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Mrs. May goes to Washington

When Theresa May addresses the annual congressional Republican Retreat in Philadelphia today, she reportedly will call for the United States and the United Kingdom to ‘rediscover our confidence.’

The Prime Minister intends to call upon a renewal of the proverbial ‘special relationship’ between Washington and London ‘in this new age’, linking the Brexit vote in the referendum to the election of Donald Trump as president, and asserting that both were votes to ‘renew’ the respective countries.

America and Britain, the Prime Minister says, ‘have the opportunity to lead together, again.’ The pertinent question is: lead where to?

Since his inauguration a week ago, President Trump has made quite clear, through largely symbolic but nonetheless very significant acts, that he intends to govern just as he campaigned. He’s endorsed torture, cancelled a trade deal, called for protectionist measures, maligned environmental regulation, ordered a gag on federally employed scientists in order to prohibit them from talking about climate change, denigrated the free press, and repeatedly lied to the public. All in one week.

While it is unclear how much of this radically reactionary agenda will be implemented, it will likely create a continuous headache for Theresa May and other foreign leaders.

But the Prime Minister needs a political success. When she is received by Mr. Trump, as first foreign leader in the White House later today, she consequently has to focus on the issue that she may be able to achieve: a bilateral trade deal between a post-Brexit Britain and the United States.

The details here are murky as well, not only because the UK technically can’t negotiate trade deals as long as she is a member of the EU. More significant is the fact that Mr. Trump seems to think that every ‘deal’ has a winner and a loser and has vowed to put ‘America first’.

It is unclear what real leverage the UK would have when negotiating with the much bigger US, and while May has said that the UK will become ‘the most passionate, enthusiastic and convinced’ supporter of free trade, Trump preaches neo-Mercantilism.

The goal of Theresa May’s trip to Washington then should be to position herself as Trump’s trusted advisor on security and European issues. She has the opportunity to explain to the President why NATO isn’t obsolete, and why a strong European Union is in the interest of the United States. Maybe she can also help Trump understand why Putin’s Russia is a challenge for the international order, and make Trump aware of the concerns Eastern Europeans have.

It’s a tall order, but maybe it is what the Prime Minister has in mind when she speaks about leading together, again.

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