Diplomatic Correspondent for BBC News James Landale considers the impact of US elections on the UK
DONALD TRUMP AND JOE BIDEN have different plans for the world if they win the US presidency in November. But working out what they might be is not as easy as you might imagine. When British officials assess the differing ambitions of the two men, they are challenged immediately by a difference in scale. While Mr Trump’s campaign has set out its foreign policy plans in a tight, five bullet-point paragraph, Mr Biden’s team has churned out almost 10,000 words of proposals for the world outside America’s shores. And the contrast between brevity and prolixity is matched by distinctiveness of content. These candidates are chalk and cheese when it comes to their global outlook. One is the America First president who views foreign alliances with suspicion and autocratic leaders as potential business partners. The other is a former vice-president and foreign policy professional who sees international cooperation and US leadership as the natural order of global affairs. And those differing attitudes will have a huge impact on the rest of the world, including the UK.
If Joe Biden were to win, there would be an immediate change in tone. The hostility towards international organisations would end. He is promising to invest in the State Department, repair global alliances and rejoin the US to the World Health Organisation and the United Nations Human Rights Council. The US would reaffirm its commitment to Nato. It would sign up once again to the Paris climate change accord. In other words, a president who felt like a fish out of water at global summits would be replaced by one who has long swum in those multinational seas. Above all, a Biden presidency would restore the idea that the US has at least some kind of leadership role to play in the world, one that has been visibly absent during the COVID-19pandemic.
From a British perspective that would most likely be welcome after a ragged four years when transatlantic relations have deteriorated. Mr Trump has at times accused British intelligence of spying on him, criticised the government’s Brexit negotiations and given precious little in the way of a trade deal. So, a Biden presidency could pave the way for an improvement in UK-US relations. Mr Biden’s focus on the environment might advance the chances of a deal at the COP26 climate change summit in the UK next year. His tougher approach to Russiawould match Boris Johnson’s hawkish instincts towards Moscow, forged as Foreign Secretary during the Salisbury poisoning affair in 2018. Both men agree on the need for a robust strategy towards China, but one with nuance, that challenges malign behaviour but also allows for engagement on global issues. Divisions over Iranwould become less stark as Mr Biden has promised to re-engage with the international deal that curbed Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, from which the US withdrew under Mr Trump. Mr Biden is promising to end support for the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen, something that would come as a relief to UK policymakers. So, the potential would be there for the US and the UK to re-engage once again in global alliances and multilateral institutions. Transatlantic relations would be easier, less unpredictable, potentially with fewer unexpected tweets.
That is not to say a Biden presidency would not pose some difficulties for the UK. Mr Biden is not a natural fan of Prime Minister Johnson, describing him last December as “a physical and emotional clone” of President Trump. He is strongly opposed Brexit, with his advisers seeing it as a strategic mistake and an ideological step-sister of Trump-style populism. And as someone with a strong sense of his Irish heritage, Mr Biden – like many Democrats in Congress – is concerned about the potential impact Britain’s departure from the European Union could have on Ireland’s economy and Northern Ireland’s security. Even if there is a Brexit deal, many analysts reckon a Biden presidency would inevitably shift its focus to Berlin and Paris, seeing them and the EU as America’s primary transatlantic partners. The risk for the UK is less relevance.
And what if Mr Trump were to win in November? As I said, the president is not giving many hints. It is worth setting out what the Trump campaign calls its ‘America First foreign policy’ in all its uppercase glory: “Stop Endless Wars and Bring Our Troops Home. Get Allies to Pay their Fair Share, Maintain and Expand America’s Unrivaled Military Strength, Wipe Out Global Terrorists Who Threaten to Harm Americans, Build a Great Cybersecurity Defense System and Missile Defense System.” What that means in practice is the promise of more of the same. The risk is that the international fissures of the last four years, viewed as temporary by some, would become permanent and entrenched. US withdrawal from the world would continue, the on-off personal diplomacy with autocratic leaders would continue, the aggressive economic protectionism would continue.
We should not forget that Mr Trump likes Mr Johnson personally, he is a supporter of Brexit, he loves coming to the UK to see Her Majesty the Queen, and he backed Britain strongly during the Salisbury poisonings. There is, at the very least, an existing set of relationships between British diplomats and officials within the Trump administration. So those positives, if I may call them that, would carry over into the next four years.
But some of the trends could be more negative. Trump 2.0 may well see further US detachment from Nato, with more US troops withdrawn from Europe and more rhetorical threats to the Article 5 commitment to defend allies from external threats. The divisions over Iran would run deeper, the US sanctions would bite harder and it might well prove impossible for the UK, along with Germanyand France, to save the beleaguered nuclear deal.
For all these differences between the two candidates, some long-term trends in US foreign policy will remain the same, regardless of who wins. America will continue to drift inwards, scratching its latent isolationist instincts. Mr Biden, like Mr Trump, is promising to end US involvement in what they both call “forever wars.” Would the US under Biden or Trump act if Russia intervened in Belarus, or if the Greek and Turkish navies clashed in the eastern Mediterranean? A Biden presidency might well maintain America’s current trade protectionism. The former vice president has been clear that his foreign policy must focus on improving the lives of America’s middle classes, and that means protecting jobs and fighting the tides of globalisation. Both Mssrs Trump and Biden would continue to demand that Europe pays more for its defence. The pushback against China would continue under both men with the concomitant risk of escalation.
The key point is that a new occupant of the Oval Office may not herald a return to the status quo ante. Those longing for some pre-Trump halcyon days may be disappointed. And for the UK that means a growing incentive to look for a future less dependent on the US. There has been much talk in recent months of Britain joining new alliances of like-minded, middle-sized liberal democracies – like Germany, France, Australia, Canada, Japanand South Korea. These countries could look for their own ways of tackling China without getting caught up in a global power play, of forging new coalitions of the willing to defend democratic values, to reform multinational organisations so they reflect the current world. All this could happen, regardless of who wins in November.