Berlin-Paris axis matters a lot more now

Pivot back to Europe

James Harvey asks what a Biden presidency might mean for relations with Boris Johnson’s Britain

A collective sigh of relief came from liberal governments around the world following Joe Biden’s victory. Along with their media cheerleaders they welcomed the leader-elect of the ‘free world’ and reassured themselves that, after four years of Trump’s mayhem in the White House, sanity had been restored at last.1 Leave aside the South China Sea, Russian defensive-expansionism, the Saudi defeat in Yemen, the north Korean nuclear threat and other such ongoing issues, international relations, at least it would seem, will be back to a rather more predictable course from January 20 2021 onwards.

Typical of many of those who desperately want to see the back of Trump is former British ambassador to the US Kim Darroch. He fondly described Biden as a man of “decency, warmth and common sense”, an experienced operator who would reset US policy and diplomacy to normality.2 Even warmer words came from Keir Starmer, who waxed lyrical about renewing “the special relationship forged on the battlefields of Europe … to defend freedom and defeat fascism”. Lamenting America’s lack of a “clear moral purpose” under Donald Trump, he argued that “for the United States of America and for Britain, this is the time to return to the world stage. This is the time for us to lead.”3

Starmer’s vision of America’s “return to the world stage” is one shared by Biden himself. During his campaign for the Democratic nomination he talked of ‘rescuing’ US foreign policy after Trump and strongly argued that “America must lead again”.4 Central to Biden’s critique of Trump’s foreign policy is the damage it has done to “the credibility and influence” of the US. The result is, according to Biden, that “the international system that the United States so carefully constructed is coming apart at the seams” and a partnership between the US and its allies must be reforged “to rally the free world to meet the challenges facing the world today”.5 Although expressed in the refined language of liberty, democracy and common international values, Biden will continue to push back against American decline. Thus, there will be the same focus on stopping the rise of China and perhaps a much more aggressive approach towards a much weakened Russia.6

In this context Biden’s presidency will see a clear shift in American policy towards the European Union, as he attempts to rebuild US global influence and reset its alliances.7 This reversion to what has been the traditional American position since 1945 - strengthening ‘Europe’ as a bastion against the ‘red menace’ within, eg, the mass ‘official communist’ parties, and the ‘red menace’ to the east, eg, the Warsaw Pact, will have the most significant, immediate impact for the British ruling class in general, and the current Johnson government in particular.8 Trump’s hostility to the EU and his support for Brexit were popular with the American right, which, given the evaporation of the ‘red menace’, ultimately sought the break-up of the EU as a means of eliminating a potential rival. Trump’s flirtations with rightwing populist leaders and his encouragement of bilateral political and trade relationships between the US and individual states were central elements in that policy.9 Any number of political opportunists and charlatans, such as Steve Bannon, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, hitched their star to that wagon - with entirely predictable results, should their master in the White House be unable to secure a second term. For Farage, Trump’s defeat has been a personal disaster. It also left him out of pocket to the tune of £10,000 as a result of a lost bet.10 But for Johnson and British capitalism the price of a Biden victory could mean a downgrading in the global pecking order.

To say the least Trump’s defeat comes at a particularly inconvenient time for the Johnson government and the most enthusiastic Brexiteers in the Conservative Party. Their dreams of a free-booting global Britain, liberated from the European Union, and taking its place in a new ‘Anglosphere’ under the protective wing of Trump’s United States, have been dashed by Biden’s victory.11 Brexit and ‘Global Britain’ were always risky propositions, but, amidst the new realities of a post-Trump world, it is clear that Nigel Farage is not the only British politician to have backed the wrong horse.

The mood music for any future Biden-Johnson relationship does not appear to be very harmonious. Apart from his more recent role as Trump’s outrider (remember ‘Britain Trump’?), there is a longer history of tension between the Tories and the Biden camp, going back to the 1990s.12 Johnson’s more recent comments in 2016 about Barack Obama’s hostility towards Britain have not been forgotten either.13 It is quite easy to dismiss these reports as mere gossip - the small change of international politics. However, as we enter the last weeks of negotiation between Britain and the EU and look forward to discussions on an Anglo-American trade agreement, these spats point to altogether more serious problems ahead for Johnson’s government.

