LONDON — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie arrives here Sunday for a three-day tour of the United Kingdom designed to burnish his foreign policy credentials and cultivate relations with a critical American ally ahead of a likely presidential campaign.
Officially, Christie’s trip is a trade mission on behalf of New Jersey, particularly to promote economic development in the life sciences and financial services industries. But the visit also serves as a high-profile test of the Republican governor’s diplomatic finesse on the world stage.
In addition to a series of trade sessions in London and Cambridge, Christie is scheduled to meet privately with Prime Minister David Cameron, break bread with members of Cameron’s cabinet, sit for lunch with Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and, together with his wife, Mary Pat, tour one of the royal family’s selected charities and pay his respects to fallen soldiers at a cemetery.
“One of the main objectives of the trip is to focus on the opportunities that exist between the United Kingdom and New Jersey and our country as a whole,” Christie told reporters in advance of the trip. “We have a durable relationship with the United Kingdom. Our goal is to make it stronger.”
This is Christie’s third foreign trip in a year, following official visits to Mexico and Canada. But no country’s alliance is more valued to the United States than Britain’s, both culturally and diplomatically.
Christie will weave some cultural tourism into his itinerary. On Sunday afternoon, he will watch Arsenal, a top-flight English soccer team, play a match. And on Tuesday, he will attend a rehearsal of the William Shakespeare play “Henry V” and visit with Rutgers University students studying abroad here.
“As all of you are painfully aware, I’m an avid sports fan, so I’m looking forward to going to the Arsenal soccer match on Sunday,” Christie said.
Christie’s visit is expected to be relatively hassle-free. This is not Israel, an ally with a host of diplomatic sensitivities to address, nor is it China or Russia, countries that have fractious relationships with the United States.
“In London, it’s hard to fail,” said Kori Schake, a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “There’s no place easier for an American to go than Britain. The British want us to be successful; that’s the natural rhythm of the Anglo-American relationship. They’re going to try to make every presidential candidate who comes through London look good.”
Still, Christie surely remembers the troubles Mitt Romney faced in the summer of 2012 when, as the Republican Party’s presumptive presidential nominee, he visited London and insulted the British people and their leaders by publicly questioning the city’s preparedness to host the Olympic Games.
Romney’s gaffe invited London’s colorful mayor, Boris Johnson, to ridicule Romney at a rally before some 60,000 Londoners awaiting the arrival of the Olympic flame. The next day, the cover of The Sun read: “Mitt the Twit.” The moment marred the remainder of Romney’s foreign trip, which also took him to Israel and Poland in an effort to establish himself as a credible commander-in-chief.
For Christie, the U.K. trip is an opportunity to showcase his leadership abilities and to quiet any concerns that his combative nature and volatile personality might inhibit his ability to nurture diplomatic ties with allies.
“If his energy translates into a positive vision for America on the global stage, he is off to a great start,” said Michael E. O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “If it seems to translate into spitting matches with the likes of Putin and the Grand Ayatollah, then he may do less well.”
Christie is leading a delegation of New Jersey state, university and business officials, and will be accompanied by Nick Astbury, deputy consul-general and deputy head of mission from the British Consulate-General in New York, which coordinated with Christie’s team to develop his itinerary.
Christie hopes to spotlight his state’s businesses while in Britain. More than 180 New Jersey-based companies have operations here, including Johnson & Johnson, Prudential and Honeywell. Several British firms have operations in New Jersey, including BP and HSBC.
On Monday, Christie will attend a life sciences roundtable event in Cambridge and tour MedImmune, a worldwide biologics research and development arm of AstraZeneca. He also will visit Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial, which commemorates Americans who died in World War II, for a wreath-laying ceremony.
That afternoon, Christie will return to London for visits with U.S. embassy officials and with George Freeman, the parliamentary undersecretary of state for life sciences. Those will be followed by a meeting with Cameron and dinner with the prime minister’s cabinet.
Christie’s schedule on Tuesday is designed to spotlight the financial services industry and foreign investment. He has a breakfast meeting scheduled with British financial services professionals and will tour an incubator facility in London, in addition to his private lunch with Osborne.
Also Tuesday, Christie and his wife will visit Hope House charity, which helps women with substance dependence, an issue of personal importance to the governor. Aides said that Christie selected this charity, which is hosted by members of the royal family, as a sign of appreciation to Prince Harry after he visited New Jersey in May 2013 and accompanied the governor on a tour of communities impacted by Hurricane Sandy.
“The United States and our people have always had a really, really strong relationship in the United Kingdom that reflects our common language, our ideals, our democratic traditions,” Christie said.