Former Foreign Office press secretary Simon McGee, executive director at APCO Worldwide, explains how the US state visit invitation came about and why it has already proved useful
Donald Trump is finally coming on his long-awaited UK state visit to receive a cordial welcome from the establishment and a less friendly welcome from his critics. Over the past couple of years, the invitation to the US President attracted controversy, criticism and questions.
One of my duties as Foreign Office Press Secretary was co-chairing the regular press briefings for international correspondents. The briefing itself was introduced in 2017 in order to put right the lamentably poor level of media engagement provided by the British government – with the Foreign Office excepted, I hasten to add – for non-UK media. It had been more than a decade since members of the Foreign Press Association had been allowed to attend the morning lobby briefings alongside British political journalists so that they too could have the pleasure of receiving the routine “I’m not going to provide a running commentary” response from Tony Blair’s spokesman Tom Kelly.
At the new briefing, accredited foreign journalists had the opportunity to turn up to King Charles Street or No 10 and ask questions of the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesperson, the Foreign Office Press Secretary, the Department for Exiting the EU Spokesperson and one of the Prime Minister’s Special Advisers, the last to answer party political questions the rest of us civil servants could not. It wasn’t a magic bullet that suddenly opened up Whitehall to the 1,800 or so foreign journalists in London, but with Brexit negotiations ongoing it was the least the British government could do to make itself heard and understood. Or at least try to.
No matter what was going on in the world, Brexit took up around the first half of the hour-long questions and answers. And then came the non-Brexit questions, among which I could be certain of three that would always head my way. From an Arabic newspaper: “Could you comment on the latest troop movements in northern Syriain such and such a place?” Nope. From a Russian outlet: “Why is the UK so mean to Russia?” We’re not; they’re protecting by military and diplomatic means Assad who’s using chemical weapons on his own people, they’ve annexed parts of a European country, etc. Next. From everyone: “When is Donald Trump’s state visit taking place?” As I’ve said before on many occasions, the invitation for a state visit has been delivered, it’s been accepted and we’re awaiting a suitable date. It is right that the UK should welcome the leader of a country that is such a close ally and partner… Oh, hang on. Now he’s finally coming.
So why was Trump invited? And does any of this state visit stuff actually work? Cast your mind back to Prime Minister Theresa May’s slightly excruciating visit to Washington DC a week after Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, where they awkwardly held hands as they shuffled along the colonnade. Downing Street sought to portray her visit, the first by a head of government to see the new president, as a major diplomatic success, underlining the importance of the Special Relationship and burnishing May’s global credentials. No 10 even briefed during the trip that the language and chemistry had been so warm that the new partnership bore the hallmarks of Thatcher and Reagan. And they briefed out one more fact: that HM The Queen had invited Trump to Britain for a state visit.
The reaction then, and in the more than two years since, ranged from surprise at the timing of the announcement to outrage. Mexico’s president Enrique Pena Nieto had just announced his refusal to travel to Washington DC to meet Trump over the US-Mexico wall and the international community looked on with a collective shiver following his America First inauguration speech. So, the disclosure of the state visit invitation was seen as coming at the worst possible time and became an issue for debate and incredulity in itself. Journalists I spoke to shook their heads in surprise and asked if we had become so desperate for US approval that we would validate Trump and everything he stood for by inviting him to tea with The Queen. Yet the timing of the invitation was to some extent quite prosaic. State visits are discussed and approved by an august body called the Royal Visits Committee, which comprises the private secretaries of the senior members of the Royal Household, The Queen and HRH The Prince of Wales, and representatives from No 10, the FCO, Cabinet Office and International Trade; FCO protocol directorate serves as its secretariat. This committee had gathered before the US presidential election in November 2016 and decided that since President Obama had served two terms and the US would definitely have a new president in 2017 then whomever won the 2016 election should be invited on a state visit. Such an invitation was routine in the Special Relationship maintenance toolkit but made a little more urgent by the EU referendum result earlier in 2016 and made a little less risky by the then-consensus that Trump would not win…
But still the invitation went ahead. Why? This is where the allure and effectiveness of the full-on state visit – with all its palatial bling and crystal, the flag-draped Mall, and horse-drawn carriages flanked by flashing, clanking Horse Guards – can be effective when used as part of a plan. And the UK did have a simple plan when it came to the early months of the Trump White House: to get close and to use all means to keep the US bound to her allies, multilateralism and the international rules-based system. Trump’s campaign speeches and inaugural address sent clear signals about his intention to potentially downgrade or even withdraw US involvement in critical institutions like the UN and Nato, so the UK set about doing its best behind the scenes to work with US permanent representatives like Nikki Haley to keep the US engaged and to help the new administration to see the value of these institutions to their own national interests.
The degree to which the US remains committed to this day to Nato and the surprising degree to which it has operated through the UN Security Council on a whole range of international challenges suggests some success in keeping it lashed to its international allies, although the breakdown of the IranJCPOA, the US’s withdrawal from the Paris climate change agreement and the relocation of its embassy in Israelto Jerusalem show a decidedly mixed picture. So, did the state visit invitation play any kind of role in contributing to where we are now with the US? It’s hard to say for sure but it definitely provided another strong avenue for the engagement with the top of the White House and can only have contributed to dialogue with allies.
My fellow Diplomat magazine contributor James Landale called the state visit Britain’s “soft power bunker-buster.” With Trump standing tall and unscathed following the publication of the Mueller Report, allowing the visit to go ahead from 3-5 June 2019, all we need to do now is sit back and watch the bunker buster land.