Editorial Board

Can Trump Win Friends and Influence People?

His meeting with Prime Minister Theresa May raises a vexing question.

After you, prime minister.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

With Britain poised to quit the European Union, Prime Minister Theresa May needs all the friends she can get. That helps explain her appearance Friday, President Donald Trump’s first White House visit from a foreign head of government. The question is, what’s in it for him?

Like so much else in the Trump era, this rapprochement is both unpredictable and, especially for the U.K., hazardous. But if the president is so inclined, he could use a productive relationship with the prime minister to show that he can cooperate as well as confront.

May’s main purpose is to show that Britain can succeed internationally without being part of the EU. Frictions over trade with Europe are sure to arise as the Brexit talks move forward. Closer trade relations with the U.S., ideally in the form of a new free-trade agreement, would be valuable in themselves but would also show that quitting the EU can be the start of new era of global engagement for the U.K.

From Britain’s point of view, moreover, a close friendship with the U.S. comes naturally. Culturally and historically, the U.K. is as much a mid-Atlantic country as part of Europe. British prime ministers have long cultivated close ties with the U.S.

Yet this “special relationship” (as the Brits like to call it) hasn’t always redounded to their benefit. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher got on famously well, but Tony Blair’s incautious and unqualified support for George W. Bush’s adventure in Iraq wrecked Blair’s reputation. Trump’s recklessness poses great political risks for May.

Her speech in Philadelphia on Thursday showed she’s aware. Praising the U.S., she talked about the responsibilities of global leadership and the need to defend liberty and human rights, traditional themes that aren’t exactly Trumpian. Making “America First” consistent with an enlightened conception of global leadership isn’t high on Trump’s list of priorities, and it’s hard to imagine that he’ll be open to persuasion. May will therefore need to keep a judicious distance.

Nonetheless there’s a chance that a continuation of the special relationship could help both nations. A U.S.-U.K. trade deal would offer a smaller benefit for the U.S. than for Britain, but a benefit nonetheless. Since the countries’ bilateral trade in goods and services is roughly balanced, and since Britain’s exporters aren’t cheating (as Trump might see it) by exploiting cheap labor, this could be the kind of good deal the president claims to favor.

In other areas, too, the Brits have something to offer. Defense cooperation is already close, and May echoed Trump in saying that Europe’s other governments should keep their promise to spend 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense. Intelligence-sharing is another area of mutual benefit.

On these and other matters, May might even be able to help Trump realize a truth (if not a fact) that he seems to resist: The U.S. has a lot to gain from its friendships and alliances.