with the US.
This reduction in military capacity, which is also reflected in the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, has made Britain a less useful ally to the US. Even in the field of intelligence, the global reach of America’s electronic espionage makes Britain’s contribution less important.
This reality could be a more significant factor in any future downgrading of the “special relationship”, even more than the new US president’s emerging foreign policy or his capricious approach to relationships.