US election: what a Trump or Biden victory could mean for Britain

The British government has a long history of misreading America – from Lord Palmerston expecting the Confederacy to survive the civil war, to Ernie Bevin being shocked that the US would not pay the UK’s postwar bills, to Tony Blair believing in 2003 that he could ride the US military tiger in Iraq and create a democracy.

© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Few serving or former British diplomats are confidently predicting the outcome of this November’s presidential election, or even whether an increasingly erratic Donald Trump will accept the result as legitimate. The collective delusion about the 2016 election hangs heavy.

Between now and polling day, two fears will stalk the Foreign Office. The first is of a late October surprise – a Trump military showstopper in the Middle East or the South China Sea, designed to convulse America. The betting is that caution will prevail. “Trump talks very tough, but he has a habit of not following through” said Peter Ricketts, the former UK national security adviser.

© Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters Boris Johnson and Donald Trump meeting on the sidelines of the UN general assembly in New York in September last year.

The second is of a November impasse – a constitutional crisis as Trump disputes the result. One former Foreign Office staff member said: “It is noticeable that Trump’s most consistent message this election is that it is rigged.” Kim Darroch, the former UK ambassador to Washington and an early Trump sceptic, notes all the preparations being made for a challenge in the supreme court.

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All observers agree that if the US can reach a consensus on the outcome, it will be the most consequential election for American foreign policy since 1940. The implications, in turn, for the UK and for the kind of government Boris Johnson will lead are enormous.

Lord Ricketts points out that the UK is already at a historic turning point. “Put together Brexit, the return of muscular nationalism and the pandemic, you have an extraordinarily important moment, probably the biggest strategic moment facing the UK since the war. The US election only adds to that.”

The outcome will throw up a particularly acute personal dilemma for Johnson. He knows Trump is wildly unpopular with the British electorate. The latest Pew research shows that only 19% of Britons have confidence in Trump.

Yet if Trump wins, Johnson can reassure his party that rule-breaking populists still have a winning appeal for those who feel betrayed by mainstream politics. What have been described as “counter-order movements” will have shown they have not run out of steam.

© Provided by The Guardian Donald Trump supporters at a rally in Orlando, Florida. Photograph: John Raoux/AP

Johnson has invested heavily in his relationship with Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, so much so that, according to Lord Darroch, Johnson is the leader with the warmest personal relationship with the Trump family.

Sir Ivan Rogers, the former British ambassador to the EU, also senses Johnson is drawn to Trump. “He is quite Trumpite in method; he was always fascinated by Trump and his strategy to take the other side by surprise and destabilise it,” he said. So there are personal and political advantages for Johnson in four more years of Trump, and Downing Street may have been complacently slow to get alongside Trump’s opponent, Joe Biden.

But potentially the single biggest consequence of the election in the short term will be for Britain’s relations with Europe. Some former UK diplomats think Johnson might feel forced to wait until after the US election to decide how to jump on Brexit – whether to go for the clean break advocated by Dominic Cummings or the slow regulatory dealignment by stealth now favoured by Michael Gove. Paris is clearly happy to keep Johnson waiting until he feels the cold winds of a Biden victory coming across the Atlantic.

Lisa Nandy, the shadow foreign secretary, has for some time been warning that whatever the frustrations with Trump, Biden would not be plain sailing for the UK. “I am not sure the relationship would get less complicated. There is a view amongst some – not, perhaps, amongst those necessarily closest to Biden, but amongst the new younger Democratic generation – that Britain has absented itself from a world role by stepping outside the EU and that, in as far as relations with Europe are critical, it is France and Germany who are the key partners and Asia is more of a preoccupation than Europe anyway,” Nandy said.

Some of the older generation close to Biden, such as Nicholas Burns, a senior diplomat in the Bush and Clinton administrations, share that criticism of Brexit. “Brexit is going to hurt the UK,” Burns said. “It is going to diminish the UK’s standing in the world, and I say that as someone who has deeply supported the special relationship for several decades.”

