My piece below explained what State Visits are. And speculated on why the invitation to President Trump had been extended now:
London has moved fast to extend this invitation to President Trump. Some might say that it would have been wiser to wait and see how he gets on before doing this. And they might have been right. Mrs May might have used her visit to convey personal greetings from The Queen to the President and extended the invitation in principle.
However, that’s not so easy to do as State Visit slots get allocated years in advance, the more so as The Queen now rarely makes a State Visit overseas herself. No doubt the FCO had fondly been reserving this mid-17 slot for President Clinton, and if it were not taken by President Trump instead there might not be another one available for several years.
The problem now is that far from celebrating a nice shared warm and above all popular glow of mutual self-satisfaction (see eg the Mandela and Obama state visits here), this visit might well generate formidable bilateral chatterati dismay and public protest on a scale never before seen for a visit at this level. Choreographing and delivering the usual programme in this context will be more than tricky, with security concerns well to the fore.
Now we know a lot more about what has actually happened. This good Guardian piece draws on some serious background briefing:
The idea of inviting the 45th president of the United States on a state visit to the UK was conceived at a time when the Conservative government was desperate to interpose itself between Donald Trump and Nigel Farage, the former Ukip leader.
The government had been blindsided by Trump’s victory, and Farage, the eternal thorn in the side of the Conservative leadership, was taunting the Foreign Office about his proximity to Trump and his chief strategist, Steve Bannon.
The photograph of Farage beaming in the gilded Trump Towers was a humiliation for British officials, as was his one-hour meeting with Trump, which made him the first British politician to meet the president-elect.
Some newspapers were suggesting Farage should replace Sir Kim Darroch as the UK’s ambassador to Washington. There was even a fear that Trump, ever willing to ignore protocol, might endorse the idea.
In this febrile context, the idea of an invitation from the Queen to the president was spawned. The plan for a summer visit was briefed to the Sunday Times on 20 November, a fortnight after Trump’s election.
A source who has discussed the invitation with a cabinet minister said: “The government has decided that their secret weapon to get in with Trump is to offer him an early visit to the Queen, him and [his wife] Melania staying at Windsor Castle.”
Another cabinet source said: “The Queen is the key here. She’s not a secret weapon, she’s the biggest public weapon you have. Nigel Farage can’t get [Trump] in front of the Queen.”
Hmm. There’s more:
Buckingham Palace would have been consulted but does not in practice operate a veto and knows these visits are politically driven. In the national interest, the Queen has over the years had to toast a steady supply of dictators, sheikhs and wealthy leaders with an open chequebook. Only last year, the Chinese president Xi Jinping’s visit was a brutal occasion that saw backs turned and Prince Charles boycott the state banquet.
But Buckingham Palace did not object to the most remarkable aspect of the Trump invitation, its hastiness. Many US presidents have been granted state visits – Ronald Reagan in 1982, Bill Clinton in 1995, George W Bush in 2003 and Barack Obama in 2011 – but they were all after at least two relatively stable years in office.
Given the divisive nature of Trump’s election campaign and the uncertainty about how he would choose to govern, the offer of a state visit, as opposed to a normal political visit, was premature – a criticism raised by Peter Ricketts, the former Foreign Office permanent secretary in a letter to the Times published on Tuesday…
The fact of someone with Lord Ricketts’ impeccable diplomatic record saying in so calculated a public way that ‘the Queen is put in a very difficult position’ itself makes things even more difficult. Odd, that.
Still, on he goes with his suggestion, namely that No 10 tell the White House that the State Visit will take place later in President Trump’s presidency and that this year the President come for an official visit including an audience with the Queen: “Not an easy manoeuvre, but the consequence of having rushed to a premature invitation for political effect”.
Here’s what PM Theresa May said in Washington:
I have today been able to convey her Majesty, the Queen’s hope that President Trump and the First Lady would pay a state visit to the United Kingdom later this year, and I’m delighted that the President has accepted that invitation.
So, as things stand, there is to be State Visit to the UK by President Trump at some point in 2017.
* * * * *
It’s hard to believe that No 10’s policy on all this was driven by the noisy antics of N Farage immediately after Mr Trump’s election. But then almost everything that happens now is hard to believe.
