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What would a Biden administration mean for UK foreign policy?

A victory for Joe Biden in the US Presidential Election next week (if that were the result), would be good for the overall interests of the UK but could be problematic for Boris Johnson’s government. Why is that, and how would the arrival of a Biden administration affect British foreign policy?

In international relations it’s not only what you do that matters, but also how you do it. Although I have disagreed with much of Trump’s foreign policy, for example on Iran, that is not true across the board. For example, he took an important stance on China. But he seems to have little grasp of the concept of the common good and his behaviour has eroded American leadership by damaging alliances and institutions.

A return to the norm?

By comparison, Biden would be a reversion toward the norm. Unexciting perhaps, but needed and welcome. However he would not usher in wholesale change in US foreign policy. The domestic pressures of COVID-19, political polarisation and economic dislocation remain. This is compounded by the increasingly confrontational geopolitical environment.

Though there is no appetite for expansive US internationalism, a Biden Presidency would be a chance to change the tone and recalibrate relationships. His instinct will be to work with allies, reinforcing relations with the NATO partners, including the UK, and leading EU members like Germany and France.

There would also be a chance to re-engage US leadership in multilateral agendas and organisations, such as the WTO and WHO, provided they show their worth. On climate, a different US policy should permit more collaboration, creating an opportunity for the UK as host of the COP26 conference next November.

But Western democracies should avoid complacency. There can be no way back to familiar post-Cold War relationships. America’s traditional allies will be expected to prove their relevance and value on today’s American agenda, which continues to shift away from Europe. This means above all China and defence burden sharing.

Implications for the UK

Biden’s foreign policy instinct, favouring alliances and cooperation, should present a golden opportunity for the UK – the country which still has the strongest instinctive and institutional ties in Washington – as it sets out to forge a new global role after Brexit.

But while I would expect the current British government to be broadly comfortable with Biden’s foreign policy, it is politically more attuned to Trump: of the Right and rooted in the disruptive post 2016 politics of nationalism and identity. Trump supported Brexit and Boris Johnson, Biden did not. Some in and around Downing Street might presumably prefer a second term for Trump.

An early, major UK/US FTA looks unlikely in any scenario, despite the heavy political symbolism. But it seems less likely with Biden: he has no strong political investment in a UK deal, the Democrats are cautious on trade liberalisation, and Biden is heavily influenced by the Irish angles of Brexit.

Those who said in 2016 that Trump might be for four years only, but Brexit would be for a at least a generation, may next week be proved at least half right. A Biden win would be good for the broad interests of this country, but the politics may add new complexity to the task of rebuilding a successful and truly influential British global foreign policy.

Sir Simon Fraser is a Managing Partner at Flint. You can find out more about how Flint helps businesses to understand geopolitical developments, make well-informed decisions and engage effectively with governments here: https://flint-global.com/expertise/policy-and-political-analysis/geopolitics/

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