No More Sweaty Handshakes?
Updated: Dec 3, 2020
By Jordan Street
There is not a person alive who correctly predicted what a President Donald Trump foreign policy would look like and what it would mean for the United Kingdom. Most of us oscillated between being wrong and being horribly wrong. But now, after almost four years, the implications of a second term are – famous last words – easier to predict.
Within the incompetent bluster that has been the Trump White House, a few core foreign policy issues have solidified – helped by the presence of the zealot now sitting in the top job at 2201 C Street. But with so many decisions guided not by a vision of the world per se or by supposed sacred alliances, but instead by a Molotov cocktail of cronyism, ego and ignorance, there are big questions for the UK policy makers to reflect upon.
If the UK, and our ‘special relationship’, are graced with four more years of this dangerous administration, what should we expect? Seven things stand out:
1. USA vs China – choose your fighter
Pressure will mount on the UK to pick a side in the competition that will define the next decade. In many ways whoever is in the White House is irrelevant: Biden will be hard on China too. But Trump’s approach will involve more naked arm-twisting to get London in step with Washington. Getting in Beijing’s camp is obviously not an option. But working hard to stay in the strategic middle lane will be critical: remaining vocally firm on China’s power plays and gross abuses of human rights and using economic - rather than securitised – pushbacks when necessary, all the while maintaining enough diplomatic slack to partner with Beijing on climate change.
2. Global Britain will have to hold up the shaking foundations of multilateralism
Poor Mr. Antonio Guterres – the ‘hardest job in the world’ has been harder than he could have possibly imagined thanks to Mr. Trump. For four years, the UK has tried to stay somewhat aligned with the US at the UN - but it’s going to get harder. The UN will only matter for Trump when he can turn it into a Fox News story. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council and one of the biggest donors, the UN means more to the UK than that. It will need to invest significant resources in protecting UN blue helmets, supporting UN efforts to mediate, build and make peace, and resist any belligerent moves from whatever Trump donor next ends up in 799 UN Plaza.
3. Who can you trust?
The United States will continue to act first, inform the UK later – breaking with a tradition respected by almost every other administration. Coupled with its retreat from existing defence, security and intelligence cooperation with Europe, the UK will have to look elsewhere for close alliances on security and foreign policy. As others have suggested, Canada and Australia offer options for this new alliance. Hardly ambitious and a bit, well, pale and stale? Yes. But the reality is that beggars can’t be choosers: the UK will need friends where it can get them.
4. Press pause on saving the world from extinction?
There are many things that the Johnson government is, but a gang of climate change denialists is not one. While their ambition and actions leave a lot to be desired, they are not an anti-science government on climate, unlike those currently in Washington, DC. Any aspirations from the current UK government or a Starmer-led Labour government in a few years’ time on a multilateral response to climate change will be placed in a box in the attic for another four years at a minimum. That doesn’t mean no collective or international action. But it does mean saying goodbye to a meaningful role as chair of the COP-26 process next year: just preventing the Paris agreement from dying will be a win.
5. Withdraw, but securitise, baby, securitise!
Since 9/11, the US-led global war on terror has led to a series of damaging, overly-securitised responses to perceived threats to national security, that have not made the world safer. Trump may hold his promise to withdraw American troops from quagmires like Afghanistan, but his administration will continue to embrace authoritarianism, securitisation and counter-terrorism around the world. Whenever a review of the UK security and defence policy actually happens, it should – but probably will not - show clearly that existing responses are not helping to reduce violence. A second term for Trump will delay the reckoning for UK policy makers for another four years, but it will come one day soon.
6. Time to play ball on The Deal of the Century
There are probably two emails drafted and ready for Mr. Raab to send on November 4th regarding the Kushner deal. For now, the UK government have remained lukewarm on public support and have maintained a red line on annexation. With Biden, the Foreign Office could once again engage on MEPP policy, with Trump, the letter will say ‘Yes sir, right away sir’. For those in and around the UK foreign policy establishment that care about peace in the Middle East, the next four years will further lay the table for a very bleak future.
7. Who blinks first on Tehran
There will be very few UK policymakers that will believe war with Iran is a good idea. But driven by the worst US Secretary of State of all-time, the US will like build on its campaign to provoke confrontation with Iran. Four more years will give Mr. Pompeo ample opportunity to strike, as he attempts to solidify himself as a 2024 frontrunner. Can the UK stand firm, at the UNSC and elsewhere, as it has done so far?
Time to let go of that not very special sweaty hand?
The UK government’s strategy to deal with the current US administration was not without logic: hold your nose - or Trump’s hand - to minimise the damage and try to secure a national win or two at the expense of the French et al. But damage has been done, the wins are not certain, and the smell of national embarrassment overpowering.
Surely another Trump term is, finally, the moment to drop the pretence of a US-UK special relationship. I write this as a proud dual US-UK national: who would like nothing more than a real special relationship, but if November 3rd returns the incumbent in the White House, this is nothing more than wishful thinking. It will instead be time for the UK to move towards standing up on its own two feet. There will be too many disastrous decisions made in D.C. for the UK to do anything else.
Jordan Street is a conflict prevention policy and advocacy advisor and member of the Labour Foreign Policy Group. He is writing in a personal capacity. Find him on Twitter: @jordan_street07