Joe Biden has a different approach from Donald Trump to the conduct of international relations and his election is a significant change. He will seek to work with European allies and other democratic countries and will be more engaged in multilateral bodies.
But the substance of policy may not change greatly. The narrow victory limits his room for manoeuvre at home and abroad, especially if the Republicans hold the Senate. The focus will be domestic healing, Covid recovery and the economy. The strategic priorities of US foreign policy will not alter; above all an effective and tough posture towards China and the focus on Asia. Biden will shift on climate and global health, but we should not expect a liberalising trade policy.
The change offers opportunities for the UK and we still have deep institutional links in Washington. But the political relationship with the Johnson government starts from a low base and the handling of Brexit will be sensitive. Early watch-list issues for UK business include possible relaxation of US tariffs, digital services tax, China policy, 5G policy, regulation and anti-trust for big tech, and green energy and finance.
Biden’s international agenda
The most significant change will not be what America does but how America does it. Biden’s approach to managing international relations is fundamentally different from Trump’s, but the narrowness of the result will inhibit him at home and abroad. With the country divided, he will have to make concessions to Trump supporters, and the Republicans are likely to hold the Senate. Huge domestic challenges remain in a country polarised around inequality, identity and race, struggling to deal with the pandemic.
We should not expect a radical shift in the substance of US foreign policy. There is zero appetite for expansive US internationalism, and the strategic priorities are unchanged – notably the need to find a way of living with and countering China. The issues on which we can expect the most visible and early change are climate and international cooperation on the pandemic.
Biden’s instinct, the opposite of Trump, will be to work with allies and promote international cooperation under US leadership. This is a return towards the norm of US diplomacy, and Democrats are strong across the US foreign policy establishment. Rather than castigate western partners Biden will try to engage them on climate, Covid-19, China or Russia. He will be more supportive of NATO and the EU and we should expect a more positive US posture and leadership in multilateral organisations like the UN, the WTO and the WHO, but with a continuing unwavering focus on the pursuit of American interests.
Opportunities for the UK
This prospect is essentially good for the wide interests of the UK. Biden’s world view is closer to ours than Trump’s was on many major foreign policy issues, including Iran, the Middle East, Russia and human rights.
In his message of congratulations, Boris Johnson highlighted climate, trade and security as areas for UK-US cooperation. The UK will want to get the US firmly engaged in the COP26 climate conference process. The appointment of John Kerry as climate envoy shows that Biden will prioritise this area. On security the UK government’s latest defence commitments are already showing that it will underline its relevance to the US as the closest NATO ally and the best integrated with the US military. But on trade we should be wary of high expectations. The Democrats are not trade liberalisers. Biden has said that he is not interested in new trade deals until he has created jobs at home, and the Republican Senate can make his life difficult on trade. The current Trade Promotion Authority expires in July and the new US Trade Representative (USTR) may not be appointed for several months.
The UK and US systems remain closely entwined (that is where the relationship is special) and British officials have strong links with the Democrat foreign policy teams. A Biden administration should therefore open opportunities for the UK to enhance its influence as it seeks a new global role, including through our G7 presidency next year.
Despite these broad areas of agreement on policy, Brexit is a problem, and the political relationship needs rapid attention. Both Biden and Harris have criticised Johnson, and he does not know them. The British government is of the Right and is associated, through Brexit, with the disruptive, nationalist mood that brought Trump to power. Biden thinks Brexit is not in the interest of America and would surely find a no deal Brexit astonishing. He is strongly attached to the Good Friday Agreement. There will however be a strong drive on both sides to create a positive relationship, and we are seeing early signs of this in London. If Biden attends the COP 26 and G7 Summits he will visit the UK twice next year, which is exceptional.
There is no evidence that Biden attaches particular importance to a UK-US trade agreement. He will not disown the idea, but it seems unlikely to be a higher priority than rebuilding links with the EU, including France and Germany. However, those relationships will also not be straightforward. The US will continue to emphasise defence burden sharing in NATO, and the EU’s wish for greater “strategic autonomy” may need to be reframed. Relations between Washington and the Commission are not good on trade issues. A Biden administration will not be a free ride for Europeans; they must show they are relevant to America’s current agenda.
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.