British prime minister Theresa May is meeting President Donald Trump on Friday, the first major foreign leader to stop by the White House. But before that, she addressed Republican lawmakers at their retreat in Philadelphia, delivering a foreign-policy speech that stressed the importance of the United States’ and United Kingdom’s world leadership. But she included a dash of Trump with her declaration that the “days of Britain and America intervening in sovereign countries in an attempt to remake the world in our own image are over.”
May said for Britain there would be no “return to the failed policies of the past,” a clear criticism of her predecessors. At the same time, May stressed that neither Britain nor the United States could take a complete step back, saying the countries could not “afford to stand idly by when the threat is real and when it is in our own interests to intervene. We must be strong, smart, and hard-headed. And we must demonstrate the resolve necessary to stand up for our interests.”
May also hammered the importance of the United Nations and NATO. “The institutions upon which that world relies were so often conceived or inspired by our two nations working together,” May said. On NATO, which Trump has criticized, the prime minister called it “the cornerstone of the West’s defense.”
May also took a hard line against ISIS, saying Britain shares “in your determination to take on and defeat Daesh and the ideology of Islamic extremism.” But in perhaps a subtle rebuke to Trump’s executive order to ban refugees and immigrants from certain Muslim countries, May stressed:
We should always be careful to distinguish between this extreme and hateful ideology, and the peaceful religion of Islam and the hundreds of millions of its adherents — including millions of our own citizens and those further afield who are so often the first victims of this ideology’s terror. And nor is it enough merely to focus on violent extremism. We need to address the whole spectrum of extremism, starting with the bigotry and hatred that can so often turn to violence.
May used Islamic extremism to segue to Syria and then to Russia. Knowing her audience, she invoked Reagan to the GOP crowd: “When it comes to Russia, as so often it is wise to turn to the example of President Reagan, who, during negotiations with his opposite number Mikhail Gorbachev, used to abide by the adage ‘trust but verify,’” May stated. “With President Putin, my advice is to ‘engage but beware.’”
May also touted the importance of the Iran deal, something both the GOP and Trump has also lambasted.
May concluded with her hope, as the United Kingdom prepares to leave the European Union, that the two countries could work out a favorable trade deal. “Because of these strong economic and commercial links — and our shared history and the strength of our relationship — I look forward to pursuing talks with the new administration about a new U.K.-U.S. free trade agreement in the coming months,” May said. “It will take detailed work, but we welcome your openness to those discussions and hope we can make progress so that the new, global Britain that emerges after Brexit is even better equipped to take its place confidently in the world.”
May concluded with another Reaganism in a speech that appeared to mostly play well with Republican lawmakers present, even if it differed in tone and content from some of Trump’s positions. May’s promise of avoiding interventionism nodded to Trump’s “America First” statements, but she also returned again and again to the the history of Britain and the United States’ “special relationship,” appearing to remind her audience of the dangers of taking its isolationism too far.
But May still has to sit down with Trump before she leaves the U.S. She told reporters she believes she can work with the new president because “sometimes opposites attract.”