British Prime Minister Boris Johnson staked his career on betting against the European Union and won. It might seem obvious which candidate he would be likely to support in the upcoming U.S. election: President Trump is the self-proclaimed “Mr. Brexit” who compares his own unexpected path to victory in 2016 to the British wave that eventually washed Johnson into 10 Downing Street.
Then there’s Joe Biden. The former vice president is no Mr. Brexit. His old boss, former president Barack Obama, criticized the Brexit vote. In response, Johnson wrote a column claiming Obama’s “ancestral dislike of the British” was due to his “part-Kenyan” heritage. Last month, adding to Westminster’s worries, Biden broke a lengthy period of silence on Brexit to offer support for Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement.
Critics warned that Johnson’s hard negotiating stance on Brexit risked violating the U.S.-backed Northern Ireland peace accord, resulting in a hard Irish border and a possible return of violence. Biden delivered a stark message: A potential U.S.-U.K. trade deal, a top aim for Johnson, “must be contingent upon respect for the Agreement. Period.”
That hardly means most in the British government would welcome a Trump win. Current and former officials in Washington and London caution that private negotiations are more complex than the public Trump and Johnson bromance would suggest. But a Biden presidency may not be a perfect match either. The special relationship is in a complicated stage of development.
“The U.S. and the U.K. have always had policy disagreements. But there’s been so many of them — on really important issues — over the last four years,” Lew Lukens, a former acting U.S. ambassador to Britain, told Today’s WorldView.
Trump attaches special value to the transatlantic partnership. Before entering politics, he had ties to the British isles through his Scottish-born mother, and owned golf courses in Scotland. As president, he welcomed Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, as his first visitor to the White House and visited Britain three times in four years.
For Britain, it looked like a spot of luck: A tighter relationship with the United States could negate some of the economic disarray caused by Brexit and boost a “Global Britain” brand. Trump wanted bilateral free-trade deals, and a speedy U.S.-U.K. free-trade agreement would leave a potential E.U.-U.S. deal, which fell through during the Obama administration, in the dust.
Kim Darroch, a former British ambassador to the United States, told Today’s WorldView in September that Johnson’s government appeared “very confident, pre-pandemic, that Trump would win” and finalize a trade deal. Lukens, who left the State Department last year and now works for Signum Global Advisors, said he expected a deal to be reached next year if Trump is reelected.
Even if a Trump administration moves quickly, the deal comes with a lot of baggage. Potential concessions related to U.S. agricultural products are unpopular in Britain. Trump’s negative ratings in Britain — a recent poll showed only a third of supporters of the Brexit Party have a positive view of “Mr. Brexit” — would make such concessions harder to justify.
“It’s terribly, terribly fraught, really in either administration, but more fraught I think in the Trump administration,” said Jeremy Shapiro, formerly a member of the State Department’s policy planning staff and now the research director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, adding that Trump would seek to exploit Britain’s “incredibly weak position.”
Though Biden’s recent comments on the Irish border grabbed attention in Britain, it is the same line that the Trump administration takes. Irish Ambassador Dan Mulhall said in an interview that the Good Friday Agreement had bipartisan support in Congress and that the administration had “repeatedly indicated to us that they are very supportive of the peace process.”
There’s still plenty of room for disagreement. British figures like May and Darroch have already found it is easy to fall out of Trump’s good favor. On foreign policy issues from the Iran nuclear deal to a global digital tax to coordinated diplomatic response to Russia, Britain has already found itself battling a disinterested or even oppositional U.S. president.
Biden and Britain
On these big issues, a Biden presidency may be more of a match for Britain. The Democratic candidate’s views of major rivals, like Russia and China, is in line with Johnson’s government, and Biden has suggested he would “rejoin the [Iran nuclear] agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations.”
Biden has also pledged to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement — a move that would be cheered by Johnson’s government, which next year hosts the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland.
For Johnson, the COP26 will be an opportunity to promote the idea of a “Global Britain.” A British official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to comment on the election, said the government saw next year’s event and a smaller online meeting in December as a “huge opportunity to showcase what the U.K. can do in terms of bringing the world together to make a difference on something that’s really important.” Trump, of course, is not expected to attend.
But this “Global Britain” looks increasingly ambitious after the economic damage wrought by Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic. Britain is due to undergo a defense spending review next year and, though the country has been hitting the 2 percent gross domestic spending commitment for NATO allies — a favorite topic for Trump — a crunch is likely to lead to some loss of some military capabilities.
A U.S.-U.K. free-trade agreement might ease the economic pains. British officials are confident that under a Biden administration those trade talks would resume. The British official said it was important to remember that Britain is the “main overseas investor in most states in the U.S. and responsible for countless American jobs,” even in states run by Democrats.
But negotiations with a Biden administration may proceed slowly and Britain may run into the same issues it has with Trump. “I think [Biden’s] priority may be to restore and repair relations with Europe,” Darroch said last month, suggesting that an E.U. trade deal could take precedence.
Johnson’s government may view that as a snub. Still, while a Biden win may result in a lower-profile transatlantic affair, after Brexit, Trump and the coronavirus, many Brits would welcome a stable relationship.
If you really look closely, most overnight successes took a long time.