Britain last under Biden?

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By Saksha Menezes |

In a recent BBC broadcast, a reporter asked Joe Biden for a comment for the BBC and Biden responded that ‘I’m Irish’. This clip potentially sets a precedent for Biden’s attitude towards the UK and the next 4 years. 

The election of Joe Biden as President-elect of the United States poses significant problems for Boris Johnson and his government. Significant diplomatic work needs to be done if they are to maintain the ‘special relationship’. 

Sign at a protest in London | Jannes Van den wouwer/unsplash

The ‘special relationship’ is the unofficial term used to describe the political, diplomatic, cultural, economic, military and historical relations between the US and the UK, first popularised in a speech made by Winston Churchill in 1946. As close allies during many conflicts in the 20th and 21st centuries, the level of cooperation in trade and commerce, military planning, execution of military operations, nuclear weapons technology, and intelligence sharing has been described as ‘unparalleled’ among major world powers. 

Trump and Johnson were seen as having an overall warm relationship with one another. In the run up to the 2019 general election campaign, Trump actively supported Johnson and the Conservative Party, declaring Johnson a ‘Good man. He’s tough and he’s smart. They’re saying ‘Britain Trump.’ They call him ‘Britain Trump’ and there’s people saying that’s a good thing.’ 

Under Donald Trump, Britain was a priority. Trump had talked up a free trade deal between the two countries, claiming the ‘special relationship’ fostered between the UK and the US for more than half a century would put Britain firmly at the ‘front of the queue’, in stark contrast to Barack Obama’s view that Brexit would put UK ‘back of the queue’ for any trade deal. 

Darren Halstead/Unsplash

Under Joe Biden, there is speculation that this will likely be a different story. The two men have never met and there are numerous examples of resentment between them with Biden calling Johnson the ‘physical and emotional clone’ of Donald Trump. 

Especially with Britain’s exit from the European Union on the horizon, there are significant political differences. Biden and his team have expressed that they think Brexit is a historic mistake. They would not want Britain to leave the EU without a trade deal, especially if that would involve breaking commitments made in the Northern Ireland protocol. In a tweet, Biden expressed that a future US-UK trade deal is dependent on the UK not unravelling the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland. The UK government’s proposed Internal Market Bill threatens to break Northern Ireland protocol which could lead to an imposition of a physical customs border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The reintroduction of borders is a fear of many politicians in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, fearing a return to the dark days of the Troubles. 

There is a further expectation that Biden wants to repair transatlantic relationships and focus more on Paris and Berlin rather than London and even when Biden pays attention to the UK, he is likely to pressure Johnson to repair its relations with the EU. Speaking at a Chatham House talk in October 2018, Mr Biden spoke about how US interests in the UK had ‘diminished’ following Brexit. 

However, it is important to not overstate the significance of past comments or personal issues. Mr Biden and the Biden-Harris administration is likely to be one based on pragmatism and will be a more stable and predictable ally to the UK than Trump. 

Trump’s ‘America First’ policy will be replaced by one that recognises America’s place in a multilateral, international system which the UK is part of. In fact, there are many issues where Mr Biden’s views align significantly with the UK’s. For example, being tough on Russia, reviving the Iran nuclear deal, combatting human rights abuses in China and elsewhere, agreeing on new carbon emission reduction targets. 

However, Biden’s priorities will be overwhelmingly domestic – focusing on the US economy and the COVID crisis. Relations with the UK and a possible free trade deal will not be a top priority. It is unlikely that the US will return to the interventionism of the past and post-Brexit, the UK might have to forge a new place in the world which does not automatically follow US foreign policy.