Burns recalled that as assistant secretary of state, “every morning I would ring John Sawers, then political director at the Foreign Office, or he would ring me. I could trust him. He could trust me. He could make us understand Brussels and translate Brussels’ views back to us. Britain played that kind of middle connecting role that felt important to us.”

He added: “Britain will no longer be able to be the great connector between the EU and the US as it was over the past several decades.” He named Germany, owing to its size, and Ireland, as a connector country, as the two countries that Biden Democrats would naturally favour.

Darroch agrees. “One of Biden’s priorities will be to repair the relationship with Europe. That will give us less clout,” he said.

© Provided by The Guardian Angela Merkel and Donald Trump at a G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, in 2017. Photograph: Lukas Barth/EPA

Johnson’s perceived threat to tear up the Good Friday agreement in an effort to secure the Brexit he seeks reduced that clout further in Congress. “A lot of us in the US prize the relationship with the EU,” said Burns. “I do not believe the EU is a competitor to the US, as President Trump does, but I see instead the EU as perhaps our greatest partner on human rights, climate change, the global economy.”

That does not mean the UK diplomatic machine could not deftly adapt to Biden. Brian Wilson, a Foreign Office minister in 2000, recalls: “These moments of transition in the Foreign Office are a sight to behold. It’s a case of ‘the king is dead, long live the king’. The only thing that matters is to get in there first.”

Jeremy Greenstock, the former UK ambassador to the UN, suggests “any trust will have to be earned”. Biden is a family man shaped by his Catholicism, while Johnson is remembered by aides to Barack Obama for claiming Obama opposed Brexit because he was Kenyan.

But the predominant initial emotion for UK diplomats if Biden wins will be relief. “The UK Foreign Office has not seemed comfortable with Pompeo or Pence, or with the turnover of staff,” said Greenstock. “Biden would hold out the promise of professionalism.”

Moreover, with Biden, alliances once again become “foundational”, as Samantha Power, the former US ambassador to the UN, puts it. Calls to the UK foreign secretary’s private office before the US acts will be restored. A low point under Trump came 18 months ago with the pullout from Syria and abandonment of the Syrian Kurds without a call to Britain. That shook the Foreign Office and the intelligence services.

The importance of alliances as a route to leverage is at heart of Biden’s support for a D10, an expanded G7 of democracies – an idea that was first developed by Washington’s Scowcroft Center in 2014 and is now frequently mentioned by Dominic Raab, the UK foreign secretary, as a possible new intelligence network.

The primacy of liberal alliances is also symbolised in Biden’s plan for a “summit of the democracies”, an idea that is more developed than some realise. Power said the summit would focus on the fight against corruption, a theme of the UK’s last G7 chairmanship under David Cameron. Theresa May and Boris Johnson’s administrations dropped this ball, and the Biden agenda could cause some problems.

Power singled out the UK as “a venue where oligarchs have planted their money and the rules are permissive”. But Britain, chairing the G7 next year, should be able to absorb this agenda.

© Provided by The Guardian Joe Biden at a campaign event in Duluth, Minnesota, in September. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Biden would at some point offer to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal and cautiously try to create the virtuous circle in relations with Tehran that European powers have favoured.

Above all, Britain’s chairmanship of the UN climate change conference Cop26 becomes infinitely easier with a Biden White House. If the US rejoins the Paris climate change treaty – it is legally due to leave on 4 November – badly needed terrain will have been created in which China and the US can cooperate as well as compete. That will create a balance in US-China relations that Trump’s decoupling agenda lacks.

True, the UK has been on its own journey about China, shocked by the takeover of Hong Kong, dispensing with the belief that engagement through trade will liberalise China, and bowing to Washington’s assessment of the threat posed by Chinese control of 5G and its reluctance to open its markets.

But Raab, on a visit to the US last month, kept stressing: “If you are going to shift the dial on climate change, China has got to be part of it.” The trick is to construct a firewall between the issues on which positive engagement with the Chinese system will be beneficial, and those that justify rivalry.

Greenstock counsels against thinking that Biden could simply restore American hegemony, or even wish to try to do so. “This crisis in United States global leadership is not a passing shock created by the Trump presidency or coronavirus. It is instead the product of forces that have been developing for many decades. American isolationism is a reaction in the US electorate to globalisation, and that is not going to go away. Trade and communications everywhere have globalised, but politics has localised,” he said.

