The U.S. election is weeks away and the doomsayers for the U.K.’s relationship with a post-Trump America are out in force. Joe Biden is “an Irish-American with no particular love for Boris Johnson or Brexit Britain,” thundered a Times of London column last week. Other Conservative voices predict that a Democrat victory would be disastrous for the Brits and would end the special relationship.
It’s fashionable to caricature Johnson as a populist mini-Trump, but Biden’s experienced foreign policy team will - fortunately - have a more sophisticated view. The prospects for a continuing partnership between the two old allies are bright enough, although an olive branch needs to come from London.
If Americans choose President Biden on Nov. 3, the British must engage actively with a Democrat White House. There would be pluses in dealing with an administration that repledges its support to the “alphabet” organizations such as NATO, the UN, the WHO and, yes, the EU. And there would be negatives, too.
The most likely damage would be to hopes for a quick U.S.-U.K. trade agreement — the centerpiece of Johnson’s foreign trade policy. A Democrat negotiating team would have different priorities. Labor standards and environmental issues would loom much larger.
But do not underestimate the allure of a return to diplomatic business across the Atlantic after the sulks and bust-ups of the past four years (which cost the U.K. an ambassador to Washington when Kim Darroch had to resign after the leak of a cable pillorying Trump).
The course of a truly special relationship never did run smooth and the view of Johnson and Trump as conjoined populists is far from the whole story. Though he’s an avowed admirer of the U.K. (at least when it comes to Queen Elizabeth II and Scottish golf courses), Trump clashed with London over Iran and browbeat his ally about trade with China. A U.S. representative recently warned the Brits agai
Of course, Biden would have preferred the U.K. to stay inside the European Union as a natural “hinge” between the two giant economic blocs on either side of the Atlantic. He’s bound to be warmer toward Brussels. If a victorious Biden met Angela Merkel
or Emmanuel Macron before Johnson, it would be seen as a snub. But London has cards to play in a longer game.
There was similar angst when George Bush Senior seemed to make German Chancellor Helmut Kohl his preferred European partner rather than Prime Minister John Major. But Bush turned to Britain when he needed a diplomatic and military ally in the first Gulf War. A natural hawk, Biden understands the value of such commitments. Even under surefooted Merkel, Germany has drifted away from outright loyalty to NATO. The relationship between the U.S., France and the U.K. has become militarily more significant than at any time since the Cold War.
Ireland and the status of the post-Brexit border with Northern Ireland is admittedly a potential stumbling block. Biden makes much of his Irish ancestry on his mother’s side. A Democrat administration, according to the pessimists, would defer to the Irish lobby in Congress on the border disputes. Even this is time-limited, however. “At the end of the day the U.K. is more important to America than Ireland,” says Lewis Lukens, a former senior U.S. diplomat in London.
But the responsibility falls on the Brits to make the relationship flourish. The Covid
-19 crisis will preoccupy the president and the White House will have limited bandwidth for foreign liaisons. The strong ties between the two countries’ intelligence, military and diplomatic bureaucracies will help. The chiefs of staff stay in close personal contact (often sharing eyerolling moments about Trump).
Karin von Hippel, the American head of Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, reckons the Biden team “will show a bit of humility post-Trump after the disrespect shown to [Justin] Trudeau, Merkel and [Theresa] May. They believe in partnership and getting global order back. Britain has always had an opportunity to influence that.”
A couple of years ago I heard Biden address a dinner party in London to honor Senator John McCain’s widow, Cindy. His views struck me as sharply hawkish on the Russia threat and the desire to project American values as a force for good. The real question is whether Johnson’s government has the appetite to engage. Conservative prime ministers from Churchill onward have put their personal stamp on foreign policy and looked at the bigger geopolitical picture. Johnson needs to do similar, and make his priorities clear. If his talk about “Global Britain” is more than just marketing, he must communicate that to fellow leaders.
Britain’s permanent position on the UN Security Council, military assets and foreign-aid network give it heft. Aligning with a new president’s favored projects can also be fruitful. The U.K. next year hosts a delayed international conference on climate change. A Biden administration would probably reverse Trump’s hostility to the Paris Agreement, so Johnson should trumpet his green credentials. His government inherits a strong environmental agenda from former Prime Minister David Cameron.
The U.K. also assumes the presidency of the G7 in 2021 and the threat from Moscow still looms large. May, another Johnson predecessor, successfully sought allied support after the Russian poisoning of Sergei Skripal on British soil. Sanctions have been placed on Vladimir Putin’s circle in concert with America. Johnson should work with any Biden administration to stiffen the spines of Nato allies.
American and European positions on Iran and China need reconciling too after the noisy disagreements with Trump. London could lead the charge. These gambits, not Brexit irritations or nitpicking discussions about “the special relationship,” are what count. If Johnson has the will, the U.K.’s strategic assets can provide the way.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Martin Ivens was editor of the Sunday Times from 2013 to 2020 and was formerly its chief political commentator. He is a director of the Times Newspapers board.