As the UK’s Internal Market Bill officially passed the House of Commons last night, some hours later we got a glimpse of those vying to be United States President, in the first TV debate between US President Donald Trump and Democrat challenger Joe Biden. What connects these two events specifically is a post Brexit UK-US trade deal, but more broadly it is what shape “the special relationship” will take in the years ahead.
Formal talks over the trade deal have already begun, and are held every six weeks. But the deal will not be signed off until after the Presidential election in November.
“When you’re dealing in trade, everything is on the table,” Trump said in 2019 on a visit to the UK. That’s more sensible than anything he said during the debate last night. Trump’s bullish unilateralism (“America First”) makes no exceptions for the UK.
But neither Trump nor Biden would actually sign off a trade deal, it would be the US Congress (they will hold significantly more power over any deal than MPs in the House of Commons). Democrat Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House of Congress, has said that there is “no chance” of any deal getting through the Congress if the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland is undermined. That position was reiterated by Biden, who has said any deal “must be contingent upon respect for the Agreement and preventing the return of a hard border”. Of course what “respect for the Agreement” means is a matter of interpretation, but there is clearly a different tone on priorities for a trade deal between the Democrats and Republicans.
In reality, the vast majority of the policy substance of the deal will be unlikely to change whoever is in the White House. The Republicans “corporate-driven agenda” on US-UK trade is “likely to continue under any Biden administration,” trade justice campaigner Nick Dearden writes in his new book on the trade deal. Dearden finds that its actually Congress which has, since 2015, prevented the US trade representative’s office from even any mention of greenhouse gas emissions in international trade deals. Leaked papers from the negotiations show US negotiators stating that policy “would not be lifted any time soon”.
Nonetheless, this US Presidential election will be extremely important in shaping the tenor of UK politics, including what Britain’s post-Brexit future looks like. If Trump wins, he will double down on unilateralism, and expect Boris Johnson to follow in his slipstream, which he surely will. That will mean heightened tension between both London and Washington with Brussels. But what about if Biden wins? That’s a bit more complex.
Remember former President Barack Obama’s “back of the queue” comment, warning the UK of the negative consequences on transatlantic relations of leaving the EU before the 2016 referendum? That represented the Democrats commitment to US hegemony through “the liberal international order”; a set of global rules weighted in Washington’s favour. But the world has changed since 2016, and we should not presume Biden will approach foreign policy in the same way.
Thomas Wright, senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, writes on Biden’s foreign policy that he “likely wouldn’t govern as a restorationist [of Obama], at least when it comes to foreign policy and America’s role in the world”. Wright looks at what the thinkers around the Biden camp, what he calls the “2021 Democrats”, have been saying in recent years and finds that they “no longer talk about the goal of American foreign policy being a liberal international order, as they did during the Obama years”. Instead they are interested in how “reforming trade deals” can “generate investment in the United States”.
“For the 2021 Democrats, Biden represents the so-called establishment’s last chance to reform US foreign policy so it is better aligned with how Americans see the world and how they live their lives,” Wright argues.
A Biden presidency will not be “America First” on the international stage, and we can anticipate that Johnson will tone down the populism if the Democrats get into the White House. But neither will Biden tell the UK that they are at the “back of the queue” because of Brexit. Many liberals on both sides of the pond pine for the 1990s, when US-led globalisation was at the peak of its powers and any critique of “free trade” was treated as sacrilege. Those days are over, and they’re not coming back. But it’s still an open question as to what, long-term, will replace it.
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