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Mrs. Theresa May, Great Britain’s new Tory Prime Minister, whose self-appointed task is making a new future for her country by leaving the European Union, is now visiting America to meet the majority party and the new president. I have recently given you a summary with reflections on her important Brexit speech of last week, and will offer something similar on her speech of January 26, addressed to the Congressional Republican Retreat in Philadelphia, in advance of her meeting with your president.
The exordium is the important part of this speech. It emphasizes a certain understanding of the Declaration of Independence as “the textbook of freedom” and the signal of America’s destiny “to bear the leadership of the free world.” At the same time, Britain has always been there to help America during the last 100 years. The implication is that there are worldwide historical consequences to the famous theoretical statement of the second paragraph of the Declaration, which Mrs. May paraphrased: “that all are created equal and that all are born free.”
I see in this statement the almost unique lack of interest in foreign affairs, including foreign adventures, of the American people, who are a world unto themselves. The prime minister sees it otherwise. Mrs. May quotes Reagan (the signatories of the Declaration were “56 rank-and-file, ordinary citizens”) and then tries to deduce America from the individual rights perspective of the Declaration and simultaneously to urge all Americans — at least as represented by her immediate audience of national politicians — to concern themselves with the world beyond America. This they would do had they the ambitions of the Founders, who shifted effortlessly in-between private life, holding public office in America, and doing America’s business in Europe, in both private and diplomatic capacities. The Founders are the exemplars of American individualism, but also a limit upon it: once Founded, the country needs no more founding. As John Adams famously said, in a few generations, Americans would be led by prosperity away from political and military concern to commerce and leisure.
This is a bold rhetorical attempt, but bound to fail. America has never matched that interest in European, let alone world affairs, since the Founding era. Americans do insist on being American in a way that separates them from the rest of the world and America’s national politicians are now ignorant of foreign policy, in pious obedience to their people. So Prime Minister May is facing the insurmountable triple burden of bad timing:
- With regard to the present, Americans do not wish to involve themselves in the affairs of other nations, and have no experience of such successful involvements, or even of what success might mean. The politicians are not quite the same as the people they represent, but foreign policy did not matter in the recent elections.
- With regard to the past, Americans do not know quite what good things they have bestowed on the world in the 20th century and do not have evidence of gratitude beyond the profuse gratitude now professed in this speech, which at the same time is meant to obligate them nobly to continue their striving on behalf of political freedom across the world.
- With regard to the future, Americans are too worried and lacking in confidence about their domestic affairs to be able to hope for good things or worry about bad things from abroad. And, too, they lack the trust in Congress and the press that would orient them concerning foreign affairs, had the press and the Congress any intention in doing so.
The rhetoric strategy of the PM is to remind Americans of their historical ties to the world through their British alliance in order to persuade them to believe again in the good they can, and therefore must, do.
Thus, the captatio benevolentiae:
- America fought side by side with Britain three times in the 20th century. They were both loyal to each other and victorious, with civilization winning over barbarism every time. But notice that only WWII was a defensive war for America and that neither of the world wars brought America lasting peace through victory.
- Moreover, America and Britain together made the post-war world. Out of the capacious mind of FDR, the great politician of the century, an entire system of institutions came forth, like the virgin Athena from the skull of Zeus: the UN, WB, IMF, and NATO–in short, all the institutions of triumphant mid-century liberalism which conservatives have detested in varying, but usually increasing, degrees for two generations. Even NATO is now of dubious worth to the victorious Republicans of 2016.
- These institutions need changes now, but are of continued importance. Invoking the city of the Declaration, in the words of Churchill, Mrs. May declares America the perfection and repository of justice and freedom as they developed in Britain. This may justify the Special Relationship, but not world leadership. The PM mentioned that billions of people depend in some way on America. One wonders whether this is of any importance to American politics.
1. The meaning of the elections of 2016
“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. Principles instilled in me from a young age. Principles my parents taught me in the vicarage in southern England in which I was raised.
And I know it is these principles that you have put at the heart of your plan for government. And your victory in these elections gives you the opportunity to put them at the heart of this new era of American renewal, too.
President Trump’s victory, achieved in defiance of all of the pundits and the polls, and rooted not in the corridors of Washington, but in the hopes and aspirations of working men and women across this land, you’re part of his victory, in both the Congress and the Senate, where you swept all before you, secured with great effort, and achieved with an important message of national renewal.”
Theresa May is not attempting to discuss domestic American politics, which would be somewhat inappropriate, but only to acknowledge the remarkable victories of Mr. Trump and of the GOP, to state that Britain rejoices in American strength and that it is good for the world. At the same time, Mr. Trump’s new view of American foreign policy — America’s allies have to do their part in their own self-interest — is saluted by Mrs. May, partly because she can assure her American audience that Britain already is meeting its Treaty goals, partly because she can boast that she has defended in Parliament Britain’s nuclear deterrent. A tough, no-nonsense attitude to defense is necessary for the British-American Special Relationship. (Mrs. May also introduced yet another one of those quaint differences between American and British English: What Americans call ISIS and Mr. Obama ISIL, Britain calls, in the European fashion, Daesh.)
Mrs. May gave her understanding of the elections of 2016 indirectly, by a statement on Britain: a global and international country in both spirit and action, but insisting on its national sovereignty. This would mean Britain is looking forward to get into the troubles America is looking forward to get out of just now! Mrs. May is proud of the humanitarian and military and intelligence work Britain is doing around the world and committed to the welfare of the working men and women of England by worldwide free trade. That, supposedly, is the meaning of the elections of 2015, which yielded the first Conservative majority in Britain since 1997, when Britain handed over Hong Kong to China, and the referendum of 2016, which committed Britain to Brexit and catapulted Mrs. May into the PM’s office.
