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Assessing The 'Special Relationship' As U.K. Prime Minister Visits The U.S.


British Prime Minister Theresa May is in the United States to cement what some call the special relationship between the two countries. She is the first foreign leader to visit President Trump. Yesterday, she addressed a retreat in Philadelphia where the president had been meeting with Republican members of Congress. She praised a new era of American renewal.


PRIME MINISTER THERESA MAY: Because of that great victory, you have won. America can be stronger, greater and more confident in the years ahead.

GREENE: Now, David Rennie has been watching this evolving special relationship closely. He is Washington bureau chief for The Economist. This morning he is in London and joins me on the line.

David, good morning.

DAVID RENNIE: Good morning.

GREENE: So President Trump and Prime Minister May will be meeting at the White House, this speech yesterday seemed to set that up. What did you make of that address? What stood out to you?

RENNIE: Well, she has a really difficult task because after Britain voted to leave the European Union, Britain is more than usually in need of big grown-up friends. And America is the biggest and most grown-up friend Britain traditionally has, but very few people in the British government would have probably chosen Donald Trump as their sort of interlocutor. So the speech she gave yesterday to Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and other Republican leaders in Philadelphia, that was a much more comfortable audience in a way.

So she was treading this balancing act between trying to make a pitch to conservative Republicans - sort of establishment politicians - before she meets Donald Trump, who poses some other really big problems for her. She tried to present herself as a kind of extreme realist. And that's the headlines here in London where I am this week, very interesting, sort of fixing on the fact that she's repudiating that whole era of sort of Tony Blair-George W. Bush interventionism, the idea of trying to remake the world in our own image was a phrase she used yesterday, and she said that era is over. So that seems an offering to Donald Trump as one realist to another. That seems to be the basis on which she's trying to talk to him.

GREENE: Extreme realist, if you're using that term to refer to both of them it sounds like, what exactly does that mean?

RENNIE: Well, here's the interesting thing. So she offers this kind of peace offering if you like to Donald Trump saying that she shares his views, that it's not up to America or its allies to remake the world in their own image, and they must act in their own interests and that America is, for example, absolutely right to be impatient when allies don't pay enough towards the costs of say NATO. So that was her realist peace offering.

But the flip side of her realism, where she was treading this very difficult balancing act, which she then said but be realist about how much you can get done with someone like Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia. So she said this very interesting thing where she cited the famous Reagan phrase about, you know, when you're dealing with the Soviet Union, you should trust but verify.

GREENE: Right.

RENNIE: And she said, well, so with Vladimir Putin, my advice would be engage but beware. And she...

GREENE: Oh, so you took that as a warning. You took that as not saying that it's a good idea to engage with Putin. I mean, she was warning Trump that this could be very dangerous.

RENNIE: Yeah. I think she's offering, if you like, sort of full spectrum real politic. So she's saying sure, let's be much warier of kind of liberal interventionism. Let's not try and remake the world as kind of perfect democracies. Let's not put boots on the ground. You're right to hear that, you know, the public is sick of that kind of spending of blood and treasure, but I think the flipside is to say then be realistic about who you're dealing with when you pin all your hopes on a kind of brilliant new relationship with Vladimir Putin.

I thought it was incredibly interesting that she talked about Britain sending troops to Estonia as part of NATO's full deployment. She talked about countries that live in tough neighborhoods, so she said we should definitely stand up for the security of Israel. Clearly that goes down well with Donald Trump. But she then mentioned the Baltic states and Eastern Europe as other countries that need to be stood up to. So I think it was a kind of twofer to try to remind him to be realist as well in his dealings with Vladimir Putin.

GREENE: Now wait a minute, David Rennie, because, I mean, you seem to be saying that she's making peace offerings, that she sort of has a calculated message, but, I mean, is this a leader in Donald Trump who Theresa May would have chosen as a partner even if people in her government might not have? Does she feel an alliance here?

RENNIE: Look, there's a big problem with Donald Trump as an ally for the U.K., which is that he has been saying things, for example, about essentially saying it's a good thing that the European Union might break up. He said some very harsh things about Angela Merkel, the German chancellor and the most powerful politician in Europe. And Theresa May does not want to find herself forced to choose between friendship with America and a good relationship with Angela Merkel because although it suits Britain to be friends with America, she definitely is in need of friends, and she's in need of showing, you know, the Europeans that America is an alternative. She could do a great free trade deal with America, you know, Europe doesn't hold all the cards.

But she's also been very, very careful to say that Britain is not rooting for the blowing up of the European Union. She needs Angela Merkel's help for the next several years as she tries to negotiate a good deal for Britain. She doesn't want to be part of a kind of radical nationalist program that some of the people around Donald Trump clearly have an appetite for, which is, you know, blow up everything international and blow up the liberal order. She's not up for that.

GREENE: Yeah. I mean, that's been much of the narrative in this country though, and Donald Trump has certainly added to that, I mean, suggesting that the Brexit vote in Britain and, you know, the vote for him here would suggest kind of a similar trend and would make this alliance really work, but you're saying that Theresa May is in a much more nuanced spot.

RENNIE: She has to be, and partly that's because of British public opinion. And I think what's really interesting - I mean, I basically got on a plane straight off to the inauguration and I went to the Women's March on Saturday, and then I got on a plane and flew here. You come here and you realize that Britain is of course, you know, very fond of America, lots of talk of Winston Churchill's special relationship.

But if you had to grow an American president in a kind of laboratory who's calculated to upset British and European public opinion, you'd create Donald Trump. I mean, the stuff he was saying this week about maybe torture works, maybe, you know, hinting at the possibility of a return to waterboarding even if actually, you know, American law might prevent that, his, you know, his disdain for climate change, his enthusiasm for Vladimir Putin, even just his personal kind of what's seen here as kind of outrageous boorishness and kind of vulgarity. It just touches every button with the British who have a kind of complicated view of America.

GREENE: OK. All right, David Rennie with The Economist magazine. Thanks so much as always, we appreciate it.

RENNIE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.