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The orderly way in which the US elections were conducted and concluded matters to the UK. The peaceful transition of power that is now under way has confounded the pundits, within the US and internationally, who had filled our inboxes with predictions of dictatorship or civil war.
The strength of democracies is not that they are incapable of making errors – they do so in abundance. But their corrective mechanisms are stronger and they can reverse missteps more rapidly than in states where the leader’s word cannot be questioned without serious risk to life and limb. Even before the transition has properly begun, American soft power – the attractiveness of its way of life to others – has been strengthened by this election.
Back to the Mainstream
The Joe Biden presidency provides an opportunity to reverse the damage that has been done to key international institutions by the slash-and-burn approach of President Donald Trump. Whether this opportunity is grasped will depend on the US’s allies as much as it does on America itself. Set against the prospect of a second Trump term doubling down on ‘America First’ nationalism, however, the leaders of Europe’s democracies can be forgiven a heartfelt sigh of relief before getting back to work.
The top priority for international cooperation will be the global climate emergency. The EU and the UK government both see this as the central security threat of our time but have struggled to build a critical international mass of support while the US persisted with its anti-scientific approach. Now Europe and the US can work together to shape wider international climate efforts, starting with the COP summit in Glasgow in 2021.
In a similar vein, it now seems certain that the US will rescind its decision to withdraw from the World Health Organization, engage more constructively with the World Trade Organization, and reaffirm its longstanding security guarantees to its NATO allies. There will also be opportunities in other areas where international cooperation is inadequate – for example, in relation to organised crime and corruption, the impact of new technologies, the governance of cyberspace, and post-pandemic debt relief for the poorest states. As an outward-looking middle power with a strong interest in effective multilateralism, an increased American interest in such an agenda will be very welcome to the UK.
Yet perhaps the most reassuring prospect as a result of a Biden presidency is that it promises to be less unpredictable and more consultative than has been the case for the last four years. The character of the US president matters most to the rest of the world during major international crises. President John F Kennedy’s decisions during the Berlin and Cuba stand-offs helped steer the world through the most dangerous period of the Cold War confrontation. President George W Bush’s reaction to the 9/11 attacks was to shape the Middle East for decades thereafter.
By comparison, much of the underlying unease about President Trump’s character has stemmed from concern about how he would wield the untrammelled power of the presidency on matters of war and peace. In practice, his record in this regard has been better than some had feared. He declined to initiate major conflicts with North Korea or Iran, despite the urging of some of his more hawkish advisors. Yet his administration’s unwillingness to consult key allies before making major foreign policy decisions – and the chaotic nature of decision-making within the White House – was such that US allies were never entirely reassured. The US and its allies will differ on key issues in the future, as they have done in the past. But the hope, and expectation, is that Biden will bring a more predictable and consultative approach to crisis management.
Rebuilding Bridges across the Channel
Many of Biden’s advisers are not fans of Brexit, viewing it through the prism of their own experience of nationalist populism over the last four years. This perception has been reinforced by Trump’s past encouragement for Brexit and his clear antipathy for the EU. The prospect that Brexit could undermine the Good Friday agreement, together with the UK government’s stated willingness to break international law, has added fuel to this broader concern.
On this issue, therefore, the UK has work to do. A Biden presidency makes it even more important that the special status for Northern Ireland that has been agreed with the EU, and which was enshrined in the 2019 Withdrawal Agreement, will continue to be respected by the UK.
A Biden presidency also strengthens the case for the UK to prioritise the need for a broader post-Brexit engagement with the EU on foreign and security policy. If the UK wants to be one of the main ‘bridges’ between Europe and the US on international affairs, the onus will be on the UK to show that it is making every effort to repair the European arch of that bridge. Some modest steps in this direction – an information-sharing security agreement, mutual secondments of diplomatic and intelligence personnel, regular post-Brexit meetings with senior Ministers and officials – could help to create the atmosphere for doing so.
Plus Ça Change
In other respects, it is harder to predict what difference a Biden presidency will make.
There may be less willingness to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses by traditional allies such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey. But the US has strong interests at stake in its relationships with these states, and it will be reluctant to drive them into the embrace of China or Russia. Even if the rhetoric is different, therefore, transactional pragmatism is likely to prevail.
Similarly, a return to the era of regime-change interventions does not appear likely. It would be wrong to rule out a major shock (like 9/11) overturning current expectations. In this regard, however, a Biden administration is likely to recognise that there are no credible military options for ‘resolving’ the problems posed by North Korea, Iran or other so-called ‘rogue’ states.
On Russia, the new administration seems set to authorise the extension of the New START treaty on strategic nuclear weapons, provided that Russia is also willing to extend the treaty without conditions. But nuclear treaties are no longer the main mechanism for improving relations with Russia, if they ever were. If change in the relationship is to occur, it can only be as a result of Russia’s realisation that both its strategy and its tactics – including its support for Trump’s election in 2016 – are increasingly counterproductive, and have served to strengthen, not weaken, Western solidarity. One day, the Russia government may calculate that it needs better relations with the US and Europe to protect its own interests. Until then, the Biden administration seems set to provide the strong, but calm, reassurance that has been at the heart of the US’s commitment to NATO since 1949.
The Middle East preserves its capacity to shock. The restoration of the nuclear deal with Iran may help keep a lid on its nuclear programme for now. But the wider picture is that, across the region, Western power to shape events is fading as the main regional powers – Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the UAE and Egypt – become increasingly willing to take risks, and adopt tactics, that neither the US nor its European allies are prepared to countenance. Even Russia (famously adept at economy-of-force interventions in recent years) is now facing concerted push back from Turkey in Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh.
In this increasingly crowded regional environment, a Biden administration seems likely to pick its fights as carefully as has President Trump, with the use of lethal force still largely confined to operations against terrorist organisations that threaten the Western world.
If this is the direction the US takes, it would suit the Johnson administration in the UK well. Johnson is determined to ensure that the UK's foreign policy remains ambitious and global. The primary driver for Global Britain remains an economic one. In the end, though, events will determine whether the US gets involved in major conflicts over the next four years, and whether or not the UK follows it.
The Big Issue
The biggest foreign policy question for the Biden administration will be the future of the relationship with China. The appearance of a broad Washington consensus on the need for a more assertive approach hides differences on a range of issues. And the ability of the new administration to develop a coherent way forward will be further complicated if, as expected, the Republicans retain their Senate majority. The UK and its European allies, for their part, will be arguing for a shared approach to China with the US which manages the changing balance of international power while also seeking to ensure that China bears its share of responsibility for international cooperation in areas – such as climate security, global health and international finance – where its role is vital. The UK, with its depth of defence, diplomatic and development commitments across Asia and Africa, should have much to offer in helping to shape this massive agenda.
Even if most of the US’s allies are now breathing a sigh of relief, the memory of the last four years will not easily be forgotten. They have been awakened to possibilities which would previously have been unthinkable. As long as the basic contours of US politics remain unchanged, its friends must reckon with the possibility of another populist Republican coming to power in 2024 or 2028. The arc of history, in relation to the strength of Western cooperation, seems likely to be distinctly wobbly for some time to come.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of Gage Skidmore