What's at Stake When President Trump Meets with UK Prime Minister

Written by on January 27, 2017

Steve Back / Barcroft Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images(WASHINGTON) — U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May will be the first foreign leader to meet U.S. President Donald Trump when the two leaders convene for talks in the White House on Friday.

May’s status as the first leader to meet the new president is testament to the enduring “special relationship” between the U.S. and the U.K. But despite historically good relations between presidents and prime ministers, there are some potentially significant differences that could arise during their meeting.

President Trump’s comments about women, Mexicans, Muslims, NATO and his protectionist “America First” rhetoric have made the optics of this meeting tricky for May back home. The meeting is coming just days after Trump controversially advocated the resurrection of enhanced interrogation techniques like waterboarding. May has had to make explicit the U.K.’s position in response, saying her government did not “sanction” torture and would maintain that position.

May is not without her own baggage — the U.K. is badly split by the Brexit result and is now preparing for a messy divorce from the European Union. This comes at the same time as it begins looking outward for new trading relationships. May is hopeful that this meeting will kick-start that process.

So, this is not just a normal meeting of new leaders from an old alliance but a significant moment for both of them and their countries. As Leslie Vinjamuri, an associate fellow of the U.S. and the Americas program at Chatham House, pointed out, “We can’t actually underestimate the symbolic significance of this visit and what it will signal to many different communities of people across the West and beyond and to states in Europe.”

It is unlikely that at this first meeting anything substantive will emerge but there are nonetheless key issues — the future of the “special relationship,” NATO, global free trade, Vladimir Putin, the Middle East and women’s rights — that are all worth watching. We break down what to look for below:

The ‘Special Relationship’

The “special relationship” has been at the heart of the diplomatic engagement between U.S. and the U.K. since World War II.

Churchill and Roosevelt, Maggie and Ronnie, Tony and George have together been incredibly influential. The presidents and prime ministers’ personal chemistry (and political sympathies) has had global significance at key moments in modern history — World War II, the end of the Cold War and the invasion of Iraq, were all formed in the crucible of the “special relationship.” So, a lot is at stake when a new U.S. president and U.K. prime minister meet for the first time.

In the case of Trump and May, two very different personalities are about to come face-to-face.

“You couldn’t think of two people more diametrically different in their personalities and styles,” said Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former British foreign secretary during the 1990s and a cabinet minister under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

However, both have a vested interest in making their relationship work. According to Karin von Hippel, director general of the London-based Royal United Service Institute, “They won’t ever achieve the relationship that Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher had but it’s important that they get along and that they remain as close allies as they can, given the challenges on both sides.”

NATO

For many, NATO is the single biggest strategic issue at stake. Trump has declared NATO obsolete and accused some of its European members of not contributing enough resources to the organization.

His comments have been perceived as a threat to the viability of an organization that has served as a bulwark against Russia during the Cold War and what many argue has kept global peace for 70 years. May will need to clarify what precisely Trump meant by his comments, according to Rifkind.

Undermining NATO is a red line for May. But, as Vinjamuri pointed out, also an opportunity.

“Making sure that NATO remains essential and affirming Britain’s role in securing America’s commitment to NATO is crucial,” she said. “It puts Britain at the center of that trans-Atlantic alliance. If Theresa May can demonstrate that she’s the critical partner in affirming America’s commitment to European security, that’s a real bonus for her.”

Trade

Global free trade is perhaps an area where there is the most common ground and interest. May is very keen to show that there is life for the U.K. after Brexit, and a nod to a free trade deal with the U.S. would mean a great deal domestically.

Trump has made lots of protectionist noises over “unfair” trade agreements and took the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership at the stroke of a pen this week. But he could nonetheless go a long way toward redressing the balance by indicating he’s open to new free trade agreements by setting in motion an agreement with the U.K.

Women’s Issues

In some ways, this is the most controversial issue for May. Ahead of her meeting with Trump, May was already facing questions about how she would respond to the U.S. leader’s previous controversial statements about women. In an interview with the BBC, May said that she would be making “a big statement about the role of women” by meeting with Trump and negotiating with him on equal footing.

However, the optics of the visit could still be problematic for May, according to Vinjamuri.

“The prime minister needs to find a way to make it clear that partnering with the Americans doesn’t mean condoning the racist or sexist or xenophobic rhetoric that comes from the administration because it doesn’t reflect Britain’s values,” she said. “People will certainly be watching to see to what extent the president is challenged and the extent to which he tones that rhetoric down.”

Middle East

Trump and May’s meeting comes just days after the White House confirmed that they are in the “beginning stages” of moving the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The move would be a major departure from decades of U.S. policy on the status of Jerusalem and could be one of a few looming rifts on Middle East policy between the U.S. and the U.K.

Among the most significant of these is the status of the Iran nuclear deal, which Trump has been critical of, and U.S. involvement in the war in Syria.

On Syria, there is real concern that Trump’s focus is the war against ISIS and will sit back and, as von Hippel put it, say to Putin, “‘Go ahead and continue what you are doing in Syria.’ Finish off the place basically.”

This is a problem for May, who is very critical of Russia’s involvement in Syria and also needs to address the refugee crisis in Europe, driven in no small part by the war in Syria.

However, the biggest area of disagreement is likely to be the Iran nuclear deal, of which the U.K. is a strong supporter and Trump a vocal critic.

Ultimately, both Trump and May stand to gain from this visit if no visible fractures emerge. At the very least, according to Rifkind, “It would certainly make a change if [Trump] was able to say, ‘Well, here is a very important international partner with whom I have good relations.'”

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