After Brexit vote, Theresa May seeks common ground with Trump's America

British Prime Minister May is scheduled to be the first foreign leader to meet with President Trump since his inauguration. 

Jeff Overs/Courtesy of the BBC/Handout via Reuters
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May speaks on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show in this photograph received via the BBC in London, Britain, in January.

On Thursday, British Prime Minister Theresa May begins a two-day trip to the United States to become the first foreign leader to meet with President Donald Trump since he was inaugurated last week.

The trip comes as a planned visit from Mexico's president was canceled Thursday, and could be overshadowed by other uncertainties about the future of America's foreign policy. But while President Trump has threatened to pull out of various international economic and military alliances, the two leaders are likely to seek common ground over Brexit – last year's referendum in which a majority voted to leave the European Union.

The relationship that develops between Trump and Ms. May could portend a new kind of international policy. In recent years populist right-wing movements, particularly in Europe, have been pushing for nationalism over globalization. These movements may become a major influence in some nation-to-nation relationships in the coming years, especially between post-Brexit Britain and the United States under President Trump.

"It is common for UK leaders to be among the first to visit new American presidents," Matthew Fehrs, associate professor of political science at St. Mary's College of Maryland, tells The Christian Science Monitor via email. "[Former PM] Gordon Brown tried to boost his popularity by meeting Obama soon after he was sworn in, and Tony Blair met with George W. Bush shortly after the inauguration. However, this meeting [between May and Trump] has gained significance because of Trump's upset win, Brexit, and the lack of clarity about Trump's foreign policy."

Conservative populist forces propelled both Trump's election in November and the Brexit vote in July. But May and Trump are very different leaders, says Richard Mansbach, a professor of political science at Iowa State University. While Trump built his political rise on attacking traditional political institutions, May, a longtime politician, has a much more moderate and internationalist viewpoint. While Trump has threatened to take the US out of NATO, for instance, May has expressed strong support of the alliance. May has called herself a "free marketer," while Trump threatens tariffs for US companies that take jobs overseas.

"Populism is less powerful in the UK than the US," Dr. Mansbach tells the Christian Science Monitor in an email. "Ms. May is not a populist, and my sense is that the small British populist parties have been made largely irrelevant owing to Brexit."

In the months leading up to the Brexit referendum, organizations once on the political fringes, such as the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) capitalized on anti-immigration sentiments and economic woes to convince British voters to leave the European Union. But after the vote in Britain was over, the zeal that powered many British voters diminished as the political complexities of leaving the EU continue to stretch the actual exit farther into the future. 

But even though the process is expected to take years, Britain will need to be ready for a political and economic alternatives to the EU when the time finally comes to leave – and that means maintaining a bond with the United States.

"US-UK relations remain strong, and Ms. May is clearly looking to the possibility of a bilateral economic free-trade agreement with the US to help compensate for a 'hard' Brexit and the loss of EU markets," says Mansbach.

Trump, a declared fan of Brexit, has expressed his support for the prime minister in the past. While the two leaders may have common ground on a few issues, including Israel, the US president has expressed a number of views that put May in a tricky political position at home, especially his support of practices such as waterboarding, which many have condemned as torture.

"Theresa May must stand up for our country's values when she meets Donald Trump and oppose his support for torture, which is inhumane, illegal and delivers false intelligence," Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party said, according to the BBC.

May has emphasized that the UK government continues to condemn torture practices. A spokeswoman for the prime minister told reporters that there are "issues where we differ in approach and view with President Trump," but also said that a close relationship with Trump would allow those differences to be approached to "frankly and directly."

Raising the stakes of May's visit is the uncertainty surrounding the future of an international community defined by organizations like the EU, the World Trade Organization, and even NATO. Mansbach tells the Monitor that the collapse of at least some of these institutions remains highly unlikely, but populism across Europe and the US could serve to undermine many of these "pillars of globalization." Relationships between individual countries, like the US and Britain, would become more important if these pillars begin to break down.

"Right-wing populist movements have damaged international institutions and will likely continue to do so for the near future," says Dr. Fehrs. "This would signal a shift to a more à la carte style foreign policy emphasizing shared interests of the moment over longer-term commitments."

On Thursday, May is scheduled to become the first sitting foreign leader to speak at an annual congressional Republican retreat, in a speech emphasizing the special bond between the US and Britain. She plans meet Trump at the retreat and then be hosted at the White House itself on Friday.

"So as we rediscover our confidence together — as you renew your nation just as we renew ours — we have the opportunity — indeed the responsibility — to renew the special relationship for this new age," May will say, according to remarks released in advanced by officials. "We have the opportunity to lead, together, again." 

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