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The future of the 'special relationship'
Written by Alex Massie
29 October 2020
Barring something remarkable, or some last-ditch act of chicanery, Joe Biden is a week away from becoming president of the United States of America. On this, every reputable pollster and the great majority of even semi-reputable pundits agree. The latest polls from vital battleground states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania all suggest the Democratic challenger enjoys at least a five-point lead over Donald Trump. Even if the polls were as badly wrong as they were in 2016, Biden would still just about be favoured to win. Time is running out for Donald Trump.
And not before time, either, most of the world will think. The Trump era has been a debasing, shameful one for the United States; an act of self-harm that ensures a Biden presidency will, more than anything else, be a kind of reclamation project.
A new president, of whatever party, inevitably prompts much speculation on what this means for the United Kingdom. Even Trump was once considered ‘Good for Britain’ by some, albeit most of these saw only what they wished to see. He liked Brexit and we – or at least some of us – did too. A trade deal with the United States would be easy and to our mutual advantage. This was, it must be said, delusional poppycock and so, to no one’s surprise, it has transpired.
But having bet on Trump – or at least having been seen to do so – the UK government finds itself in a modestly awkward position vis a vis its relations with Biden. The new president has a keen nose for what he terms “malarkey” and he will find plenty of it in Downing Street just now. Boris Johnson’s past suggestion that Barack Obama harboured some kind of post-colonial, Kenyan, antipathy to the UK was noticed in Washington and has not been entirely forgotten by the man who served as Obama’s vice-president for eight years.
Still, just as excitement over the promise of a new era for the ‘special relationship’ – a phrase which ought to have been retired many years ago – is invariably overcooked, so the suggestion that the United Kingdom will be frozen out by a Biden administration is equally exaggerated. Interests endure and are more important than personalities and one day even the British press may understand this.
Nevertheless, some realism is required. The United States has many important relationships – with Canada, Mexico, Japan, Israel and so on – and plenty of others that require real attention (China most obviously but also Pakistan and Saudi Arabia as well as Russia, Germany and India). The UK is a middle-ranking, middle-weight power and there is neither anything pathetic nor shameful about recognising ourselves as such. Inflating our importance is a fool’s desire but the UK is not quite chopped liver.
Trading figures show as much. In 2019, the UK accounted for 3.2% of the United States’ trade in goods. The US trades as much with South Korea as it does with the United Kingdom. By comparison, Canada and Mexico each account for nearly 15% of goods-based US trade, and China for around 13%. The UK is an important trading partner but not a top-tier one. (The picture for trade in services is, as you might expect, rather different: here the UK is America’s largest trading partner, chiefly in financial services.) Any expectation for a relaxing of tariffs on goods such as Scotch whisky should, I think, be heavily tempered; these are largely ensnared in World Trade Organisation disputes and processes, from which they will not easily be extricated.
All of which means that already low expectations for a US-UK trade deal should be lowered still further. Viewed from Washington, Brexit is an adventure in national diminishment. The United Kingdom has chosen to marginalise itself and while the United States will respect that decision, it is one that comes with certain – and obvious – consequences. Britain matters a little less to the White House than it might otherwise have done.
Granted, certain institutional relationships – chiefly in intelligence and security – will endure, for mutual self-interest demands they must. In large part these survived the Trump era and we may reasonably expect them to be strengthened by an American president determined to restore some semblance of normality and stability. Even here, however, Washington finds the UK a less useful partner than has been the case in the past. Britain’s reduced military capability – painfully evident in Afghanistan and Iraq – leaves the UK a weaker ally than it was in the past. The ongoing failure to produce a coherent vision for the Ministry of Defence’s future – and future priorities – suggests this is a problem that will not be fixed any time soon. The UK is not as capable as once it was and, again, we are deluding ourselves if we pretend otherwise.
If Biden wins, however, we should expect the usual levels of foolish and frothy commentary. Like previous presidents, Biden will be polite enough to say the magic words ‘special relationship’, the better to flatter the UK, but Washington is a place for realism, not magical thinking. The ‘race’ to be the first to visit a new president means much less than the horse-race commentary accompanying it suggests. We never were, as Harold MacMillan complacently put it, the Athens to America’s Rome, and we certainly shall not be now.
The United States has permanent interests and Biden’s presidency will be a project in which these are reasserted after the drift and chaos of the Trump years, in which Washington has been a reliably unreliable friend. Restoring some sense of order is Biden’s defining goal and while much of that will necessarily be a question of domestic policy, it applies overseas too. To that end, he will look for reliable partners and it may be considered a misfortune that, in Washington’s view, the United Kingdom is a little less reliable, and a little less useful, than once it was.
About Beyond the Street and Alex Massie
We are all guilty of being too inwardly focused sometimes, especially as we navigate these changed times. It is all too easy to be caught up in the problems close to home, and for overarching trends to pass us by.
To remedy that short-sightedness, Charlotte Street Partners has enlisted the ingenuity and talent of the writer and commentator Alex Massie. As our new correspondent at large, Alex will look at the bigger picture for us each week. We have challenged him to come up with something a bit different: broad, lateral thinking, thematic insights and a more global perspective.
Alex is a freelance journalist and commentator based in Edinburgh. Not only is he Scotland editor of The Spectator, but he also writes a political column for The Times and The Sunday Times. He features regularly on the BBC as a political commentator and has written in the past for The Telegraph, Politico, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, the New Statesman, The Observer, and TIME magazine, among others. He was also the Washington correspondent for The Scotsman and assistant editor of Scotland on Sunday.
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