Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris entered the White House with one clear goal in mind: defeating Covid-19. Fifty two per cent of Americans have now received at least one vaccine dose, meaning that they are inching ever closer to their target.
But after four years of wandering in the wilderness in which Donald Trump preferred Vladimir Putin to some democratic leaders, America’s challenges extend far beyond its own shores.
Biden arrived at the G7 in Carbis Bay last week on his first international trip since taking office. Just as Boris Johnson was the first world leader to speak to the President after he entered the Oval Office, so Downing Street and the Foreign Office will have been delighted with Biden leaving the Unites States for the first time and landing in the UK. In international relations, such symbolism matters.
The President’s main message in Cornwall was clear: America is back. Drapig his arms around the shoulders of fellow G7 leaders typified the bonhomie of the summit. Johnson and Biden laughed together and walked in lockstep. The two first ladies strolled along the beach. It was a world away from the 2018 G7 in Quebec – when the US delegation left the summit before the final communiqué was signed.
Beyond the symbolic change in tone, Biden has made it clear that foreign affairs will not be a top priority for his administration. Whilst paying lip service to a return to the post-World War Two world order matters, the new administration wants to get its own house in order first.
On international trade, Biden said, when President-elect: “I’m not going to enter any new trade agreement with anybody until we have made major investments here at home and in our workers and in education”.
After Trump made NAFTA a central pillar of his campaign and presidency – bad trade deal, companies shipping jobs and profits abroad, big firms not paying taxes – and then successfully renegotiated and rebranded the agreement, trade policy has become deeply partisan in US politics. The President wants to keep out of that fight for now, preferring the mantra that trade and investment begins at home.
That leaves plenty of scope for the long list of Biden’s other international concerns and challenges. Fresh from the G7, he will meet Vladimir Putin in Geneva. It is the latest display of high-risk US-Russia summitry, in which neither side appears willing or interested in thawing icy bilateral relations.
Then there is the rising threat of China, a spotlight having been freshly shone on its human rights abuses at the G7. The final communiqué urged Beijing to “respect human rights and fundamental freedoms”, citing abuses against the Uyghur Muslim minority group and the crackdown on Hong Kong pro-democracy activists. In the Middle East, tensions have thankfully thawed for now, but the White House remains cautious of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
That shortlist merely scratches the surface of international issues capable of keeping this internationalist President awake at night.
Resolving such issues as the Northern Ireland protocol is either an imperative in international affairs or a purely domestic trade concern, depending on your political proclivity. But amongst a litany of concerns, maintaining political stability and peace in Northern Ireland appears near the very top of Biden’s international priority list.
The G7 provided ample proof. Laying the ground for the President’s arrival, a meeting between the US Charge d’affaires, Yael Lempert (America’s most senior diplomat in London) and David Frost led to a diplomatic démarche. In effect, the US formally reprimanded the UK over its row with the European Union over the Northern Ireland protocol.
The island of Ireland has always played an outsized role in domestic US politics owing to the Irish ancestry of around ten per cent of the American population. This President has a particular bond with Ireland given his own Irish heritage, and it was no coincidence that he was in Dublin the day after the EU referendum in 2016, where he expressed his displeasure with the outcome. Biden will therefore inevitably take a keen interest in the impact of Brexit on Ireland and Northern Ireland, despite a myriad of international affairs issues that should arguably occupy his mind more.
Congressional Democrats have previously insisted that a US-UK Free Trade Agreement be directly linked to the status of Northern Ireland and the protection of the Good Friday Agreement. The GFA can, after all, be counted as one of the major foreign policy successes of Bill Clinton’s administration. In his state of the union address in 1999, Clinton said: “All Americans can be proud that our leadership helped to bring peace in Northern Ireland”.
But nonetheless, Lempert has apparently said that rhe current disagreement over the Northern Ireland Protocol “wouldn’t negatively affect the chances of reaching a US/UK free trade deal.”
So the relevance of the Northern Ireland Protocol to the Biden administration depends on your world view. If its importance relates to the protection of the GFA and peace on the Irish border, then the objection of the White House is understandable. But, in its simplest form, the issue should not be escalated beyond a trade dispute between two parties – on which basis, Washington has already abandoned the playing field, having stated that trade policy begins at home.