That was America in 2016, so far as the liberals led by Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton were concerned! Of course, Mrs. May understands there are changes coming, but she would rather keep America as close to where it was internationally last year. This would require making America a great deal or appealing to American idealism or both.
2. The world is in crisis
We must gather American politicians’ opinions by their applauses and silences. As you will see, the lawmakers in the audience were flattered to be addressed, and flattered, by such a speaker; and eager to show their affection. The American audience obviously was not prepared for the kind of speech a British prime minister gives. Indeed, the applause kept interrupting the speech: My favorite instance was the prime minister’s declaration of the independence and national sovereignty Brexit claims again for Britain. Applause! Then came the end of the sentence, Britain can be even more global! Silence.
Silence also graced Mrs. May’s attempt to sell America on going back to the global system America once built. When she mentioned that the end of the Cold War brought forward no End of History, no New World Order, there was no answer. When she mentioned ancient ethnic-religious strife coming unfrozen, no answer. At the mention of Islamic terrorism, however, the Republicans applauded, again, interrupting. The mention of dangers from Russia & China fell on the ensuing silence. Raucous applause followed the end of that section.
There was also this other kind of applause, the formal, at the end of a paragraph, polite but rather perfunctory in light of the more intelligible interruptions I mention. When Mrs. May declared that the failures of the past — nation-building — are not to be repeated, but the international system of alliances has to be defended there was raucous applause.
Concerning terrorism: killing terrorists is good, it saves lives, but killing the ideology is what removes the threat. Applause again interrupted her. Mrs. May boasted of Britain’s anti-Islamic extremism accomplishments, which I could not name and she did not deign to. The suggestions for fighting terrorism were unimpressive: trying to get a handle on extreme ideology before it comes to violence. Yes, but how? What’s new? What’s working? Also, worrisome: trying to find a diplomatic solution to the horrors in Syria and becoming serious about Iran’s evildoing in Syria.
On Russia, Mrs. May quoted Reagan’s favorite Russian proverb, “trust, but verify.” And again applause interrupted her as she started the next sentence. In this case, one feels she had it coming… She rephrased this quote in the sequel: Engage, but beware, only to be interrupted by applause again going into the next sentence.
Mrs. May mentioned the illegal annexation of Crimea and the need to reassure the next countries to be swallowed up that this will not happen to them, too, while NATO watches helplessly, but nothing was said as to how warlike ambition might be checked. Raucous applause followed the statement.
Mrs. May spoke against Iran’s push toward the Mediterranean, too, and for help to Middle Eastern allies who do not seem much by way of allies, which is just as well, for they do not receive much help, either, and very little public consideration of any kind in either America or Britain. At the same time, she legitimized Mr. Obama’s Iran deal, guaranteeing that Iran has kept up its end of the bargain. This leaves Britain & America to police the agreement in future. Nothing was said about any bad things Iran may have done or be doing with regard to nuclear weaponry. No applause. The only obvious reason for this view of the Middle Eastern situation is an attempt to show the international order of treaties and organizations in its best light, requiring least commitment, or at least worry.
Indeed, Mrs. May then turned to legitimating the international institutions Americans — especially Republicans — dislike, promising that these institutions can be made to serve American and British interests. The UN is supposed to reform under its new Secretary General. How could it stop being a hotbed of anti-American politics? NATO-Europe is supposed to start spending more on defense. These do not seem easily-accomplished goals, nor is it clear what one achieves by them. Putting a good face on the status quo while making it seem like it’s responsive to Mr. Trump’s challenges to it is a very difficult task.
The closing of the section on the world crisis is a promise that the nation state is still the most important institution, legitimating and employing for its enlightened ends the world system. Mrs. May declared both for a more united EU and Brexit for Britain. She declared Britain’s Commonwealth ties and also quoted Churchill again to beautify British-American ties. Finally, applause came.
In regard to British-American relations, she mentioned the British-American trade deal, an early priority of the new administration. Applause. The trade deal is supposed to help the beleaguered working classes. The only laugh-line of the speech came when the prime minister was again interrupted, perhaps one last time, by lonely applause this time, as she mentioned the extent of Britain-Pennsylvania commerce: Somebody from Pennsylvania was there!
In closing this rather unpersuasive speech aimed to make the world more attractive and more rewarding an object of political concern and action for America, the prime minister had recourse to a strange modern phrase: The world demands leadership. That seems to be a hopeful way of saying the world is going to hell. Indeed, the context suggests it: the call to renew the special relationship echoed Truman and Churchill’s Cold War alliance, a time of crisis that baffled those who had hoped victory in 1945 would bring peace. The prime minister also mentioned the F-35 fighter as proof of the British-American defense relationship, which must be read as bitter irony due to the technological-advancement-by-bureaucracy that is the F-35.
In the coda, the prime minister referenced to the most outgoing and imperial of America’s presidents when mentioning Teddy Roosevelt’s quote about “the man in the arena.” She attributed it only to “another American president.” She moved on to the safer territory of quoting Reagan with attribution to make the same point, that America must act throughout the world, wherever the liberal commercial order is threatened. She ended with some of Teddy Roosevelt’s lofty strains about striving.
There was raucous applause, even as America withdraws from the world system it created.