LONDON — If Joe Biden wins on Tuesday, corks will pop in many European capitals. In London, it will be time to go to work.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has more ground to make up than most in the international race to be Biden’s No. 1 international ally, a station long-desired (and sometimes occupied) by British prime ministers. The prime minister’s association with Brexit — which Biden strongly opposed — his warm words for Donald Trump, and his past comments about some of Biden’s closest political allies don’t position him well.
Domestically, that threatens to become a headache. The opposition Labour Party’s Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy told POLITICO that Johnson and his government had “needlessly and repeatedly created tension with the Democrats” — her words a sign that Labour spies a potential weak spot should Biden win, and Johnson fail to strike up a good partnership with him.
More positively, the U.K. — about to become G7 president, due to hold the UN Security Council presidency in February and hosting the COP26 climate conference in December 2021 — will have ample opportunities in the first 12 months of a Biden administration to demonstrate that, despite Brexit, its broader foreign policy goals fit hand in glove with Biden’s own.
U.K. officials have struggled, like all diplomats, to gain access to Biden’s inner circle (the Democrat’s campaign has observed strict rules over meeting foreign officials to avoid any suggestion of outside influence following the scandal over Russian interference to boost Trump last time around).
But they remain confident that longstanding ties with Democrats on Capitol Hill, not to mention a dormant Democratic foreign policy establishment currently plying their trade at think tanks and in academia, will help them persuade an incoming Biden administration that there remains more to Britain than Brexit.
Here’s how Johnson’s administration might assess some of the key challenges it faces building bridges with a Biden White House:
The Brexit + Boris factor
U.K. officials deny the government’s Brexit priorities — and the identity of the prime minister — have left British diplomats scrambling to get to know Team Biden.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told BBC Radio 4’s “Today” program on Friday that “contrary to some of the reporting,” the U.K. was having “conversations on both sides of the political divide” and was “exceptionally well placed … to make sure that whoever is in the White House that the relationship between Britain and the United States will thrive.”
But officials also acknowledge privately what observers outside government state plainly: Biden deeply regrets the U.K.’s exit from the EU — and he might not immediately warm to Johnson either.
“The Biden team will not have forgotten the rudeness shown by Boris Johnson towards Obama and Hillary Clinton,” said Peter Westmacott, the U.K.’s ambassador to the U.S. from 2012 to 2016. Johnson suggested the “part-Kenyan” former president had an “ancestral dislike” of the British empire, and once compared Clinton to a “sadistic mental health nurse.”
“They continue to believe Brexit was an unnecessary mistake, and have some difficulty understanding why the last two British prime ministers have rated Trump so highly,” Westmacott continued. However, he said, while the two international agendas won’t align on everything, Biden may see Johnson as a “natural ally” on several fronts.
“On Iran nuclear, the unfinished business of Iraq and Afghanistan, dealing with Putin, strengthening rather than weakening NATO, climate change, trade policy and seeking a more international approach to managing the rise of China, there is plenty of scope for working together, should the U.K. rediscover an interest in foreign policy,” Westmacott said.
Much will depend on whether Britain strikes a deal with the EU on a free-trade agreement that would negate the need for Johnson’s Internal Market Bill, currently going through parliament, which the EU says (and U.S. Democrats agree) could undermine the Good Friday Agreement and destabilize the island of Ireland.
“The personal relationship between Biden and Johnson will be the difficult one,” said former U.K Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind. “Biden will be a bit stiff to start off with. He will have doubts about Johnson, not just about policy but about the person. Biden is deep, deep Irish-American and therefore a bit untrusting of any British politicians with a track record on Ireland; and Johnson unfortunately has created a track record.”
But, Rifkind added, a serious disagreement on one issue would not be enough to derail the whole relationship. “[Margaret] Thatcher, I saw first hand, having direct, very deep disagreements with Ronald Reagan over nuclear weapons policy and the invasion of Grenada. John Major, when I was defense secretary and then foreign secretary, had deep disagreements with Clinton over Bosnia.”
“Biden, whatever doubts he has about Johnson personally, is long in the tooth,” Rifkind said, and like those predecessors would recognize that despite not seeing eye to eye on everything, the U.K. is a unique friend to have in Europe.
“If the U.K. is not the U.S.’s closest global ally, who is? It can’t be Germany because Germany, while much more important on economic issues, has no military capability, no intelligence excellence of the kind we have in the Five Eyes agreement … It can’t be France; all French presidents since De Gaulle have tried to distance themselves from the U.S. and say that America must not become too involved in European affairs. Biden knows all that.”
NATO and the new security
Douglas Lute, a retired U.S. army general who served as ambassador to NATO under Obama from 2013 to 2017, agreed that common interests and military and intelligence ties should not be underestimated when rating the strength of the U.S.-U.K. relationship under a potential Biden administration.
“I anticipate U.S.-U.K. ties will be as tight as ever, despite the impact of Brexit,” he said. “Close ties among the military and intelligence communities will persist, even if there are political differences on specific topics … The two nations are so closely aligned with common interests, common history and common values.”
