In one week, the American people will go to the polls to vote in the Presidential election. That is, if they haven’t already. In this Covid-plagued year, nearly 60 million Americans have already voted. According to the U.S. Elections Project, that is more than 43% of the total number of voters from 2016.
Therefore, even if there is a very late ‘October Surprise’, or a monumental shift in public opinion, nearly half of the expected electorate are already locked into their choice. This is particularly relevant, perhaps, in the so-called Swing States. Again, measured against 2016 turnout, nearly 60% of Floridians have already voted, as have 40% of Michigan voters. Though more of a Democratic hope than anything, 80% of Texans have returned their ballots.
There is ongoing debate as to who this surfeit of early voting will favour, but no matter the outcome, there is no question that the next four years will be vital in the US-UK relationship.
The Politics of People
Politics is often down to personality, and the ‘Special Relationship’ between the UK and the US is usually underpinned by interpersonal ties. While Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were closely aligned, there was always a degree of frostiness between Theresa May and Donald Trump, for example. So far, Trump and Boris Johnson have appeared relatively close. Though it has become commonplace to treat 45’s comments with caution, Trump described the latter as ‘a great guy’ at the start of October, having previously called him ‘Britain Trump’, while Johnson has been keen to underline this personal connection.
Though Johnson, during his tenure as Mayor of London, previously suggested that Trump’s “stupefying ignorance” made him “frankly unfit to be President of the United States,” the Prime Minister has since been a determined supporter of the President. The reason for this is that an expansive, favourable Free Trade Agreement with the United States has long being the Holy Grail for Brexiteers, and the cornerstone of Johnson’s post-Brexit optimism. Trump may be an unpredictable politician, but he likes Johnson, and the thinking goes that he will deliver a more satisfying FTA.
If Trump is a politically unpredictable ally, then Joe Biden is a more politically predictable sceptic. Johnson and Biden would make an odd couple. While the Americans pride the ‘folksiness’ which Joe Biden so easily conveys, Johnson has always adopted a preppy optimism. But as Sir Christopher Meyer, the UK’s ambassador to the US at the turn of the 21st century concluded: “The Democrats think Boris is a pea from the same pod as Trump.”
This, coupled with Biden’s well-documented scepticism of Brexit, suggests the relationship may be a tricky one to handle. The former Chancellor, George Osborne, has even suggested that No.10 is currently “frantically repositioning” to account for a Biden win, with the Financial Times also reporting a profound concern over the Foreign Office’s complete lack of contact with Biden’s team in the run up to the election. Clearly, the ‘Special Relationship’ would be more cordial under Biden’s tenure.
The Art of the Trade Deal
The elephant in the room over the next four years will be a trade agreement between the US and the UK. At the start of 2020, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said he was optimistic a bilateral agreement could be reached by the end of the year, but that has not (yet) come to pass. While the Conservatives may instinctively prefer to have Trump as a deal-maker, it will likely come at a price.
The United States’ negotiating objectives, published in February 2019, included the removal of non-tariff barriers on chlorine-treated chicken, genetically modified crops and hormone-treated meat. More so, the US will push for full market access for American pharmaceutical products and medical devices. The test for Johnson’s Government will be the extent to which they are willing to put their trust in consumer choice, thereby ‘giving’ the US ground in trade talks, but not necessarily advocating ‘lower’ standards in the UK internal market.
The hope is that Trump, himself a vocal critic of the EU, would make a deal with the UK a priority, in turn providing momentum to the UK’s post-Brexit future. This runs counter to the caution being urged by Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and other leading Democrats. In keeping with his view of foreign policy, Biden will not want to be seen to be rewarding separatism from the EU. More so, he has said that trade talks with the UK will be “contingent” on respect for the Good Friday Agreement. This points towards a slow, methodical FTA which would cost the UK a huge amount of political capital to facilitate.
All Around the World
Strangely, it is in some areas of Foreign Policy that there is perhaps the thinnest blue sky between Trump and Biden. Both, for example, are aiming to be resolute in America’s stance against China. The Republican is looking to be more atavistic, while the Democrat’s call for a collaborative approach with allies may augur well for the UK. More so, Trump has long wanted to call time on “endless wars” in the Middle East, even if there are more than 5,000 American troops still in Afghanistan. Biden is similarly cautious, in turn advocating for narrow objectives in the use of force. Clearly, both sides of the Atlantic have been chastened by disastrous interventions in the Middle East over the past 20 years and more.
The differences emerge when looking at Russia, among others. Biden has said that the country is “assaulting the foundations of Western democracy”, while Trump is more cordial with Russian President Vladimir Putin while denying all allegations of collusion. Though Boris Johnson has been reluctant to openly accuse Russia, the Foreign Office more broadly has been putting in place sanctions. While there have been asset freezes and travel bans placed on those responsible for the Novichok poisoning of Alexey Navalny, and support for a Magnitsky Act in the UK, a Biden Presidency would likely push the UK Government into a more vocal stance against the cyber-security threats which Russia pose in particular.
The final point in which there is a genuine difference is over climate change. Though outwardly rejecting the much-vaunted Green New Deal, Biden has said climate change poses an existential threat, and has drawn up his own $2 trillion Biden Plan. As part of this, he would re-enter the US into the Paris Climate Accords and look to lead international efforts to curb emissions. Though less aggressive than the ‘Far Left’ proposals, Biden’s platform looks to create millions of ‘Green’ jobs and move the US closer to a carbon-free future. In this, Biden’s plans mirror the Johnson Government’s climate agenda, and run counter to Trump’s well documented climate scepticism.
The difference between a continuation of Trump’s tenure and a Biden presidency is likely to be stark for the UK. While Trump may cleave to the UK as its strongest partner in Europe, Biden is much more likely to see the UK as just one of several key, strategic partners. With a Free Trade Agreement on the table, as well as the climate crisis and looming challenges with Russia and China, the ‘Special Relationship’ may be placed under more strain then ever.