Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy
As I write, it is almost certain that Joe Biden will be the next president of the United States. He leads in Nevada, Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan, and could yet overtake Donald Trump in Georgia.
Without Georgia, his electoral college margin would match Trump’s against Hillary Clinton’s (and hang-on margins as thin in key midwestern states). Counting in Pennsylvania will take a little longer, but postal votes appear to be sufficiently in his favour to allow him to narrowly carry the state. Recounts and litigation may slow down a final result, but it’s hard to see how Trump can overturn this lead. Bush v Gore in 2000 this is not.
However, elections for the Senate aren’t however going so well for Biden. Republicans will probably retain their majority, and therefore be able to block his domestic legislative agenda. Stymied at home, Biden, once a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, will have far more freedom in foreign affairs.
But he will have his work cut out.
Trump gutted the State Department, failing to appoint the political staff to which he was entitled, and doing nothing to prevent an exodus of career foreign service officers. Biden will have to put it back together.
The new President will also have to show how he can deliver for the Midwest that so narrowly put him in the White House. So though he’ll keep the United States in the WTO, he can be expected to lead an extremely tough trade policy.
This clashes with his other main policy goal – to repair relationships with America’s democratic allies and rebuild the international system. Expect strong gestures of support for NATO and South Korea, both neglected by Trump, and a restoration of good relations with the EU. Like Trump, he’ll want its members to spend more on defence; whether his more conciliatory approach will meet with more success is another matter.
Nevertheless, a Biden administration will remove the main source of instability in international affairs that has bedevilled the UK’s attempt to find a foreign policy role after Brexit, and given any attempt to give definition to “Global Britain” an air of unreality. After all, how can a medium-sized power contribute to a rules based international order when the existing superpower seems determined to destroy it, and the emerging one, in Beijing, to bend it to its own imperial ends?
The return to stability gives the UK the chance to define its national interests outside the EU. While a substantive trade deal with the US is likely to be extremely difficult, contributing to the defence of the Baltic and Eastern Europe (particularly in maritime and air theatres where the UK still has relevant capacity), support for America’s return to the Paris Climate Change Accords, and even sparking a renewed effort to prevent Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, are all ways the UK can work with the US and European partners to contribute to international stability.
Britain can also act alongside the US, the other Five Eyes powers, Japan, and major European nations including France and Germany to craft a strategy to counter Chinese expansionism. It will, unfortunately, also need to continue cooperation in the fight against Islamist terrorism, which has not receded as a threat, as the recent attacks in France and Austria have shown.
If Biden does indeed win, Britain will find a familiar foreign policy world that it can work in. Though it is hard to see how the UK can be a global full-spectrum military power without spending far more on defence than is currently contemplated, and direct involvement in EU defence structures is out of the question, it can slot into a space as a “Bigger Sweden”: an independent-minded, respected, capable, and effective part of the international system. Britain is a nuclear power, a permanent member of the UN Security Council (not to mention a key supplier of defence equipment), and leading participant in the multilateral efforts in support of international peace and security that a Biden administration would like to promote.
If this is is not the most romantic vision available, it is at least commensurate with the resources the UK is willing to deploy. If the White House would be delighted by a large and sustained increase in UK defence and security expenditure, that is hardly something that can realistically be sold to furloughed voters closer to home.
A medium-sized power like the UK depends on international structures to exercise power on the world stage. Biden would restore them, and it should be our duty to be present at their recreation.