The old alliance would need to evolve, however, Lute said, to adapt to the security threats of 2021, not least the two big themes for international action next year: pandemic disease and climate change.
Biden would want to “refresh” U.S. relations with allies but also “ask more” of them, Lute predicted, “including a renewed emphasis on democratic values and the reimagining of national security to include such challenges as pandemics, climate and cyber.”
The U.K., as one of only 10 NATO countries spending the target 2 percent of GDP on defense, is likely to be in Biden’s good books on that score, believes Kim Darroch, U.K ambassador to the U.S. from 2016 to 2019. He told Spectator TV earlier this month that “repairing the damage to NATO” would be one of Biden’s top two European priorities, alongside repairing relations with the EU. While the latter carries the risk that the U.K. — outside the EU tent — becomes a bystander on an international stage dominated by the great powers, the NATO contributions factor “is going to be an important calling card for us with the administration,” Darroch predicted.
Lute agrees. “A Biden administration will expect the U.K. to sustain this defense commitment while also playing a leading political role in redefining security to account for new challenges,” he said. “NATO needs to be both more cohesive and more relevant, and the U.K. can play a major role.”
Climate and COVID
In one respect, the U.K. has been dealt a good hand in 2021 if it wants to show willing and support Biden’s professed foreign policy goals of renewing alliances between democracies, strengthening international institutions within the UN and taking action on climate change.
London holds the rotating presidency of the G7 next year, and British officials see an opportunity to align Johnson’s embryonic idea of a expanded “D10” group of democratic allies — G7 nations plus three others, potentially India, South Korea and Australia — with Biden’s plan for a “summit for democracy” early in his term.
Meanwhile, the U.K. holds the rotating presidency of the United Nations Security Council in February, which would be Biden’s first full month in office. At the UN, British officials are keen to highlight the U.K.’s strengths on development and international health policy, particularly its role in the international WHO-backed COVAX program that is seeking to ensure poorer countries get fair access to COVID-19 vaccines (an enterprise Trump has shunned). Biden, who has vowed to restore U.S. leadership in international health and aid, will — British officials hope — see the U.K. as a useful lieutenant in such efforts.
Finally, the U.K. hosts the COP26 UN climate summit in November 2021. With Biden vowing to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement on his first day in office and to put the U.S. on the road to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, some spy an opportunity for Johnson to play his right-hand man in drumming up ambitious carbon-cutting pledges from countries around the world.
“It’s one of the few areas where the U.K. has global influence that the U.S. [under Biden] would want to align with,” said Nick Mabey, CEO of the E3G climate think-tank.
Here again, the U.K can make a virtue of being a model global citizen, Mabey believes. “Part of making COP26 work is making countries feel that they’re being helped in dealing with the damages of climate change,” he said. “The U.S. through its aid arm could make a big difference there and that’s another area where the U.K and the U.S. could work together very closely — a really important part of a successful COP.”
There is, however, a risk that any leading role Johnson might have wanted to play in climate diplomacy in 2021 gets completely overshadowed should the U.S. have a president fiercely pursuing the same agenda.
“Biden has already set out a very ambitious agenda on climate both at home and abroad and would obviously galvanise the international system,” said one U.K. official. “The challenge will be for the U.K. to show we’re a real partner and can work with them on driving success into COP26, rather than just a bystander to any progress made.”
Don’t forget trade
Amidst it all, the U.K. is still hoping to seal a post-Brexit free-trade agreement with the U.S.
The key concern for London is not so much that Biden won’t want to do a trade agreement, it’s whether he’ll devote sufficient time and political impetus to the process to wrap it up before a looming deadline.
In July 2021, the president’s ability to negotiate “fast-track” trade deals — requiring Congress to say “yes or no,” rather than have detailed input — expires. When this “Trade Promotion Authority” (TPA) ends, Congress’s next priority will be renewing it, something that in the past has taken years of wrangling and would likely place negotiations on ice. The real deadline by which negotiations need to be effectively completed — given the TPA requires the U.S. Trade Representative to give Congress 90 days notification in order to sign a deal — is April 1.
“Generally, it’s questionable whether Biden will be as focussed on trade policy or trade deals as Trump has been,” said Stephen Booth, head of the Policy Exchange think tank’s Britain in the World project and author of a report on the U.S. deal. “It’s fair to say that Biden is unlikely to attach the same importance or urgency to a U.K. deal as Trump. Biden might also make more of repairing the U.S.’s political relationship with the EU in the first instance.”
Should negotiations continue in earnest — and, should he win, U.K. officials will be closely watching to see how quickly Biden appoints a trade representative (which often takes time) — the main sticking points, namely around U.S. food exports, will be the same, Booth expects.
“Agricultural market access is a bipartisan U.S. interest,” he said. Some U.K. officials anticipate a Biden administration will also place greater emphasis on labor and environmental protections, but are confident this won’t prove a stumbling block.
In the longer-term, Booth said, there is a chance Biden will embrace the idea of rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, something which the U.K. is also keen to join in its current revised form and renamed the “Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership” (CPTPP.) “This would present another route to a U.K.-U.S. trade deal,” Booth said.
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