By Julian French.
“Covenants without the sword are but words, and of no strength to secure a man at all”.
Alphen, Netherlands. 27 January. Today, Maggie May meets Ronald Trump. As per usual much of the British political Establishment and most of the Fourth Estate have got the wrong end of the stick. They want her to talk trade, institutions, and torture. These things are indeed important but they are second order issues and not what today is about. Rather, today’s meeting has exactly the same purpose as the meeting at Argentia, Newfoundland in August 1941 at which the Atlantic Charter was agreed between Britain and the United States, and the February 1981 meeting between President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher; a chance for a supplicant Britain in need of the support of a powerful Washington to reset a relationship that remain important to the Americans but vital to the British. Whilst much will be said today about shared values and culture today is about power and, if it succeeds, quite possibly the dawn of the new Western Realism.
International relations are driven by three forces; values, interests, and power-prejudice. For too long Europeans have retreated into the vacuous pursuit of powerless values. Consequently, as structure either collapses (Middle East) around them, or threatens to be imposed upon them (Putin’s Russia) they are in many ways powerless to shape their own vital interests. Part of Britain’s contemporary tragedy is that so much of the London political class also believe in this nonsense. This profound confusion of values with interests has damaged profoundly the ability and the willingness of one of the world’s major powers to actively shape its world.
Last night in a speech to Republican congressional leaders May stated, “The days of Britain and America intervening in sovereign countries in an attempt to remake the world in our own image are over”. However, she went on, “Our values will endure. And the need to defend them and project them will be as important as ever”. In other words, May, who is fast growing into the job, seems to be abandoning the world policeman nonsense of Tony Blair’s liberal humanitarian interventionism and re-positing British foreign policy back towards power and realism. If that is indeed her ambition then she is not only making the case for a new twenty-first century Special Relationship, but a new world-wide West centred on the Anglosphere.
The first challenge for May is not just getting America to back her vision. She also needs to overcome a force every bit as dangerous as the strategic inertia caused by the empty words of European leaders; the power-prejudice of President Trump. The flurry of executive orders over the past few days are about far more than meeting the expectations of his US electoral base. Almost all of them seem to reflect the many prejudices the President himself holds about the world. As with most things Trump there is a kernel of truth in his argument but his prescriptions and solutions are disproportionate to the challenge he seeks to address. Be it on NATO, Mexicans, Muslims, and a host of other issues President Trump’s analysis lacks balance – the very definition of prejudice. The paradox is that the President is also clearly prejudiced about the Brits – to (for the moment) Britain’s advantage.
Don’t get me wrong. I am NOT one of those Europeans who dismiss President Trump simply because he is not a failed European liberal living on a planet that is clearly not this one. Look at all the great American presidents of the last century; Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan. They were all Machiavellian out-sized characters, reinforced by out-sized and often brittle egos, who shook the status quo. If she wants an enduring relationship with President Trump Theresa May will have to do exactly what Russia’s President Putin seems to be doing – manage President Trump’s many prejudices and the brittle ego that underpins them. She will also need to understand Trump in much the same way Churchill understood FDR, or ‘Maggie’ understood ‘Ronnie’ and play to his vanity. This is a vital British interest.
At the beginning of this blog I stated that today’s meeting is about the theatre of power. However, even a ‘theatre’ of power must also reflect and showcase power. In other words, for last night’s prime ministerial words to actually lead to policy and influence Britain will need to regain a reputation for power that it has lost in Washington over the past twenty years. A loss of influence which has been underway since at least Churchill sat down with Roosevelt on the USS Augusta.
Where to begin? On May 29th President Trump is due to be alongside Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will be aboard the brand new 75,000 ton British super aircraft-carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth as she sails for the first time into one of the Royal Navy’s historic fleet bases at Portsmouth. The sight of an enormous warship that flies the White Ensign and not the Stars and Stripes is precisely the kind of Britain Trump needs to see. However, for Prime Minister May to succeed in reinvigorating the Special Relationship one ship visit, however spectacular, will not be enough. Having re-created the prospect and image of Britain as America’s power partner ‘leading the world together’, as she suggested in a mildly hubristic moment last night, May will need to follow-up theatre with reality by re-investing in all the tools of influence that underpin Britain’s strategic brand – intelligence, diplomacy, and the armed forces.
Britain undoubtedly has an opportunity to forge a new relationship with President Trump and his America, and in so doing help to adjust his world-view from power-prejudice into the New Western Realism. However, it is power and power alone that impresses Donald J. Trump and Prime Minister May had not only better understand that, but quickly demonstrate that her words are not yet more covenants without the sword.