There are times when politicians make headlines for saying things which hadn’t been said, but which we already knew. There are others when they say things and the headlines lack the nuance to tell us what we don’t know. The May/Trump encounter is a good example.
Some analysis of Prime Minister May’s speech to the Republican Party suggests she was making a doctrine of no military intervention. She wasn’t. She was stating openly what we already knew; that because of recent history we are not going to get involved in faraway countries, about which we know little, unless it is considered vital for the national interest.
Her remark about not intervening in other sovereign countries affairs in a bid to “remake the world in our image” is a clear repudiation of Prime Minister Blair’s speech after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 when he said “The kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us re-order this world around us”.
But we knew this. We knew that because of the losses incurred by our armed forces, the damage done to our reputation and finances, and of course the failure to bring peace to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya – we are not in the mood to get involved on a humanitarian basis, nor will we be for years to come. Nevertheless, the speech made headlines, and rightly so as this is the clearest statement the Prime Minister has made on foreign affairs.
However, this should not be construed as ruling out intervention as demonstrated by the passage ‘..nor can we afford to stand idly by when the threat is real and when it is in our own interests to intervene.”
Now to President Trump, and his remark when on the campaign trial that NATO was obsolete. This was loose talk, and may encourage Russia to behave aggressively in eastern Europe. However, once you got past the headline there was little to suggest he means obsolete in the sense of no longer necessary. His full remarks suggested he meant it was underfunded, and not engineered for the modern era.
When in office President Obama called the allies, who didn’t pay the 2% of GDP on their NATO budget, ‘free riders’. This did not make headlines, but Donald Trump’s more blunt language inevitably does and he knows it and is trying to frighten European allies to pay more for defence. Mrs May agrees that some powers need to increase defence spending.
There are going to be changes, and President Trump is unlikely to give up his demand that the Europeans spend a lot more – something which at the moment is not happening. There may have been a slight increase in defence spending but only in relation to the cuts made over previous year. Few European armies are seriously increasing their combat capabilities. However, although we can expect to see some action from the president, a withdrawal from NATO looks extremely unlikely and even a substantial withdrawal from European bases is probably not going to happen. During his confirmation hearing in Washington the incoming Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, stated that NATO’s Article 5 guarantee is “inviolable,”.
The British/American relationship looks as if it will remain strong, but there will be bumps in the road. A clear issue of contention between Mrs May and Mr Trump is torture and going into their talks they each said very different things. The President says he believes it works, and that he can’t rule out re-introducing waterboarding, the Prime Minister re-iterated the UK’s long standing opposition to torture.
But again, look past the headline. Mr Trump made clear his view was a personal one, not policy. He even said his pick for Defence Secretary James Mattis disagreed with him and that he might defer to him. His newly appointed chief of the cia, Mike Pompeo said that if Trump ordered the CIA to use waterboarding, he would “absolutely not” go along.
Add to this that the president would need to change the law through Congress, which is unlikely to approve such a change, and the torture issue is not likely to be something to come between the Prime Minister and President in next few years.
There will be fallings out. Why wouldn’t there be? These are two sovereign powers with mostly shared values but sometimes differing interests. However, on the crucial issues of defence and intelligence there are more reasons to expect enhanced co-operation rather than real friction.
The key area where the visit has not yet given clarity is on ‘spheres of influence’.
America never accepts there is such a thing, even while simultaneously expecting the world to understand the Latin America is in it sphere. President Trump has given the impression that he may believe that Russia has a sphere of influence in eastern Europe, something no leader has done before on the grounds that it will encourage Russian aggression.
Mrs May has used the visit to push back against this idea and warn the President of the dangers inherent in it. She also cleverly used the issue to encourage comparisons with the Reagan/Thatcher relationship. She recalled President Reagan’s adage for Russia ‘trust but verify’,” and came up with her own – “With President Putin, my advice is to ‘engage but beware’.” and continued “… particularly after the illegal annexation of Crimea, give assurance to Russia’s neighbouring states that their security is not in question.
Each side has got the mood music right. Mrs May is the first foreign leader to be invited to the White House by the new President, and he has restored a bust of Winston Churchill removed from the Oval Office by Barack Obama. The Prime Minister has laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery, the last resting place of a number of UK troops who have lost their lives fighting alongside US forces.
Ever since Donald Trump won the Presidency people have been waiting to see the change from candidate to President. He will always be the Donald, but there are signs he will also, sometimes, be Presidential. Mrs May gets that and is getting onside.