So, if No 10 wanted to elbow N Farage into the long grass by using the State Visit unsecret weapon, how best to do it? One obvious answer was to win the agreement of Buckingham Palace to the principle of a State Visit by President Trump, then use the PM’s Washington visit to convey an invitation in person to the President, saying that once he had settled into office detailed timings to suit the two sides could be discussed. That would have delivered almost all the positive private and public aspects of the invitation, but without being over-committal on timing.
That’s what I hope I would have recommended. Maybe Lord Ricketts would have done the same?
No 10 did not do that. Why not?
One answer might be inexperience. Theresa May has had her generous share of interminable EU meetings, but she is no expert in diplomacy. Silly fleeting Westminster panic over Farage/Trump was just too much to handle?
Another answer reminds us of our old friend – Judgement:
In the FCO as elsewhere Competences change according to fashion and latest management theory. Thus in my own very final appraisal of 2007/08 I was assessed on:
- Getting the best from staff
- Delivering results
- Strategic thinking
- Personal impact
- Learning and development
There used (as recently as 2002) to be a longer and better list covering such issues as Adaptability and Creativity, Communication (Written and Oral), Relating to Others and above all Analysis and Judgement.
And the greatest of these is Analysis and Judgement. (Memo to next government: bring that back on Day One.)
Because in foreign policy things are complicated. Long-term v short-term. Big v Small. Certainty v uncertainty. Principle v Politics v Practical v Possible.
Thus in a democracy what Ministers need is a team of skilled people able to help them steer through these operational and philosophical complexities for a few years.
People who simplify complexity but in a subtle, nuanced way. Who are good at bringing people of rival opinions together and explaining convincingly what might best be done. People who can juggle numerous balls but keep their eye on the Big Picture. People of unerring accuracy.
And ‘Judgement’ is the word for all that. Without Judgement a civil servant (like a Minister) is fairly useless.
So what? The point – a serious one – is this.
Judgement is not about looking at the world from the point of view of one’s feelings and ‘experiences’. It is the exact opposite of that.
It is about keeping one’s feelings/experiences in the picture but not letting them detract unduly from a hard-headed or even ruthless objective focus on the wider issues.
And Judgement is in good part all about Risk.
In this case the Prime Minister might well have thought (correctly) that in the centuries-long history of State Visits to the UK almost no-one was more likely to enjoy the lavish attention and profile/pomp of the occasion than President Trump. Given Brexit/Putin/trade/terrorism issues where President Trump’s approach might well be, ahem, a tad unpredictable, why not get him over here for the full SV treatment asap? A profoundly gruntled Trump could be a formidable ally for London in the coming years. Yes, extending an early full invitation is risky. But there is a lot at stake in a world of so many risky things.
In short, precisely because the invitation was delivered so speedily and specifically, the value of it for the President would be all the higher. Let’s do it!
* * * * *
According to that Guardian article the timing of the visit is now in doubt:
At a press conference on Monday, May corrected herself, saying no official invitation had been sent. If the visit was delayed until the autumn or even next year, Trump may have settled down – or imploded. The travel bans, for instance, may by then have been lifted and the mood on the streets calmed.
Which press conference was that? Not as far as I can tell this one:
“The United States is a close ally of the United Kingdom. We work together across many areas of mutual interest and we have that special relationship between us,” she said. “I have issued that invitation for a state visit for President Trump to the United Kingdom and that invitation stands.”
As the Trump Administration gets appointed and starts working the mood may settle down, or not. The President’s own team will not (one assumes) be keen to expose the President to wholesale problems by visiting the UK amidst mass protests. So a way may be found politely to agree that it suits both sides to have the State Visit at a later date and/or have an official and less problematic visit to London this year.
That said, State Visits involve a LOT of work on many fronts simultaneously. Even if such a Visit is ‘months away’, feverish thought will be being given to precise dates to coincide with the Queen’s diary (these days much less full of official engagements, of course) and everything else that gets scheduled well in advance. There are in fact already fairly few possible dates available, as other State Visits must be in the pipeline. So playing for time before committing to the Visit full blast is not really an option.
To be continued…