The Complex Power of Elections on Geopolitics

With its focus on how foreign policy and domestic policy interact and how public opinion views the UK’s foreign policy, BFPG naturally takes a particular interest in elections. 2024 has plenty to offer in this regard, with elections scheduled not only in the UK, but the US, Russia, India and many other countries of great interest to the UK. To kick off the year, here are a few personal thoughts, both on how the UK election might affect British foreign policy but mostly how the complex interaction of electoral processes around the world could impact the UK. BFPG colleagues and contributors will be returning to this theme throughout 2024, as we track how elections across the world impact the UK’s global position. BFPG is non-partisan, but we welcome diverse views on all these themes.

We know that we will have an election in the UK some time during 2024, but we don’t know when. The smart money seems to be on later rather than earlier, on the grounds that a leader whose party is lagging in the polls will want to hold on as long as possible for something to come up. Eyebrows are certainly raised when a leader in this position chooses to go early. Do they know something we don’t? I was in Athens in 2009 when Costas Karamanlis called an election some six months early despite his party’s poor position. Hindsight, in the form of the debt crisis which exploded after his defeat when the incoming Government revealed the state of the country’s finances, may explain why. Whatever Rishi Sunak’s decision, we’ll no doubt hear many interpretations.

Looking at those polls, we may think we know the result, but we don’t. You only have to look back to the shock of 2017, when all the smartest experts were confident of a huge victory for Teresa May. Even if you discount such an upset this time, there are still a number of different permutations with different potential foreign policy outcomes. There would still be a big difference between a Labour Government with a landslide majority, one with a small majority (which would perhaps have little bandwidth for foreign policy, be less exciting for international partners and have Ministerial travel frustrated by tight votes) and a minority or coalition administration (the last of these on the analogy of 2015 might look more stable to international partners). If we’re trying to extrapolate how a future Government might behave, we need to consider all the possibilities.  

While we may be preoccupied with our own elections, the shadow of the US election in November is clearly the bigger geopolitical story. Attention is understandably focused on the prospect of the return of Donald Trump. But first it’s worth remembering that there’s nothing new about the potential for a US election to create instability. Even when there isn’t such a great difference between the two candidates or parties, when Washington’s attention turns to domestic concerns, there’s a risk that it takes its eyes off the international ball. Even if it doesn’t, perceptions matter and there’s a risk that other players will seek to take advantage. Russia, China, Iran and North Korea are perhaps the most obvious actors that are likely to seek to exploit US uncertainty in one way or another, but in regional crises around the world, the absence of a strong and credible US hand will be felt. The key point is that the US election effect is already very much with us.   

Each of these creates potential challenges for the UK, for security and prosperity. We haven’t even mentioned trade and the economy, already challenged by events in Ukraine and the Middle East. But also elections in the EU (for the European Parliament, followed by the appointment of a new Commission President), three East German Länder, South Africa and Pakistan, are all worth examining from the point of view of the impact on UK foreign policy.   

But clearly what happens in 2024 in the US is the most significant, both because of the US’ global role, but also because of the uncertainty factor (there seems little doubt who will win in Russia, India or Iran, for example). We should remember that we don’t in fact know who the two (main) candidates will be. Biden may in the end decide (or be forced) to withdraw, either for health reasons or under pressure from his party; Trump may be prevented from standing or be pushed aside, particularly if Biden is first replaced. Even a wild card third candidate such as Robert F Kennedy Jr could upset calculations. It may well be that today’s obsession with Trump turns out to be a red herring, but his absence from the White House doesn’t ensure a quiet life. Even without Trump, the world may well find that the next US Administration may be less committed to multilateralism in both security and trade than the present one. As for the UK, with its less than stellar success with the Biden Administration, experience suggests that the personality of the President may be as important as the complexion of the party in determining the quality of the relationship.   

But what if Trump wins? A second Presidential term is often very different from a first. There are plenty of unanswered questions – about him, as well as about the reaction of the US’ traditional allies. What has Trump learned from his first term? Would he be out for revenge? Against whom, at home or abroad? Even if he is not quite the isolationist bogeyman, it is likely that any Republican President (with the exception perhaps of Nikki Hailey) will be considerably more realist in approach, with a greater focus on US interest- rather than value- based bilateral and plurilateral relationships. Depending on your perspective, that may be no bad thing, since post-Cold War Western adventurism hardly has an unblemished success record. But where would the UK fit into such a Trump Presidency? Would his election catalyse more EU institutional integration and even a significant increase in European defence spending, or greater division? Will there be a protectionist arms race? The first challenge is that we really don’t know.

There’s no doubt that for now the shadow of a possible second Trump Presidency hangs heavy over UK foreign policy in 2024. There’s plenty for British politicians to wargame here. But one lesson is clear – however difficult in practice it may be to follow – the more British politicians refrain from expressing strong views on US candidates (even if some US candidates don’t do us the same favour), the easier the day after will be. 

Closer to home, with one important caveat, foreign policy is unlikely to be a major election issue in the UK. On most key issues, the two major parties will not want to expose substantial differences. Both remain strongly supportive of Ukraine. Absent further major developments, both will seek to remain broadly aligned with the United States on the situation in the Middle East, despite internal pressure in Labour to go further. Although Keir Starmer has positioned Labour firmly in support of NATO and strong defence (both shown to be overwhelmingly popular in our opinion surveys), neither party is likely to satisfy the defence lobby with substantial new spending or manpower commitments. Nor will Labour’s position on international development be radically different from the more forward-leaning approach recently taken by David Cameron and Andrew Mitchell, which has been broadly welcomed by the development community. On relations with the EU, the position is now more nuanced under Rishi Sunak than under his recent predecessors. Labour will certainly be seen as open to a closer relationship with Brussels, while avoiding any talk of a return to the Single Market or Customs Union, still less of “rejoin”. More broadly, a change of government will be welcome to those countries looking for a reset in their relationships with Britain (many in Europe certainly), less so to those with concerns about Labour’s instincts (India, for example).

Where does this leave those at home with an interest in our foreign policy? A new Government will have many domestic priorities and in foreign policy will often have an interest in stressing continuity. Our opinion surveys suggest that public opinion is broadly supportive of current policy on, for example, Ukraine and NATO. But there is less evidence when it comes to trade-offs: most of today’s voters have never known anything other than the “peace dividend” and, for all the political rhetoric (and worthy editorials and op-eds) on the need for more spending on defence and development, no Government is likely to move significantly towards Cold War levels of investment in the international agenda.  Where that leaves the UK’s position in the world depends as much upon what happens in elections all over the world as it does on the UK election.

I look forward to our expert contributors examining the geopolitical implications of these elections for the UK throughout 2024.

David Landsman

David is BFPG's Senior Advisor