As the world considers what a Joe Biden victory means for them, Anthony Gardner – former US Ambassador to the European Union and Brunswick Group Senior Advisor – looks at the future of US-UK relations and concludes that the bilateral relationship “will not only remain strong but in reality will be stronger” as sovereign interests have rarely been so aligned in a hostile world.
Recent reports in the UK media speculate that a Biden administration might be problematic and that the UK Government has been belatedly scrambling to build bridges with the new US foreign policy team. Not surprisingly, Biden’s advisors have been extremely careful to avoid the mistakes of the incoming Trump administration and have declined any discussions with foreign governments.
No doubt there is some baggage in the relationship between Number 10 and a possible Biden administration. Few will forget that the Prime Minister described Hillary Clinton as Lady Macbeth and as a “sadistic nurse in a mental hospital,” or that he ascribed President Obama’s warnings about Brexit to his “ancestral dislike of the British Empire,” or that he rushed to curry favour with President Trump after previously stating that he displayed “stupefying ignorance” that made him “unfit” to be president. Trump has reciprocated the Prime Minister’s enthusiasm by calling him “Britain Trump.”
It may puzzle some members of the incoming Biden team that some leading members of the Conservative Party considered Donald Trump’s victory to be a wonderful opportunity for the UK. Only under the narrow lens of Brexit could one arrive at this conclusion: Trump was a cheerleader whereas the Obama administration had significant concerns that Brexit would be overwhelmingly negative for the United States, Europe and even the UK itself.
But that is all water under the bridge. There is no desire to “relitigate” Brexit. It was, after all, a democratic decision taken by a sovereign state that must be respected. Judgments about the wisdom of that decision are now for the British people to make. Most importantly, it is certain that an incoming Biden administration will want the UK to thrive once it has left the EU. Unlike the Trump administration, however, a Biden administration will likely believe that all three sides of the US-UK, UK-EU and US-EU triangle are equally important and must be strong. It would be a mistake to focus exclusively on the US-UK side, as Trump has done. A Biden administration is certain to move swiftly to re-establish strong relations with the EU in line with 60 years of bipartisan US foreign policy prior to Trump.
Nearly four years into the Trump term, the judgment that Trump would be great for the UK is rather questionable. It is all very well for the president to qualify the US-UK bond as being the “highest level of special.” But viewed through the broad lens of the UK’s core foreign policy interests – including combating climate change, supporting free trade, speaking out in support of human rights, protecting the rules-based multilateral order (such as the WTO and international institutions like the WHO), supporting NATO and promoting good governance, anti-corruption and good governance (just to mention a few) – it should have been self-evident that the Trump administration’s policies would be highly problematic for the UK. Even the idea that a Trump administration would make a lot of concessions to the UK to reach a free trade agreement seems rather quaint.
In my opinion, an incoming Biden team will continue to consider the UK as a key partner that will undoubtedly “punch above its weight” in important areas, including cooperation on intelligence gathering, law enforcement and military affairs. A Biden team will very likely welcome the UK’s courageous stand on human rights, including with regard to China. By contrast, Donald Trump only started talking about human rights in China when he failed to get the trade deal he wanted. Biden has pledged to call a global Summit for Democracy early in his term to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the Free World. The summit would discuss strategies to fight corruption, defend against authoritarianism, including election security, and advance human rights. The UK can make an important contribution; as the unfortunate playing field for Russia’s campaign of political assassinations, it knows what is at stake. As the host for the 26th UN Climate Change conference in November 2021, the UK has the opportunity to work intensively with a new US administration committed to the upholding and strengthening the Paris Accords (unlike Donald Trump).
The UK will also very likely be an important partner of the United States under a Biden administration to promote free and fair trade, a reformed world trading system and rules-based multilateralism. The UK should welcome a rejection of the Trump administration’s bilateral and unilateral trade policies, including tariffs that have hit the UK, promotion of managed trade with China, and undermining of the WTO. Under a Biden administration, the US is likely to want to pursue a free trade agreement with the UK (assuming that Brexit does not lead to the erection of an inter-Irish border and the undermining of the Good Friday Accords). Moreover, the US and UK have an opportunity to work intensively together on regulating the digital economy and driving a global consensus at the OECD on international taxation of digital firms.
The reality is that there will be a great deal of alignment between an incoming Biden administration and the core interests of the United Kingdom. Of the many concerns the Obama administration had about Brexit, the main one was that the US and UK are so philosophically aligned that losing it as a member of a far larger and influential group would weaken Washington’s ability to promote its interests around the world. That is the greatest compliment I can imagine of the UK. Statements that Ireland carries more weight than the UK in Washington are exaggerations, even if Dublin has been very astute in its diplomacy.
The conclusion is rather simple: despite all the breathless speculation in the UK press, the US-UK bond will not only remain strong but in reality will be stronger – not based on facile characterizations of the bond being “the highest level of special” but in the reality that our sovereign interests have rarely been so aligned in a hostile world.
Anthony Gardner is a Senior Adviser at Brunswick Group and its Geopolitical offer, based across our London and Brussels offices. Anthony was previously the US Ambassador to the EU 2014-2017. In that capacity, he was intimately involved in the transatlantic trade negotiations, as well as data privacy, digital economy, sanctions, and energy security. He is also a Managing Partner at Brookfield Asset Management, member of the board of directors of Iberdrola S.A., and senior counsel in the law firm Sidley Austin LLP. These notes are his personal views.