This speech has had unusual profile. Mrs May is the first foreign leader to meet President Trump at the White House. Her visit has been organised to allow her to set out some of her policy her stall in public first before she meets the President. There’s a potentially huge and pressing agenda. Brexit. Trade. Putin. China. Arab/Israel. Climate change. Walls. Migration. Islamist terrorism. UN reform. Torture. Women! Where to start when they sit down to talk?
Don’t start with any of them. The first meeting of two leaders is not an occasion for in-depth policy crunching. It’s all about building personal trust, listening to each other’s priorities and instincts. What both leaders want to know at the end of the meeting is simple. Can we trust each other? Where can we work together? Where do we basically agree? Where will it be tough if not unpleasant?
The global progressive chatterati are aghast at the election of President Trump, the more so as he’s noisily doing some of the horrible things he said he’d do. The very fact of Mrs May’s visit has been attacked: why is the UK Prime Minister shamefully rushing to suck up to this bombastic dangerous fascist sexist blah blah blah?
Back in real life, Theresa May has won ‘first-mover advantage’. Precisely because Donald Trump is Something Completely Different on the world stage she sees a unique (if difficult) role opening for herself as one of the few foreign leaders he turns to for advice and insight. If they have a good meeting, she can hope that he’ll intervene down the road to help smooth out difficult trade and other bilateral issues as Ronald Reagan did with Margaret Thatcher.
So, her speech before the meeting does different subtle jobs. Above it sets the tone. And it sends implicit messages to the White House as well as clear policy guidelines to the UK and American and wider global public. How did she do?
Let’s get the moans out of the way.
First, the speech is too ‘heavy’. She does not use a teleprompter so the speech is read out. It sounds laboriously ‘speechy’:
Because it is through our actions over many years, working together to defeat evil or to open up the world, that we have been able to fulfil the promise of those who first spoke of the special nature of the relationship between us…
A future that sees us step up with confidence to a new, even more internationalist role, where we meet our responsibilities to our friends and allies, champion the international co-operation and partnerships that project our values around the world, and continue to act as one of the strongest and most forceful advocates for business, free markets and free trade anywhere around the globe (Note: a rambling 63 word sentence)
But these events – coming as they have at the same time as the financial crisis and its fall out, as well as a loss of confidence in the West following 9/11, and difficult military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan – have led many to fear that, in this century, we will experience the eclipse of the West (Phew. Only 56 words)
These overlong sentences reduce to zero any hope of sounding spontaneous: talking to and with the audience, rather than talking at them.
Second, she overdoes the ‘special relationship’ motif. It’s mentioned eight times. It sounds almost desperate? How much more unexpected/interesting not to mention it at all, or leave it right to the end as the defining idea.
Third, there are four Churchill references. Too many. Too ‘old-fashioned’.
Fourth, there is no humour. Americans like ‘light touch’. Mrs May wants to build her persona as a serious thoughtful force to be reckoned with, but still.
Fifth, weak speechwriting musty/needy language is far too evident:
- We must be strong, smart and hard-headed. And we must demonstrate the resolve necessary to stand up for our interests
- A new trade deal between Britain and America must work for both sides … It must help to grow our respective economies
- We must employ all of the diplomatic means at our disposal
- America’s leadership role in NATO must be the central element around which the Alliance is built … EU nations must similarly step up
Faux leadership rhetoric. Why ‘must’ any of these things happen? What when they don’t?
Likewise 11 weedy needy phrases:
- Some of these organisations are in need of reform and renewal to make them relevant to our needs today
- We need to address the whole spectrum of extremism
- But those multinational institutions need to work for the countries that formed them, and to serve the needs and interests of the people of those nations
- I have already raised with my fellow European leaders the need to deliver on their commitment
Really? One of Donald Trump’s key (and not unreasonable) ideas is that America’s European allies for decades have milked American generous defence spending. Are they ready to change their idle ways now?
Finally, too many useless adverbs:
- Confronting communism and ultimately defeating it
- Yet ultimately to defeat Daesh
- The world is increasingly marked by instability
- Nor is it enough merely to focus on violent extremism
- Because our history and culture is profoundly internationalist
* * * * *
All of which said, this speech has gone down pretty well on the day and for many commentators. Why? Because she got the tone just right. She presented Donald Trump’s election as an opportunity, not a disaster, but also send steadying signals about not overdoing it.
She emphasised why the two countries had so many common interests and values, and set in classic Thatcherite terms Donald Trump’s appeal to the US masses over the heads of the ‘establishment’:
For I speak to you not just as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, but as a fellow Conservative who believes in the same principles that underpin the agenda of your party. The value of liberty. The dignity of work. The principles of nationhood, family, economic prudence, patriotism – and putting power in the hands of the people.
She made the classic UK case for intelligent multilateralism, setting it firmly in the tradition of US success and leadership.
She drew a line under unwise interventionism but kept options open:
The days of Britain and America intervening in sovereign countries in an attempt to remake the world in our own image are over. But nor can we afford to stand idly by when the threat is real and when it is in our own interests to intervene
She neatly emphasised the opportunities for post-Brexit US/UK business:
Exports to the UK from this state of Pennsylvania alone account for more than $2 billion a year. The UK is the largest market in the EU – and the third largest market in the world – for exporters here
And she delivered positive language on the role of the ‘nation state’ in the modern world:
Strong nations form strong institutions. And they form the basis of the international partnerships and co-operation that bring stability to our world.
Nations, accountable to their populations – deriving as the Declaration of Independence puts it “their just powers from the consent of the governed” – can choose to join international organisations, or not. They can choose to co-operate with others, or not. Choose to trade with others, or not.
She elegantly concluded by reminding her US audience that US/UK leadership had indeed brought freedom to many parts of Europe.
Seventy years ago in 1946, Churchill … described how an iron curtain had fallen from the Baltic to the Adriatic, covering all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe: Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Sofia and Bucharest.
Today those great cities – homes of great culture and heritage – live in freedom and peace. And they do so because of the leadership of Britain and America, and of Mrs Thatcher and President Reagan.
Mrs May skilfully framed many international policy issues in a way that appealed to Donald Trump’s instincts, even if he might well have serious doubts about the outcomes. By doing that she sounded confident, steady and businesslike. She sounded like a leader. And that in turn allowed her to send her key message to the new President:
In many ways you’re on to something in wanting to shake up complacent or downright bad ideas. See Brexit too. But please, Mr President, don’t let ‘America First!’ wreck proud traditions and vital outcomes of traditional American success. Let’s talk!
Charles Crawford is a British former career diplomat turned writer, public speaking specialist and mediator. His work for HM Diplomatic Service featured postings in communist Yugoslavia, South Africa as apartheid ended and Russia after the USSR collapsed, then three ambassadorships: in Sarajevo after the conflict (1996-98); in Belgrade after the fall of Slobodan Milosevic (2001-03); and in Warsaw when Poland joined the European Union (2003-07). He served as FCO Speechwriter in the 1980s and has drafted or contributed to speeches by members of the British Royal Family, Prime Ministers and different Foreign Ministers and other senior figures. A speech he supported on Technology, Security Freedom delivered by former MI6 Chief Sir John Sawers won a 2016 Cicero Award
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