In a foreign policy speech that marks a clear break with the liberal interventionism of the Tony Blair and David Cameron eras, the prime minister said there must be “no return to the failed policies of the past” that saw Britain bogged down in conflicts in the Middle East.
As she prepared to meet Donald Trump in Washington, amid profound anxiety in Europe about how he will choose to exercise American power, May insisted that the “days of Britain and America intervening in sovereign countries in an attempt to remake the world in our own image are over”.
But she stressed that the two countries should still meet their “obligations of leadership” to tackle “new global challenges”, including the conflict in Syria and the fight against Islamic State.
“This cannot mean a return to the failed policies of the past. But nor can we 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 warned against the “malign influence” of Iran – a significant toughening of language since the UK re-established diplomatic ties with Tehran 18 months ago.
She said reducing Iran’s influence was “a priority for the UK too as we support our allies in the Gulf states to push back against Iran’s aggressive efforts to build an arc of influence from Tehran through to the Mediterranean”.
But while Trump has sometimes suggested unpicking the Iran nuclear deal, which Britain played a key role in negotiating, May said the answer was for it to be properly enforced: “The agreement must now be very carefully and rigorously policed – and any breaches should be dealt with firmly and immediately.”
This approach, of seeking a close relationship with the new president while setting out distinct policies, is an early indication of how May hopes to manage the diplomatic challenge of the Trump presidency. It is also the closest she has come to setting out her own philosophy on foreign affairs.
Blair’s close alliance with George W Bush, which saw Britain and the US take the lead in the controversial invasion of Iraq, has cast a long shadow over politicians on both sides of the Atlantic, and was revisited in detail in the damning Chilcot report last summer. The House of Commons rejected the idea of intervening in Syria in 2013, scarred by the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Trump told an interviewer on Wednesday that he believed the main mistake in the Iraq conflict was not to have seized control of the country’s oil resources, which he claimed had subsequently been used to fund Islamic terrorism.
Downing Street is keen to demonstrate that Britain intends to play a key role in world affairs after leaving the European Union, through which much of its foreign policy influence is currently exercised.
May suggested global leadership by the US and the UK had become all the more necessary, because of the rise of “new enemies of the west and our values” and fears that fast-growing economies such as China and India could “eclipse” the west.
“The rise of the Asian economies – China yes, but democratic allies like India, too – is hugely welcome,” she said. “Billions are being lifted out of poverty and new markets for our industries are opening up, but these events – coming as they have at the same time as the financial crisis and its fallout, as well as a loss of confidence in the west following 9/11, the military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and sporadic terrorist attacks – have led many to fear that, in this century, we will experience the eclipse of the west. But there is nothing inevitable about that”.
May said Britain would take on an “even more internationalist role, where we meet our responsibilities to our friends and allies, champion the international cooperation 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”.
The speech, the first given to the annual Republican party retreat by a foreign leader, also touched on the values the UK shared with the US and the common threads that led to last year’s referendum result in the UK, and Trump’s election to the White House.
Her words were warmly received by her audience in Philadelphia, who gave her a series of standing ovations. Afterwards she met key Republicans, including the house speaker, Paul Ryan. He said the pair had “reaffirmed our commitment to a strong security alliance and expressed Congress’s interest in moving forward with bilateral trade talks”.
The speech is the first leg of a trip that will see May fly on to Washington for a meeting with Trump on Friday.
Author: Heather Stewart