By contrast, a steroid-infused Trump victory achieved against the odds would utterly change the calculus, by revealing something about America. “The real tragedy of a Trump re-election would not so much be four more years of Trump but that America voted for the man knowing what he was like,” said Greenstock. “Previously they took a chance on him. Voting for him again, knowing how he behaves, says something much more long-term and strategic about American polity. That is what worries me.”

Inevitably, this scenario sends a chill through diplomats as they imagine the wider price the UK might pay for the friendship of Trump, unchained and vindicated, in a second term. Few, by way of parenthesis, hold out any hope for a more reflective, emollient or statesmanlike second term. “I fear it will be Trump in spades rather than Trump minus,” said Ricketts.

This is also the view of Brett McGurk, the US diplomat who led the fight under Obama and Trump against Islamic State. “No diplomat in the Trump administration can speak with authority across the table with a counterpart, whether a friend, adversary, competitor, because there is no real policy and the president just shifts on a dime and everybody knows it. And that makes the basic blocking and tackling – the fundamentals of diplomacy – very hard. The truth is that a lot of these problems are not being managed at all.”

Sawers, the former head of MI6, has described the damage that Trump’s style of leadership has already wrought to the UK diplomatic radar system. “The first instinct of the UK government is to work out the US position on any one subject and operate from there,” he has explained. “Four more years of Trump and the stabilising influence we have had for the last 70 years will not be there.” The British lodestar has gone missing.

The sense of anxiety only grows when British diplomats privately speculate on how Trump might handle specific files in his second term. Take Iran. The transatlantic tensions over the nuclear deal have been managed ever since Trump pulled out of the deal in 2018. Trump turned to a course of maximum economic pressure designed to bankrupt Iran, so forcing the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, back to the negotiating table or out of power in a revolution. By contrast, France, Germany and the UK have argued that engagement can work.

Mike Pompeo, Trump’s secretary of state, dismisses the Europeans’ faith in the deal as almost religious, and has always targeted the UK as the weak link, the country most likely to succumb to US pressure to quit the deal – something that would represent a symbolic British break with European diplomacy. That pressure would only increase in a second term, and there is no guarantee, according to Ricketts, that Johnson would have the means to continue the resistance. In extremis, sanctions – Trump’s weapon of choice – will be deployed, but this time on the UK.

© Provided by The Guardian Jens Stoltenberg, the Nato secretary general, speaks to Donald Trump after a photocall at a Nato leaders’ meeting in December last year. Photograph: Francisco Seco/AP

The next nightmare is the future of Nato. Trump is not moved emotionally by the defence of Europe, only by the financial cost to the US. The memoir of Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton describes how close Trump came to announcing US withdrawal from Nato and Europe. Bolton told the Aspen security conference in August: “I think Nato is at risk in a second Trump term. I don’t think people in Europe fully realise that.”

If populism triumphs in the US, and Johnson has Trump back in office cheering him on, Johnson may feel dragooned into another of Trump’s likely second-term projects: the destruction of the European Union project. Britain’s role as the explainer, the bridge across the Atlantic, would be finished. In return for the UK’s help, Trump could deliver the “phenomenal trade deal” that Johnson craves to show Brexit’s tangible benefits.

But perhaps the biggest risk to the UK – whatever the outcome of the election – is the slow re-emergence of America’s isolationist impulse, re-expressed in Trump’s America First stance. Biden has forsaken forever wars and demands a new integration of foreign and domestic policy, so that the needs of US blue-collar workers are part of US state department thinking.

As far back as February 1939, a member of the “America First committee”, Senator Arthur Vandenberg, eloquently made the case for isolationism. “I still thank God for two insulating oceans and even though they be foreshortened they are still our supreme benediction, if they be widely and prudently used.” Whatever America’s sympathies and natural emotions, he wrote, America could not be the protector of victims of outrage all around.

Persuading America to engage with at least some of these outrages may be the UK’s biggest challenge over the next four years.

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