Jack Clayton discusses the myth of the special relationship between the UK and the USA.
On the morning of November 4th, 2020, America will have either elected four more years of President Trump or a President-elect Biden. It may still be unclear by then, depending on how important the postal votes become, but a victor will emerge. The world will be watching closely, as it has done in previous U.S elections, but number 10 Downing Street will be more than others. It is no secret that Johnson regards a lucrative U.K-U.S trade deal as vital to making Brexit a success. Logic suggests that a Trump victory will be favourable for Brexit. He has expressed greater enthusiasm for Brexit than his opponent Biden, who has indicated a desire to strengthen multilateral alliances with the European Union. However, there is a significant chance that neither result will help Britain. Instead we could discover, (and perhaps it is about time too), that the special relationship is a myth.
A challenge Britain will face when forging a deal with America is the disparity in power politics between the two nations. The believers in the special relationship might say that Britain are regarded as an equal partner because of strong historical ties and a common language, which could therefore help bring a trade deal. However, it is difficult to say when this has really been true. The Iraq War, which at the time of invading was perhaps seen by proponents as a high point for the special relationship between Blair and Bush was disastrous. As well as the destabilisation of the region it contributed to, it also showed that Britain has little influence in decisions when it is apparently side by side with America. Britain had no say in strategic decisions, but it was tainted by its outcomes. America tends to do what it likes as the strongest global power, even if it has waned in recent times, and Britain’s interests rarely changes that.
It could be said that Iraq was a different time, and that Johnson’s shared affinity with Trump towards nationalist populism may earn cooperation for a trade deal. However, under Trump, the supposedly preferable President for Brexit, Britain’s persuasive skills have rarely shown, or got results. Britain, along with the international community did not want America to exit the Paris Climate Agreement, but they still did. Britain and the international community did not want America to exit the Iran nuclear deal, but they still did. Moreover, Britain’s Foreign Secretary at the time who tried to dissuade Trump from making both decisions is now the Prime Minister. Why should Johnson be trusted to achieve a trade deal, particularly with a President who regards them as win or lose situations instead of reciprocal? Johnson might have even banked some credit if he agreed a deal with Europe, but he has yet to show brinkmanship capabilities. It only reinforces the idea that a post-Brexit U.S trade deal might significantly lower trade standards because Johnson would be desperate to get anything.
A Biden victory may hamper even that because the Conservative Party has displayed little diplomacy towards Biden and the Democrats. Conservative MPs berated Biden, who may already be holding a grudge against Brexiters for how they spoke about Obama, for wanting to protect the Good Friday Agreement in any Brexit outcome. Furthermore, a Biden presidency might shift back towards Obama’s foreign policy in which Germany was a close ally, instead of Britain. Crucially, America may resume rebuilding closer U.S-EU ties which Britain will soon not be part of. Irrespectively, as different as either President would be, it will still have the same result of a trade deal being dictated to them, not negotiated. The details of the different priorities outlined by either U.S administration would do little to change that.
Then there is of course the ongoing Covid-19 crisis that could affect progressing a trade deal that a special relationship cannot fix. Nobody can be sure when covid-19 will be under control. It has engulfed the world in ways that were barely imaginable and has understandably forced world leaders to focus on their own people’s health rather than diplomacy. In times of crisis we discover who are true friends are. America is a friend, but a special relationship is fanciful, and perhaps seeing that bubble burst will be for the best. Brexit during a Trump or Biden presidency will either force Britain to rely on a nationalist protectionist, or a free trader interested in blocs and multilateralism. This, on top of a pandemic, may mean Brexiters hear those words that they once scoffed at, back of the queue.
Jack Clayton is the secretary of the Young Fabian International Network. He is also a PhD student in International Relations, researching US foreign policy at SOAS.
He tweets at @claytonj944.