British Prime Minister Theresa May has won the race to be the first foreign leader to meet President Donald Trump in Washington. But her trip to the U.S. capital is anything but a victory lap.
May’s staff worked feverishly to secure the two-day trip, which includes a meeting with the president Friday at the White House. British officials hope it will help cement the U.K.’s place as a pre-eminent American ally and provide proof of what Britons — more often than Americans — call the trans-Atlantic “special relationship.”
But May faces the challenge of persuading a president who has vowed to put “America first” of the benefits of free trade with Britain and the vital role of the 28-nation NATO military alliance.
And she must build a working relationship with a populist president whose protectionist outlook and loose way with facts have alarmed many European politicians, including some of May’s own allies.
May insists she’s up to the task of being America’s steadfast but plain-speaking friend, telling British lawmakers on Wednesday that “I am not afraid to speak frankly to a president of the United States.”
Her message in the U.S. will include elements of gentle history lesson, as she urges the two nations to “lead together.”
In a speech to Republican legislators in Philadelphia on Thursday, May plans to say that the trans-Atlantic relationship “made the modern world” and built the institutions that have underpinned the global order since the end of World War II.
Linking Britain’s vote to leave the 28-nation European Union with the win of political outsider Trump, she’ll say that “as you renew your nation just as we renew ours, we have the opportunity — indeed the responsibility — to renew the special relationship for this new age.”
Excerpts from the speech were released in advance by May’s office.
May’s seeming embrace of Trump — in the wake of his commitment to building a Mexico border wall and other recent edicts — drew criticism from the prime minister’s opponents.
Former Labour Party leader Ed Miliband tweeted: “Today he starts on wall, praises waterboarding, bullies climate scientists. She says they can lead together. Surely decent Tories feel queasy?”
May is likely to get a warm welcome at the Republican retreat and in the White House.
Trump has already pronounced Britain “very special!” in one of his tweets. He has also has restored to the Oval Office a bust of Britain’s World War II Prime Minister Winston Churchill that was removed while Barack Obama was president, to the chagrin of some patriotically minded Britons.
May’s office says she intends to admire the bust when she visits the White House. She’ll also give Trump, whose mother was born in Scotland, a Quaich, a traditional Scottish cup of friendship.
Victoria Honeyman, a politics lecturer at the University of Leeds, said the effusive tone coming from Trump’s White House marked a change from the Obama years.
“Obama has been a more Asia-Pacific-focused president, so this is a return — at least in rhetoric — to the good old days of the U.S.-U.K. special relationship,” she said. “But it’s very difficult to know exactly what Theresa May is going to get out of this other than warm words.”
Britain needs more than words from the United States as it prepares to start divorce talks with the European Union. May has said the U.K. will be leaving both the bloc and its single market in goods and services, which now stretches over 28 countries including Britain and involves half a billion people.
By leaving, the U.K. is gaining the opportunity to strike new trade deals around the globe, and the U.S., as the top destination for British exports, is one of the biggest prizes around.
While Obama warned that Britain outside the EU would go to the “back of the queue” for a U.S. trade deal, Trump told the Times of London newspaper that a trade deal could be done quickly.
But any talks in Washington this week will be preliminary, since Britain is barred by EU rules from substantial negotiations on new trade agreements until it actually leaves the bloc — which is likely to be in 2019 at the earliest.
And May will face strong domestic opposition to any deal that forces Britain to bring its standards into line with the U.S. on things like genetically modified food — currently banned under EU rules — or the private sector’s role in health care.
Trump has also been generally cool on trade agreements. He is pulling the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership — a deal Obama worked hard on — and has promised to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico.
In other challenges for May, Trump has called NATO “obsolete” and called the EU “basically a vehicle for Germany” that Britain was “smart” to leave.
May told the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week that although the U.K. is leaving the EU, “it remains overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest” that the bloc still succeed.
And while Trump said in his inauguration speech that “from this day forward, it’s going to be only America first,” May vowed in Davos “to stand up for free markets, free trade and globalization.”
Political positions are not always a guide to personal relationships, however. Center-left Prime Minister Tony Blair and Republican President George W. Bush formed a friendship that surprised many — and led Britain into the divisive, costly Iraq War.
May and Trump could hardly be more different. He is a brash, spotlight-loving businessman whose closest British ally to date has been the bantering former U.K. Independence Party leader Nigel Farage.
She is a small-town vicar’s daughter who has risen to the top of politics through prudence and by avoiding personal ostentation or controversy. Her most flamboyant feature is a fondness for leopard-print shoes.
Quentin Peel, an associate fellow at think tank Chatham House, said “leaders try to create the chemistry that they need to create.”
“When leaders of governments really want to make it work, they can make it work,” he said.
Other leaders around the world — who will make their own visits to Washington in the coming months — will be watching closely to see if they do.