Former U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May recently joined former U.S. Defense Secretary and inaugural John S. McCain Distinguished Fellow Mark Esper to discuss all things related to the trans-Atlantic alliance as the second installment of the “Conversations With Secretary Esper” series organized by the McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University.
“President Joe Biden's first trip to Europe as president of the United States was a packed and busy agenda with a lot of tough issues on the table,” Esper said at the July 22 event. “What did you make of President Joe Biden’s first trip to Europe as a whole, and what message do you think he sent to America's allies and adversaries alike?”
May declared Biden’s trip a success that conveyed a very clear message to the world: “America is back.”
“I think for those of us who are supporters of multilateral institutions, of a rules-based international order, there was a very clear sense that this American president sees America playing a role in the world in that rules-based international order and through those multilateral institutions,” said May. “And that America wants, once again, to step up to that role of being the leader of the free world. It was a hugely important visit in that sense and the message that it gave in America wanting that role and crucially wanting to work together.”
Their conversation ranged widely, from Biden’s recent visit to the U.K., the NATO summit in Brussels, Biden’s meeting with Vladimir Putin, democratic backsliding in parts of Europe, deterring Russian aggression, confronting an increasingly aggressive China, and, of course, the future of the "special relationship" between the U.S. and the U.K.
“I've always seen it as important that America is there in NATO and that NATO is able to work together. The communique that came out of the NATO summit brings home how many areas of concern there are around the world,” said May. “Both in terms of geographical issues, like Russia, China and Iran, but other issues as well, like the whole question of terrorism and issues around cybersecurity. I think what came out of it was not just an important message about us being together, and in a sense that was key, but also usefully some signs that NATO recognizes that there are new challenges, new threats and there needs to be new ways of dealing with those. I think the work that's being done on cyber, for example, is very important.”
May said that it was important for Biden to meet with Russia and Putin early to set clear expectations for the relationship. She also emphasized the importance of countering Russian cyberattacks.
“This is a very important issue, and what we see is that there’s a whole breadth of cyberattacks that we all suffer from,” said May. “I think this is why it’s so important that NATO has been starting to look more at that concept of what it can do in the cyber arena and the U.K. was only one of the first members of NATO to actually be able to offer some resource in this cyber area.
"First thing, of course, is making sure that we are absolutely up there in terms of our cybersecurity. It's a constant battle to be ensuring the cybersecurity. But the defensive measures that are necessary in order to ensure that cybersecurity are important. There's a whole number of ways in which this question of cybersecurity has become much more socialized, among not just government but businesses.”
May also described potential ways for the West to work productively with China.
“We have to be very aware of China, but we can't rush China to one side and try to isolate and ignore it,” May said. “We've got to find a way of being able to deal with it and work with it. The important thing is for us to be able to work together, those of us who have shared values, we're dealing with a completely different state in terms of China. Those of us who have shared values need to be able to come together and find a way of working with China.”
And May had an encouraging message for those wondering about the status and future of the special relationship.
“The special relationship transcends changes in government, it transcends different presidents and different prime ministers. We have stood shoulder by shoulder in defense of our values: Our democracy, our freedoms, our rule of law. And that is so important, and we will continue to stand side by side. We bring different things to the party, if you like, and I think we work well together because we understand each other and because we share core values.”
Esper’s conversation with May is part of a series of conversations related to the future of NATO organized by ASU’s McCain Institute. Participants in the series examine how NATO should position itself to tackle some of the most pressing challenges of our time, including a rising China, increasing international authoritarianism and the global plague of disinformation.
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