Biden’s Triple Challenge for British Foreign Policy
Updated: Dec 3, 2020
by Denisa Delic
As November 3rd approaches, there has been increasing discussion about what the outcome of the US election will mean for British foreign policy. With Biden leading national presidential polls to become America’s 46th President, the question on everyone’s mind in the UK is: what will a Biden presidency mean for Britain’s foreign policy?
The long held view is that a Biden presidency means America will return to ‘business as usual,’ including viewing the ‘special relationship’ with Britain as a key priority. Yet this view fails to capture the changes and nuances that the Biden camp have clearly signaled.
To be clear, a President Biden will certainly break away from the current Trump administration’s ‘America First’ policies and return to reinvigorating multilateral alliances and initiatives. But Biden has also set out a foreign policy vision that is as much domestically focused, as it is global. Part of this is promising to create a ‘foreign policy for the middle class’ by “eqip[ping] Americans to succeed in the global economy.” The domestic landscape in United States, combined with global geopolitical change, has moved the dials. Biden and his team recognise this, and we should expect his presidency to reflect a new set of priorities with new implications for UK and the rest of the world.
A Biden presidency would present three challenges to Britain and its foreign policy aspirations. These are divided into the following categories: the relationship between Downing Street and Biden’s team, policy alignment, and the UK’s need to adapt to the international response to a Biden presidency.
The lack of an established relationship and contact between the UK and Biden’s team is evident and problematic. No British officials have been able to meet senior members of Biden’s foreign policy team yet. And given Team Biden’s stated priorities, we should expect him to follow former President Obama’s lead in making Berlin its key partner in Europe, alongside Paris and Brussels. Anger also remains from Biden’s circle about the way the Vote Leave team treated former President Obama after his ‘back of the queue’ intervention in the EU referendum. The perceived closeness between the Trump camp and Boris Johnson has not helped either. The lack of relationship and unresolved tension presents Britain with the difficult challenge of how to establish a relationship with a Biden White House at a particularly critical juncture for the UK as it charts its path outside the European Union.
At the same time, Britain is closely aligned to Biden and his team on a number of different policy issues, including the need to strengthen the rules-based system and multilateralism, promoting human rights and democracy, climate change and the Iran nuclear deal. These present the best opportunities to strengthen the UK’s relationship and cooperation with a Biden White House. However, the issue of Brexit presents a large and complex challenge for Britain. Biden is known for being proud of his Irish roots, and has been publicly vocal about his opposition to any Brexit outcome that jeopardises the Good Friday agreement or threatens peace in Ireland. The outcome of the Brexit process will have a huge impact on one of Boris Johnson’s key global policy priorities, striking a swift US-UK free trade deal. The risk of fallout also carries huge risk to other areas of policy cooperation, and will remain a key challenge for the UK to navigate with a President Biden.
Finally, the third challenge for Britain will be to understand how other key allies respond to a Biden presidency and strategically adapt to these positions. For example, Britain is increasingly working closely with the E3, a ‘mini-lateral’ grouping that includes the UK, Germany and France, on issues ranging from the Iran nuclear deal to developments that impact European security. Recent analysis from Germany and France has shown that, unlike the rest of the EU, both countries will continue to prepare for long-term disengagement from the US, regardless of who wins the US election. This will have implications for not only the way the UK chooses to continue its engagement with the E3, but also for its role in strengthening its ambitions for a more proactive and powerful regional foreign and security policy. At a time of reduced domestic resources, particularly in its defence sector, adapting to shifting approaches from allies towards the US presents Britain with a set of difficult choices to make between competing priorities.
With less than a week until the US elections, it remains to be seen who will be America’s 46th President. But as we await the outcome, one thing is clear for Britain and its foreign policy ambitions: no matter who secures the keys to the White House, there will be no going back to ‘business as usual.’
Denisa Delic is an advocacy and humanitarian and conflict campaigns specialist, writing in her personal capacity. She is a member of the Labour Foreign Policy Group. Read more of her work on her blog Foreign Policy Reflections or find her on Twitter: @denisadelic