Mrs May goes to Washington

Trump will see May’s visit as a demonstration of weakness

On Friday, British Prime Minister Theresa May will become the first foreign leader to visit President Trump. Her surprise early visit has once again launched a thousand speculations on the special relationship and whether it will survive or even thrive under the tender mercies of the new American president.  Mr Trump himself has fuelled such speculation by expressing the hope that May will become “my Maggie”, a reference to the Ronald Reagan-Margaret Thatcher partnership that defined the heyday of the special relationship.

But boosters of the Anglosphere on both sides of the Atlantic should curb their enthusiasm. May and Trump are not likely to usher in a new era of specialness. In part, this is because any president who so triumphantly puts America first will almost by definition never be a special partner for any foreign leader. Special relationships, if they are to mean anything, must involve at least occasionally putting one’s partner first. Trump’s presidency is built on the notions that America does not need other countries and that he will never put other countries first.

But more precisely Trump and May will not forge an effective bond because Trump will see May’s visit as a demonstration of weakness. May arrives as the first foreign supplicant at the court of the negotiator-king. Her supplication starts with the implicit apology her visit offers for the sleights directed at Trump during the Presidential campaign by members of her government. These include her foreign minister, Boris Johnson, who accused Trump of “stupefying ignorance.”

She also shows weakness because she must compete for Trump’s affections with her domestic rival Nigel Farage, who appeared next to Trump the day after election and whom Trump suggested would make a good UK ambassador to the United States. Farage and his UK Independence Party are a profound political challenge for a British prime minister trying to preserve some space for negotiation on Brexit with the European Union. Trump’s relationship with Farage means that he has leverage over her that she simply lacks. Indeed, apparently in an efforts to ingratiate herself to the Republicans, she decided to attenda Republican congressional retreat, thus angering the Democratic leadership and sacrificing any similar leverage she may have had.

Mrs May's weakness is that she badly needs a US-UK free trade deal to support her decision to seek a hard Brexit

Finally, she shows weakness because she so badly needs a US-UK free trade deal to support her decision to seek a hard Brexit. In contrast to Obama, who famously insisted that after Brexit the UK would be at the back of the queue for trade negotiations, Trump has welcomed a bilateral deal with the UK. The lure of the vast American market can help placate May’s domestic constituents who fear leaving the EU customs union. At the same time, the existence of an American option strengthens May’s hand in the negotiations with the EU.  It is this possibility that best explains her unseemly haste to appear at the White House.  But it also makes all the more clear that she needs this deal more than Trump.

Trump the negotiator can never resist exploiting such weaknesses, even and perhaps particularly when it comes from someone extending a hand of friendship. Just ask Chris Christie, whose efforts to support Trump after he bowed out of the Republican primary campaign, were rewarded with an ignominious firing from the transition team the day after Trump’s victory. Christie’s mistake was that he lost and then offered friendship but failed to preserve any leverage. He was last seen hoping to avoid jail time over the sin of holding up traffic on the George Washington Bridge for political purposes.  One hopes he isn’t counting on Trump for a pardon.

As the Christie example demonstrates, the problem for May is that Trump doesn’t value relationships, special or otherwise. He values winning and he values strength. Rushing to the White House to offer a weak hand of friendship, while sacrificing all leverage, all but guarantees exploitation.

On Friday, May will get a nice meeting, comforting (if rambling) words of friendship, and extravagant promises of a “beautiful” free trade pact. She may even be able to convince herself that paying early homage to Trump was worth it. But she would be wise to check the fine print of that trade deal if and when it arrives. They will not make her feel special.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Research Director
Director, US Programme

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