Theresa May has stepped up her Donald Trump charm offensive with a call for the US and Britain to join forces to avoid “the eclipse of the West” by China and Russia.
The first ever foreign leader to address the Republican Retreat conference in Philadelphia, the Prime Minister cited the example of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher’s transatlantic alliance in the 1980s.
In a markedly hawkish speech, she praised the new US President and his party for their tougher line against an increasingly “assertive” Beijing - but said they should not let up the pressure on Russia.
May compared the promise of Trump’s America to the Reagan era, citing the former President’s warning that the US had been a “sleeping giant “ that was now stirring once more.
Winning standing ovations from the Republican faithful, she repeatedly namechecked Reagan’s strong bond with Thatcher as an example of the leadership that the West needed to ensure global peace and prosperity.
May, who has come under fire in the UK for her bid to forge strong ties with the Trump administration, will be the first world leader to meet Trump at the White House on Friday.
Offering support for Trump’s own criticism of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the PM said “the days of Britain and America intervening in sovereign countries in an attempt to remake the world in our own image are over”.
“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.”
With the Republican-controlled Congress crucial to the direction of US foreign policy, after her speech May met House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, House Foreign Affairs chairman Ed Royce and Senate Foreign Affairs chairman Bob Corker.
May signalled support for Trump’s strong opposition to the growing military muscle of China, while urging him not to forget that Russia too was a threat to the West – and that Reagan had famously warned Washington should always deal with Moscow from a position of strength.
The new President has questioned China’s claim on Taiwan and has repeatedly warned that he was ready to intervene to combat its growing territorial claims on islands in the South China Sea.
In a plea to Trump not to step back from global alliances such as NATO and the United Nations, May sought to link Moscow with Beijing as a common threat.
“Countries with little tradition of democracy, liberty and human rights – notably China and Russia – have grown more assertive in world affairs,” she said.
She said that the rise of Asian economies was “hugely welcome”, but there was a danger that the US and UK could give up their leadership role.
“These events – coming as they have at the same time as the financial crisis and its fall out, 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. Other countries may grow stronger. Big, populous countries may grow richer. And as they do so, they may start to embrace more fully our values of democracy and liberty.
“But even if they do not, our interests will remain. Our values will endure. And the need to defend them and project them will be as important as ever.”
In perhaps her sharpest words for the new President, she urged the US to prevent Russia’s attempts to expand its influence over its neighbours in the Ukraine and elsewhere.
“We should not jeopardise the freedoms that President Reagan and Mrs Thatcher brought to Eastern Europe by accepting President Putin’s claim that it is now in his sphere of influence,” she said.
May added that the UK and US had “a joint responsibility to lead”. “Because when others step up as we step back, it is bad for America, for Britain and the world.”
“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’. With President Putin, my advice is to ‘engage but beware’.
“There is nothing inevitable about conflict between Russia and the West. And nothing unavoidable about retreating to the days of the Cold War.
“But we should engage with Russia from a position of strength. And we should build the relationships, systems and processes that make cooperation more likely than conflict – and that, particularly after the illegal annexation of Crimea, give assurance to Russia’s neighbouring states that their security is not in question.”