Did Theresa May have a foreign policy?

There was a vision there—but her successor now looks set to destroy it

July 23, 2019
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I’ve been rereading Theresa May’s speeches on foreign policy and second time around they are slightly more interesting than they first appeared.

Trying to describe May’s foreign policy has been difficult, even for those who work in her foreign policy team. The government has clung to the “Global Britain” slogan even as they have struggled to articulate what it actually means in practice. (The official Global Britain strategy, which the foreign office has been tasked with writing, remains unpublished). But in half a dozen speeches, from Philadelphia to the UN, from Cape Town to Chatham House, there are the beginnings of an idea.

For the past 20 years, Britain has viewed itself as the bridge between the US and Europe. But since 2016 both of those relationships have been called into doubt. May is the first prime minister who has had to grapple with the new reality and it hasn’t been easy, particularly since the election debacle of 2017 left her running a minority government.

Our future relationship with Europe is yet to be negotiated and while those talks have been taking place, each side has become increasingly exasperated with the other. As for America, too many people in Whitehall—officials, not just politicians—convinced themselves that Donald Trump would behave differently once he got into power. Then, they convinced themselves that he was surrounded by adults—Jim Mattis, HR McMaster, Rex Tillerson—who would keep him in line. Now, belatedly, many of them have realised that our most important ally is an authoritarian ethnonationalist who really means it when he says “America First.”

There is a seriousness—and a weariness—about these speeches. They are the words of a prime minister who recognises the need to deal with the world as we find it, not the world as we want it to be. The international rules-based order is often defended, the importance of multilateralism is continually stressed. Agreements that sound impressive are announced—an ambition to make the UK the G7’s “number one investor in Africa” in Cape Town, for instance—even when in reality they will probably make little difference.

Her speeches need to be read in the context of her actions, for it is here that we see what the May doctrine might have become. For despite what her critics on the left say about her embrace of Trump, May actually chose to hug Europe closer. At every moment when there was a choice between Europe and America, May chose Europe. When Trump ripped up the Iran nuclear agreement, May joined the leaders of France and Germany in vowing to stick with it. When Trump abandoned the Paris agreement on climate change, May defended it. When Trump moved the US embassy to Jerusalem, the UK quietly refused to follow suit.

Domestic politics trump foreign policy

The one problem with basing May’s views on foreign policy on her foreign policy speeches alone, is that she also talked about the rest of the world in other speeches written by—and influenced by—her domestic policy advisors. The prime minister who talked about the importance of European defence cooperation at the Munich Security Conference is the same prime minister who accused European leaders of meddling in the snap election she called in 2017, making threats “deliberately timed to affect the result.” And let’s not forget that this is the prime minister who promised to keep aid spending at 0.7 per cent but then appointed an international development secretary in Priti Patel who appeared to detest the very idea of aid itself. For May, domestic politics always trumped foreign policy.

There are two words that sum up May’s foreign policy legacy and no matter how many times she repeated them during her tenure, they are not “Global Britain.” No, they are “Boris Johnson.” It was May who made him foreign secretary, who gave him the opportunity to claim to be a statesman, to be something more substantial than a mayor. This position, one of the most important in government, gave Johnson a platform and a voice. Had she had the courage, she could have sacked him for his comments about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who still languishes in an Iranian jail. Instead she gave him the opportunity to resign on a point of principle—a resignation for which, let’s not forget, he hired a photographer.

The irony is that everything May said she stood for in the world—pragmatism not populism, multilateralism not nationalism, Europe not America—will be cast aside by the man she helped to make king.