So that seemed to go off pretty smoothly. Theresa May’s first meeting with President Trump was the greatest diplomatic challenge for a British politician in living memory. There was an extraordinary balancing act. The media had two stories ready – one that May was subservient to the monster Trump. Another was of a disastrous split imperilling the special relationship. Our Prime Minister’s deft performance made either narrative unsustainable. Even The Guardian this morning conceded:
“It could have been a disaster. But it wasn’t.”
Of course the Prime Minister could have spent her entire meeting scolding Trump for his indefensible comments – about women, Muslims, and much else besides. That would not have been a productive use of the limited time available. Or they could have just talked about happier subjects – the enthusiasm for a UK / USA free trade deal after Brexit or arrangements for the President to come and meet The Queen. Perhaps some small talk about what the weather is like in Scotland at this time of year or golf courses in Maidenhead. Perhaps they did.
But the interesting and important item that we know was included was NATO. Earlier this month, Trump told Michael Gove in an interview for The Times that NATO was “obsolete”. Yesterday the message was starkly different as The Guardian reports:
“Standing next to Trump, who nodded along, May said: “On defence and security cooperation, we’re united in our recognition of Nato as the bulwark of our collective defence and we reaffirmed our unshakeable commitment to this alliance. We’re 100% behind Nato.
“I agreed to continue my efforts to persuade my fellow European leaders to deliver on their commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defence, so that the burden is more fairly shared.”
That shift comes as a great source of relief – not least to the Baltic states; those NATO members, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania under threat from Russia. Certainly there is an implicit conditionality to that “100 per cent” commitment. It is that those who seek insurance from NATO should keep up to date with their premiums.
For its part NATO has reminded America that the Atlantic alliance rallied round to help overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan in response to the attack on the United States on September 11th 2001.
NATO has been an historic success story. The victory in the cold war was a triumph. Far from NATO being out of date, the world remains a dangerous place – and the Alliance is still needed. Peace through strength was a valid slogan back in the 1980s when people like Jeremy Corbyn were going on CND marches in support of unilateral nuclear disarmament. The logic is still compelling. Western democracies need to show solidarity to defeat their enemies.
This doesn’t mean that the United States should unquestioningly hand over money to all international organisations. Margaret Thatcher joined Ronald Reagan’s lead over UNESCO in the 1980s – both the United States and the United Kingdom withdrew their membership of that outfit as it was (and still is) mismanaged and anti-western. Some renewed rigour from America in this regard merits British support.
But strong backing for NATO is crucial. There is now the prospect that defence spending will increase and that the security it provides will be enhanced rather than undermined. Theresa May’s efforts yesterday appear to have won over President Trump to this point of view. If so, that is a pretty good day’s work by the Prime Minister. And for which, our allies should be grateful.