08 Nov What Joe Biden’s victory means for the UK & Global Britain
1. Biden’s ‘transatlantic project’ is not about the special relationship, but the UK will be a part of it.
Biden’s administration has made clear that restoring the US-EU relationship, and relations between Washington and key EU nations, such as France and Germany, will be one of its most significant priorities. They recognise that the destabilisation in the Western alliance exacerbated under Donald Trump has rendered the alliance less capable of addressing global challenges, and countering the rise of authoritarian China. While Westminster focuses specifically on the ‘special relationship’ between the UK and the US, Washington will be regarding the UK as an important, but not singular, member of the European neighbourhood and a crucial partner, alongside France and Germany, in advancing common interests.
2. It is no secret that Biden’s administration believes Brexit is a mistake, but that doesn’t mean they will marginalise the United Kingdom.
Like many of the UK’s allies, the Washington establishment was concerned about the possibility that Brexit could weaken the strategic cohesion in Europe, and precipitate a period of domestic dysfunction that sapped energy away from Britain’s capacity to lead on the world stage. Washington long saw Britain as the ‘gateway’ to Europe – a role that afforded a special degree of influence. However, they accept the decision has been made, they recognise that the UK continues to hold substantial ambitions for its Global Britain project, and hence their principal interest moving forward is to ensure that the UK and the EU work productively together.
The challenge here, of course, is that the UK Government has made clear that at least this first period of the Global Britain project is driven by a desire to ‘rebalance’ our foreign policy, pivoting away from our European neighbourhood. The US and other allies, such as Australia, will welcome the UK playing a stronger role in the Asia Pacific, but they will not want this to come at the expense of our strategic and security leadership in Europe.
3. Biden’s victory is not a game-changer for the Brexit negotiations, but it will present some challenges for the UK Government in their aftermath.
The direct impact of the outcome of the US elections on the UK-EU trade negotiations is relatively minimal. Washington, Brussels and Westminster all recognise the individual and collective benefit of a UK-EU trade deal – particularly one that facilitates a close relationship on security matters. Although much has been made of Biden’s comments in the past regarding his Irish heritage, it is important to recognise the distinction between his position as an opposition candidate and his diplomatic choices as President. His administration does not regard respect for Ireland, as an EU Member State, and the United Kingdom, as mutually exclusive – however, it is clear that, should a deal not be forthcoming, the perception of belligerence will be regarded as having been led from the UK side.
The most significant consequences of the change of power for the UK on Brexit, is the fact that Donald Trump spoke as an enthusiastic advocate for Brexit, and strengthened the UK Government narrative of sunlit uplands waiting ahead. Biden will be pragmatic, but considerably less evangelical or convinced about the Brexit dividend – precipitating moments of tension. That said, it is important to remember that the astonishing collapse in favourable UK public opinion towards the United States under Trump’s leadership has forced the UK Government to downplay the reach and impact of Donald Trump’s personal advocacy for the Brexit project, lest it became tainted by the nationalist and isolationist framing he embraces, and which this Government is at pains to avoid.
4. Biden’s victory neither imperils nor smoothly facilitates a UK-US trade deal.
There was a clear intention from the UK Government to position a United States trade deal as a key prize of the Brexit vote, and as a means of rebalancing the consequences of the friction that the UK would necessarily be imposing on its trading relationship with its largest partner, the European Union. A combination of the growing toxicity of Donald Trump’s brand with the British people, and the unexpected groundswell of concern around issues of food standards, animal welfare and environmental protections, diminished the persuasive power of a UK-US trade deal as a totem of the UK’s new independence – especially as it became clear that it could not be secured within Donald Trump’s term.
With Biden at the helm, some of the symbolic value underpinning these public anxieties are likely to diminish, as support for a US trade deal becomes decoupled from an endorsement of Donald Trump’s presidency. Biden’s commitment to action on climate change, will also help to alleviate environmental concerns. However, many of the other issues that have become obstacles to public support will continue to remain sticking points, and, having resisted calls to enshrine such protections in law, the UK Government will need to carefully manage public and industry perceptions.
5. Despite these caveats, there is no doubt that a Biden victory is the best outcome for the Global Britain project.
Although areas of tension lie ahead, principally around the UK’s choices in its relations with the European Union, there is no question at all that Joe Biden’s victory in the US elections represents an important step forward for the Global Britain project. Should Donald Trump have won a second term, the United Kingdom faced significant pressures to have to step up and assume a much more significant role in the guardianship of the liberal alliance, and the stewardship of international institutions. Although the realities of America’s domestic position and the limitations of its foreign policy mandate will necessitate the United Kingdom playing a robust and active role in global leadership, the scale of the responsibility will be tempered, as it will be shared.
In many ways, the enduring strength of the ‘special relationship’ has been exemplified under Donald Trump’s unconventional leadership, with the two nations still managing to find areas of cooperation – such as the expansion of the Magnitksy sanctions. With Biden in the White House, a host of new areas of collaboration are opened up. Climate change policy is an obvious starting point, with Biden’s team eager to re-join the Paris Climate Agreement, and Johnson committed to ensuring the UK’s hosting of the COP26 environmental summit charts an ambitious course. With America’s moral mission restored, partnerships on advancing human rights, the spread of democracy, media freedoms, and the rule of law, suddenly all become possible once more. With the UK at the helm of the G7 next year, the emphasis on our common interests, the strengthening of old alliances, and the opening up of new ones such as the D10, will conjure a tone of mutual respect and sober ambition, which has been missing in recent years.
Both nations are emerging from a period of significant domestic upheaval, and there will be significant constraints on their domestic mandates to pursue agendas of openness without also balancing these with investments in security and resilience. There will be some moments of friction in the coming years as new power dynamics evolve and the United Kingdom crystallises its new mission. Ultimately, however, both the United Kingdom and the United States understand that their individual successes and combined strength are integral to the advancement of global peace and security. With both eyes on the prize, the special relationship will earn the rights to its name.
Sophia Gaston’s recent paper on the consequences of the US elections for US foreign policy is available to download here.