As this site reported at the start of the month, Theresa May begins her series of set-piece Monday speeches this week. Tomorrow’s will be on social reform, rather than social justice or social mobility – a distinction first explained on ConservativeHome – and part of it will be about mental health (as we also said last week).
Social reform and the Government’s domestic policy agenda is one of the three great challenges of her premiership. We will return to it tomorrow, when more is known about the nitty-gritty of the speech than is revealed in the broad sweep of the Prime Minister’s article in today’s Sunday Telegraph. Delivering Brexit is the second. The third is related to another story in today’s papers. May is due to meet Donald Trump in America this spring.
His inauguration will mark a fork in the road. He could, as the appointment of people like Mike Pence and James Mattis suggests, govern as a mainstream Republican president, turning away from his former self, like Shakespeare’s Prince Hal, and becoming not the thing he was. Or he may, as those of Steve Bannon and Michael Flynn indicates, carry on much as now – for example, preferring the account of a man who has damaged America’s security, Julian Assange, to those who toil day and night to keep it safe, namely its security services (until forced gracelessly to back down).
The direction he will choose has stark implications for Britain. Every President in modern times has unambiguously lined up behind the commitment integral to an organisation of which America is the backbone – namely, to view to any attack on one of NATO’s members as an attack on all of them, and respond with “such action as [is deemed] necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area”.
Trump has said that other NATO members must pay their fair share of its costs, and not expect America to provide them with a defence they are not prepared to pay for. This is right. European countries should not be freeloading on the back of America’s taxpayers. But the President-elect has gone further. He has also suggested that NATO may be obsolete altogether. This will have been clocked in the Kremlin.
And finally, he has refused to confirm that America will meet its NATO obligations if Russia attacks the Baltic states. On the one hand, this may have been a bluff: the President-elect’s point was that it will do so if those states and others up their military spending. He was ambiguous about he would do if they don’t (“well, I’m not saying if not”), and his words could well have been chosen to shock them out of complacency. On the other, they may not have been – in which case he was, in effect, giving a green light to Putin. Or suppose that the latter read as such a light words that were actually intended as a bluff?
The point of the conventional diplomacy which Trump sometimes abandons for Twitter is that it minimises the risks of any such misunderstandings. These are horribly real for Britain. Very, very few men and women who clamber each day on and off the decks of the Clapham omnibus grasp that we are committed to go to war if Putin assails any of the Baltic states.
This brings us to May’s visit to Washington. There is ambiguity about her foreign policy – for example, over her attitude to China, to which she sent one signal by questioning the Hinckley Point project before sending another by promising a “golden era of relations”. Or consider her stance on Israel. First, she voted against it at the UN. Next, she deliberately cosied up it to by kicking John Kerry on his way out of the door.
A conventional response to these uncertainties is to call for the Prime Minister to make a major foreign affairs speech setting out her worldview. Never mind that for the moment. Her hands are full with social reform and managing Brexit. And in any event, her main foreign policy mission lies ahead in Washington. The vicar’s daughter is better-known for inscrutability than schmoozing. But she must somehow charm in private a man who seems incapable of showing charm in public. She must try to persuade him to give the unwavering commitment to America’s NATO obligations that he has not yet been prepared to offer. She must tilt him away from Putin.
It follows that it isn’t worth falling out with him over Israel and Palestine – or even, at least at this stage, an issue with bigger repercussions for Britain and the Middle East, such as the proxy Sunni-Shia conflict of which Saudi Arabia and Iran are the main protagonists. The President-elect is also sympathetic to Brexit and, on paper at least, to Britain too. So the Prime Minister will want to push at that open door for a trade deal.
It may be, peering into this cloudy future, that she has to break with Trump. Perhaps he will lead America away from NATO. The thought challenges a half-century of assumptions about the country, about Britain’s relationship with it, and about our place in the world. But we live in changing times, and it is prudent to think ahead.
But that moment, if it ever comes, is not yet. For the immediate future, oiling, greasing up to and, yes, flattering Trump is the name of the game. We would not quite say that she must, to borrow the idiom of the New Labour years, get up his arse and stay there, but that is about the sum of it. While, elsewhere, she reminds our European neighbours, as those Brexit negotiations loom, that Trump’s commitment to their defence and security is less than clear. Our own, by contrast, still stands. Pity if anything happened to it…