Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Is Trump Even Ready to Host America’s Most Important Ally?

Theresa May's visit is a test for which the Trump administration needs to study.

SALISBURY, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 29:  Prime Minister Theresa May passes tanks as she visits 1st Battalion The Mercian Regiment (Cheshire, Worcesters and Foresters, and Staffords) at their barracks at Bulford Camp on September 29, 2016 near Salisbury, England.  The Prime Minister visited the military base in the Salisbury Plain area to meet with soldiers, see the equipment they work with and to also meet with some their families.  (Photo by Matt Cardy - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
SALISBURY, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 29: Prime Minister Theresa May passes tanks as she visits 1st Battalion The Mercian Regiment (Cheshire, Worcesters and Foresters, and Staffords) at their barracks at Bulford Camp on September 29, 2016 near Salisbury, England. The Prime Minister visited the military base in the Salisbury Plain area to meet with soldiers, see the equipment they work with and to also meet with some their families. (Photo by Matt Cardy - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
SALISBURY, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 29: Prime Minister Theresa May passes tanks as she visits 1st Battalion The Mercian Regiment (Cheshire, Worcesters and Foresters, and Staffords) at their barracks at Bulford Camp on September 29, 2016 near Salisbury, England. The Prime Minister visited the military base in the Salisbury Plain area to meet with soldiers, see the equipment they work with and to also meet with some their families. (Photo by Matt Cardy - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Hats off to the British embassy for beating out the foreign competition and landing the first post-inaugural meeting between the president of the United States and a foreign leader — British Prime Minister Theresa May. Unfortunately, sometimes you get what you ask for: Both leaders will meet under immense pressure to bring home the goods and show the critics their foreign policy chops. All eyes will search the faces of the two leaders for signs of success or failure as they emerge from their meeting to face the press.

Hats off to the British embassy for beating out the foreign competition and landing the first post-inaugural meeting between the president of the United States and a foreign leader — British Prime Minister Theresa May. Unfortunately, sometimes you get what you ask for: Both leaders will meet under immense pressure to bring home the goods and show the critics their foreign policy chops. All eyes will search the faces of the two leaders for signs of success or failure as they emerge from their meeting to face the press.

So what does May want in the bag from her meeting with Donald Trump? Publicly, she wants to show EU leaders that the “special relationship” is alive and well, so who needs the EU? She would love to leave with the beginnings of a favorable trade deal too, but she’s negotiating with a president who does not give anything away, so she’ll be lucky to leave with vague promises of a level playing field (but don’t expect any favors at U.S. expense). And while she’s eager to start the engines on the trade front, she is constrained by the fact that Britain hasn’t even invoked Article 50 yet to trigger the country’s process for leaving the EU.

Privately, she needs assurances that the United States is not going to cut a deal with the Russians over the heads of its European allies and partners, leaving the U.K. high and dry on things like force deployments to Europe. Britain, along with the United States and other NATO allies, will soon deploy forces to the Baltic States and Poland to shore up deterrence against Russia. That’s expensive and the British are not about to set one foot in the region if they think the United States won’t be there too — and neither will the other allies. So the bear in the room will be Russian, and Trump will need to say something reassuring to America’s closet ally about U.S. intent in Europe. If he can’t do that, one of the most important outcomes of the NATO Summit last July will unravel, as allies will balk at sending troops to the Baltics if the United States is absent. That will not be NATO’s fault, but will belong squarely to the new administration.

Finally, what is the intent of the new administration regarding the huge and successful anti-Islamic State coalition? The U.K. and France help to lead it, but will the new administration maintain the U.S. leadership role or will the U.K. be left holding the bag? Rumors are flying about a new, more aggressive U.S. military approach to fighting the Islamic State. It would be helpful if coalition partners got an idea of what the United States is up to, and May is hoping to be the first to get a hint. Will there be a plan ready to discuss?

What does Trump want from his first meeting as president with a foreign leader? Credibility. He needs the media to portray him as the leader of the alliance and as a foreign policy president worth flying across the Atlantic to confer with. He needs the press conference at the end of the meeting to show a measured and sophisticated president in command of the issues and a gracious host to the country’s most important ally. He especially needs the British to echo this as they sit with the press on the plane back to London. Anything less — a president disengaged or unprepared, glib with the issues, or who takes lightly his responsibility as leader of the alliance — will only feed the image of a president not ready for command.

Outside of the photo ops and any joint press statements, Trump will seek May’s help in pushing other NATO allies to spend more on defense. In addition, he needs a commitment from her too that no matter the pressure to cut U.K. spending, she will protect her Defense Ministry’s two percent from the axe. Trump is also likely to ask May for more help in the fight against “radical Islamic extremism” (although in his pre-brief with National Security Council staff he will learn just how much the U.K. is already doing in that regard). It is probably safe to assume that China and the Trump administration’s interest in taking a more aggressive stance on the economic and trade front will be part of Trump’s talking points as well.

Trump no doubt sees May as a partner and expects that they will find common cause in their anti-EU stances. While May is certainly determined to chart a speedy and favorable course for Brexit, Trump may be surprised to learn that she still sees some value in the institution itself. Like all European leaders, she worries about Russian efforts to undermine not only the EU, but also other organizations, like NATO.

Outside of the substance, our allies and adversaries will be closely watching the mechanics of this meeting with the hope that they can get a better read on how the Trump administration is going to handle international engagements. Who was at the table with the president during the photo spray at the top? Who sat closest to the president? Did anyone else speak in the meeting? Did Trump read prepared remarks or speak off the cuff? What were the atmospherics?

There is a lot riding for the new administration on the success of this first meeting — and a lot riding for May too. This is not a time for off-the-cuff thinking. It’s a test for which the administration needs to study.

Photo credit: MATT CARDY/WPA Pool/Getty Images

Jim Townsend is an adjunct senior fellow in the Center for a New American Security’s Transatlantic Security Program. He served for eight years as U.S. President Barack Obama’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO. Twitter: @jteurope

Julianne (“Julie”) Smith is an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a Weizsäcker fellow at the Bosch Academy in Berlin. She served as the deputy national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden from 2012 to 2013. Before going to the White House, she served as the principal director for European/NATO policy at the Pentagon. Smith lives in Washington with her husband and two children. Smith is a co-editor of Shadow Government. Twitter: @Julie_C_Smith

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