What would President Biden and Vice President Harris mean for the Special Relationship?

12 Aug

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

Contrary to some of the analysis of late, Joe Biden is by no means a shoo-in for the presidency in November. Nationally, polls are tightening and at the same point with 84 days to go in 2016, Hillary Clinton’s lead in the Five Thirty Eight polling average was 6.6 per cent. The Biden campaign will begin to face accusations of losing momentum if Donald Trump continues to chip away at his lead. On that basis, it makes sense that Biden has sought to wrestle back the narrative by announcing Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate. If the Biden-Harris ticket is victorious in November, the White House will look like a very different place to the current occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Biden on Britain and Brexit

Biden is no Brexiteer like Trump. Biden and his old boss, President Obama, fell into line with David Cameron when they effectively backed the Remain campaign by declaring an independent UK would be at the “back of the queue” when it came to negotiating a US trade deal. The day after the EU referendum in 2016, Biden was in Dublin and remarked “We’d have preferred a different outcome”.

Nevertheless, the political imperative of the Special Relationship means there is no chance that Biden would abandon the UK on day one of his presidency. On the contrary, one would expect a presidential visit to London, Edinburgh, Belfast and Dublin within the first six months of President Biden’s tenure. It is the final two stops of that likely trip that provide the most interesting topics for discussion.

Both presidential candidates have direct links to the UK. Donald Trump is an Anglophile and reveres his Scottish heritage. Biden’s proximity lies in Ireland. His great grandfather, James Finnegan, emigrated from County Louth as a child, in 1850. In advance of his 2016 visit to Ireland, Biden said: “James Joyce wrote, ‘When I die, Dublin will be written on my heart. Well, Northeast Pennsylvania will be written on my heart. But Ireland will be written on my soul.’” On a purely personal basis therefore, we have grounds for optimism that the Special Relationship is in safe hands no matter the election outcome.

Negotiating a US-UK FTA in a Biden presidency

Biden would almost certainly cool some of the Trump White House’s more aggressive trade policies such as obstructing the work of the World Trade Organization. But Biden’s 40 years of political experience means he knows which way the wind is blowing on trade. He will want to ensure any deal is seen to protect US jobs and domestic production, while maximising export potential.

What is more, Harris, Biden’s newly announced running mate, has said she would oppose any trade deals that don’t include high labour and environmental standards. She opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2016 citing insufficient protection for US workers.

That rings alarm bells for those hoping the UK could ascend to the CPTPP – assuming the United States would do the same – therefore subverting the need for a bilateral US-UK FTA. Furthermore, Harris has little experience of the Special Relationship to speak of. On the foreign policy section of her website, she lists as “key partners” Japan, India, Mexico, and Korea. The UK is conspicuous in its absence for a potential future Vice President of the US

Where Washington and Westminster could align

In four clear instances we see Washington and Westminster aligning under the prospective leadership of Biden and Johnson respectively.

First, the Trump campaign and Republican Party are trying to paint Biden as a puppet of China. Consequently, he is being pushed into a more hawkish corner. That will mean alignment with an increasingly Sino-scepetic Downing Street and Parliament. Trump initially courted Chinese President Xi Jinping but since then has made an aggressively anti-China stance a key plank of his presidency. Having banned Huawei from our 5G infrastructure, Downing Street looks set to be largely in lockstep with Washington regardless of the outcome in November.

Second, Johnson’s government has shown little interest in entertaining Trump’s more excessive foreign policy ideals. The Trump administration has done its best to erode the World Trade Organization, considering it too kind to China. Conversely, Johnson has nominated Liam Fox to be its next Director-General. Both Fox and his successor at DIT, Liz Truss, extol the virtues of global trade and the rules-based international order that governs it. The British government aspires to be an invisible link in the chain that connects trading nations. In that regard, Biden would be supportive.

Third, environmental policy is one area in which Johnson and Trump do not see eye to eye. The stark divergence in approach has become an awkward rift between the two allies. The UK was a key supporter of the Paris Climate Accord from which Trump removed the US. As the Chair of the COP26 summit in Glasgow, Downing Street would undoubtedly favour a US President who considers climate change one of the world’s biggest and most pressing priorities. That only applies to Biden.

Lastly, Iran. As Foreign Secretary, Johnson failed in his attempt to persuade the Trump administration to stay in the Iran nuclear deal. Biden would rejoin it in a heartbeat, having been a part of the Obama administration who orchestrated it in the first place.

In summary, the Special Relationship will endure irrespective of the winner in November. Built on a shared understanding and common values, the relationship transcends presidents and prime ministers. On China, the US and UK look set to form an even closer alliance alongside their Five Eyes allies. That is something both Trump and Biden appear to agree on.