British Prime Minister Theresa May is the first head of government to visit President Donald Trump after he assumed office. Her visit is significant in many aspects, especially in the context of Brexit and new policy orientations in the United States.
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First and foremost, it confirms that the historic “special relationship” between the two Anglo-Saxon countries still applies, as does the friendship between the British Conservatives and the U.S. Republicans forged in the 1980s by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.
Prime Minister May also gave an important preview of Britain’s global strategy in her January 26 speech to GOP (Republican) leaders in Philadelphia.
As opposed to President Obama, who threatened British voters before last year’s Brexit vote by saying their country would be put in the back of the line for any new trade agreement with the U.S., President Trump has declared that a bilateral deal is a priority. This gives the UK useful, though perhaps not decisive, leverage in its upcoming negotiations with the European Union.
The position of Her Majesty’s government is now for a hard Brexit, combined with trade negotiations with the EU. While Brussels and some member states have talked tough, stating the access to the internal market requires adherence to the entire Union framework – or acquis communautaire – most of the EU would suffer if this hard line prevents an amicable divorce on favorable terms.
Calls for preserving excellent relations with the UK are already being heard, including recently from Spain. It is of vital interest to German and other European manufacturers not to compromise their exports to the large British market. Ms. May’s government is also getting some unexpected help from the UK economy, which performed strongly in the second half of 2016.
This does not mean that post-Brexit Britain is in a comfortable negotiating position. But it does suggest that the gloom and doom expressed by many observers is uncalled for.
In Philadelphia, Ms. May proposed a major shift in international politics. She said the UK would no longer pursue foreign interventions with the aim of “nation-building.” This had been a governing principle of U.S. and British foreign policy since the late 1990s. GIS has frequently criticized the naivety of this approach, which has produced a chain of disasters in places like Libya, Syria and Iraq.
The period when Western value systems were simply imposed on other sovereign states has come to an end
This is not to say that there is no need for an international reaction in extreme cases, such as genocide. But the period when Western governance and value systems were simply imposed on other sovereign states has come to an end.
Prime Minister May did, however, encourage President Trump to keep the U.S. active in its role as a global peacekeeper, especially in such institutions as NATO. The U.S. will remain vital as the centerpiece of an alliance system that can protect global and regional balances of power.
Theresa May faces a difficult task in repositioning the UK after Brexit. Her preference is to pursue a Western-oriented strategy that maintains strong bonds with the EU and the U.S. Recognizing this, it is in continental Europe’s own best interests to keep close and favorable relations with Washington and London and accept the reality of a reconfigured situation.