The first test for the Tories will be over the Internal Market Bill, which amends sections of the protocols governing Northern Ireland’s relationship with the EU’s single market and customs union after Brexit.14 During his election campaign Joe Biden argued that the status quo in Northern Ireland could not be allowed to become “a casualty of Brexit”. In response to the admission by British ministers that the Internal Market Bill breaches sections of Britain’s withdrawal agreement with the EU, Biden piled on the pressure by insisting that “any trade deal between the US and UK must be contingent upon respect for the agreement and preventing the return of a hard border. Period.”15 It appears at this stage that Johnson’s government will try to tough it out and withstand this pressure from the president-elect acting in concert with Dublin and the other EU states.16 However, we are also likely to see, in the remaining 50 days before the UK’s final withdrawal, contradictory media reports and conscious disinformation, from all sides, about last-minute negotiating breakthroughs or concessions as a quid pro quo for amendments to the Northern Irish protocol.17

If we stand back from this increasingly convoluted dance, a number of things about the position of Joe Biden and his incoming administration become clear. His intervention in the Brexit negotiations and his defence of the Good Friday Agreement is not simply electoral calculation or schmaltzy Irish-American sentimentality.18 Ireland may well be “written on Joe Biden’s soul”, but it will be Realpolitik and the interests of American capitalism that will guide his hand.19

In attempting to reconfigure US imperialism’s relationship with the EU, Brexit, the Irish border and the peace process will all be called into service as bargaining counters as required. In their own interests Dublin and the other EU member-states will cooperate with the US hegemon, as it attempts to impose its preferred solution. Given the weakened position of the Johnson government in the wake of Trump’s defeat, it is probable that the Tories will have to make concessions and give ground on the Internal Market Bill and the operation of the Northern Ireland protocols after December 31 2020. British capitalism has openly been the junior, if rather decrepit, partner to American imperialism since 1943.

However, even in its weakened state the UK has still played a useful geopolitical and military role for the US in Nato, the European Union and on global battlefields. However, with Britain out of the EU the US will have to give more importance to the Paris-Berlin axis. Britain will surely remain a vital ally but it will be far less special, far less central.

  1. For some examples of this warm welcome from across the political spectrum internationally, see eurotopics.net/en/250915/the-us-a-new-start-with-joe-biden; and eurotopics.net/en/251011/biden-will-international-politics-be-more-peaceful.↩︎

  2. theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/nov/09/joe-biden-britain-washington Darroch fell foul of Trump whilst in Washington and was replaced in 2019.↩︎

  3. theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/nov/08/joe-biden-us-world-stage-britain-brexit-coronavirus-climate.↩︎

  4. foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-01-23/why-america-must-lead-again.↩︎

  5. foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-01-23/why-america-must-lead-again.↩︎

  6. economist.com/united-states/2020/11/08/joe-biden-and-the-new-art-of-world-leadership.↩︎

  7. ft.com/content/75592d75-61ec-43f2-b435-c760db86394a.↩︎

  8. See, for example, J Mearsheimer The great delusion: liberal dreams and international realities Yale 2018 and D Hendrickson Republic in peril: American empire and the liberal tradition Oxford 2017. For an interesting review of these books that looks at the wider history and future of US foreign policy, see lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v42/n21/thomas-meaney/warfare-state.↩︎

  9. prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/steve-bannon-trumps-true-believer.↩︎

  10. express.co.uk/news/world/1355816/nigel-farage-us-election-2020-bet-Donald-trump-Joe-biden-results-ont.↩︎

  11. newstatesman.com/node/193400 and prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/anglosphere-old-dream-brexit-role-in-the-world.↩︎

  12. telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/11/09/joe-biden-does-not-view-boris-johnson-britain-trump.↩︎

  13. thetimes.co.uk/edition/news/johnson-accused-of-racism-over-obama-part-kenyan-comment-65q5zsh9p.↩︎

  14. ‘Politics of two borders’ Weekly Worker October 15.↩︎

  15. theguardian.com/politics/2020/nov/09/lords-vote-set-to-put-no-10-on-brexit-collision-course-with-biden.↩︎

  16. rte.ie/news/2020/1109/1176858-johnson-brexit-latest;and msn.com/en-gb/news/uknews/will-joe-biden-put-a-squeeze-on-boris-johnsons-brexit-plans.↩︎

  17. telegraph.co.uk/politics/2020/11/10/government-delays-internal-market-bill-vote-end-month.↩︎

  18. dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8922741/Picture-Joe-Biden-Gerry-Adams-IRA-chief-tried-kill-Army-officer-emerges.html.↩︎

  19. irishpost.com/news/read-us-president-elect-joe-bidens-heartfelt-letter-to-ireland-197205.↩︎