U.K. Officials’ New Trump Quandary: What if He Loses?

Former Vice President Joe Biden, Democratic Party presidential candidate, speaks during a press conference in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, June 25, 2020. (Hannah Yoon / The New York Times)

LONDON – Queen Elizabeth II gave her an extravagant state banquet at Buckingham Palace. Former Prime Minister Theresa May received him at Blenheim Palace, the seat of the family of her hero, Winston Churchill. His successor, Boris Johnson, refused to participate in a global chorus of criticism after he ordered troops to stop a Black Lives Matter protest outside the White House.

Few countries have worked harder than Britain to please President Donald Trump. But now, with Trump following the polls for former Vice President Joe Biden, British officials are waking up to an unsettling prospect: the president they tried so hard to accommodate may be out of power next year.


In Paris and Berlin, a defeat for Trump would be welcomed as unrestricted relief, removing a leader who separated alliances, threatened a trade war and tried to dismantle the European project. But in London, where the Johnson government just left the European Union, it is more complicated.

In a time of British isolation, Trump's full support for Brexit has made the United States a safe haven. His promise of a lucrative trade deal gave Johnson a point of sale with his constituents. Their populist policy was in sync with the Brexiteers' simple tactics.

If Biden won in November, Britain would face a president who opposed Brexit, would look after Ireland's interests in post-Brexit Europe and would have little reason to prioritize an Anglo American trade deal. Its former chief, President Barack Obama, once warned the British that if they left the European Union, they would put themselves at the "back of the queue" in any trade deal with the United States.


"It will not be lost on Biden that the last two British prime ministers have endeavored to be kind to Trump," said Peter Westmacott, a former British ambassador to the United States. "He is instinctively comfortable with the British, but London will have to work on the relationship."

As the numbers of Trump's polls erode, pro-government newspapers began to argue that a President Biden would actually be better for Britain than President Trump. Unlike Trump, he believes in alliances. He would not subject Johnson to crude lectures on the need for Britain to take a tougher line against China. It would not be toxic to much of the British public.


In a recent column in The Sunday Times, a well-connected political journalist, Tim Shipman, quoted an unnamed government minister as saying that a defeat by Trump "would make things a lot easier."

This sounds like a government that protects your bets. Johnson was careful not to say anything about the election in the U.S., but he has tried to keep Trump at a distance, even by avoiding offending him. Trump, on the other hand, called a London radio show in the heat of the British election to praise Johnson and run over his opponent.

Britain's discomfort is compounded by the strangeness of this election. The Biden campaign virtually banned contact with foreign governments to avoid the questions that haunted the Trump campaign in 2016 about his ties to Russia. The pandemic deprived Britain of its long practice of incorporating a diplomat into the challenger's campaign, because there are few campaigns in person.


Jonathan Powell, who as a young British diplomat traveled by bus during the Bill Clinton campaign in 1992, said the connections he made were valuable in easing the bitterness that Clinton's advisers felt towards Britain's conservative government after try to discover incriminating details about Clinton's Oxford years to help George HW Bush's campaign. Powell later introduced Clinton to Tony Blair, who became prime minister and a friendlier colleague.


Taking the bus is less important this time, he said, as Biden is already so well known by British authorities. But the lack of a personal connection can predict a relationship that is destined to become more distant.

According to several experts, the risk to Britain is not a sudden break, but a gradual decline in irrelevance. Biden's emphasis, they said, would be to repair fences with Berlin and Paris, not celebrating a "special relationship" with London that received much attention from its predecessor.

On a visit to London in October 2018, Biden, not yet a candidate, launched his opposition to Brexit in geopolitical terms, saying it would make Britain less valuable to the United States as a lever to influence the European Union.

"If I had been a member of Parliament, had been a British citizen, I would have voted against leaving," said Biden at Chatham House, the London research institution. "NOS. Interests", he added, "diminish, with Britain not being an integral part of Europe".

Charles Kupchan, a professor at Georgetown University who worked on European affairs at the Obama White House and is advising Biden's campaign, said: "The question is not: & # 39; Will there be a special relationship? & # 39;" The question is, "Will the special relationship be important?" "

British authorities recognize the challenge. They cite human rights and Russia as areas in which Britain could play a solid role alongside the United States. Johnson's recent reversal, preventing Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from accessing its 5G network, aligns Britain with a more hawkish American policy towards China, which is likely to extend beyond Trump's presidency.

He may need to correct other remaining problems. In 2016, when Johnson was Mayor of London, he reported in a newspaper column that Obama replaced a bust of Churchill in the Oval Office with one by Martin Luther King Jr. and attributed the change to the Kenyan president's “ancestral antipathy for the British Empire. "

Some say the fear of tension between Johnson and Biden is overblown.

"It is part of the job of American presidents to get along with prime ministers," said Tom Tugendhat, a conservative member of parliament who is chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and spoke with Biden advisers.

Still, there are potential landmines, mainly Northern Ireland. A dedicated Irish American, Biden will fiercely defend Ireland's interests, as well as his allies in the Irish Democratic lobby on Capitol Hill. In the speeches, Biden's literary reference is "Easter 1916", a poem by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats about the Irish uprising against British rule.

British diplomats say Biden also has English roots. He spoke of a great-great-grandfather who was a captain at British East India Trading Co. But they say that when it comes to Brexit, his main concern is likely to be preserving the Good Friday Agreement, according to Clinton. – an agreement that ended decades of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland.

"Biden is very interested in his Irish Catholic roots, although he also has British roots," said Westmacott. "If the UK ends with no Brexit deal or other outcome that is bad news for Ireland, it will not be impressed."

So far, Johnson has avoided that problem by establishing a withdrawal agreement with the European Union that leaves an open border on the island of Ireland. But Ireland could still suffer economic damage if Britain does not negotiate permanent trade agreements with Brussels.

Trade is another area where Biden can be frustrating. Trump's promise of a successful deal with Britain had already begun to fade, with his commercial representative, Robert Lighthizer, saying last month that it was unlikely before the election. If Biden won, experts said, he would face a Democratic Party deeply skeptical of a deal at a time when free trade is in retreat worldwide.

British officials recently publicized the idea of ​​both countries adhering to the successor agreement to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump withdrew in 2017, as a way to get around thorny issues in a direct negotiation.

But even if Biden joined the TPP – a big if – analysts noted that its provisions on food sanitation were largely written by the United States and would raise the same objections that prevented the transatlantic negotiations.

"In other words," said Sam Lowe, a trade expert at the European Reform Center, "the chlorine chicken debate is here to stay."

This article originally appeared on The New York Times.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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