2020 US Presidential Election – What is at Stake for International Relations?

October 2020

About The Speaker

Sir David was a career diplomat for thirty-five years. He served in Warsaw, New Delhi, Paris and Moscow. He was Ambassador to Israel, Ambassador to NATO, and Foreign Policy Adviser to the Prime Minister. His last posting was as Ambassador to the United States (2003-2007).


Sir David devoted the first part of his talk to considering what a second Trump term might mean for multilateralism, transatlantic relations and US/China tensions.

Noting that President Trump’s first term had seen a sharp break with the US post-war approach to foreign and security policy, Sir David described and illustrated the President’s suspicion of and antipathy for multilateral obligations and institutions, which the President sees as inhibiting the pursuit of national interests and ‘America First!’.

If Trump were re-elected, Sir David expected this competitive, transactional, ‘America First’ approach to continue, at the expense of multilateral/international cooperation. The undermining or repudiation of international organisations would continue.

On the transatlantic front Sir David thought a further deterioration in trade and economic relations with the EU likely. A Trump administration would take opportunities to weaken or marginalise the EU. Further tariff wars, and rows over data protection and taxation of digital companies were to be expected. There could be tensions about how to manage political and trade relations with China. Personal relations between Trump and individual EU leaders were unlikely to improve.

Trump’s antagonism towards NATO, which he saw as an expensive burden that inhibited US freedom of action, might lead him to qualify America’s commitment to the alliance, undermining its credibility. He might even try to withdraw the US from NATO.  In either case, Sir David feared that NATO was likely to disintegrate, European stability to suffer, and the US to alienate long standing strategic partners.

For the UK, the most pressing challenge would be to obtain a favourable Free Trade Agreement. There were  already difficulties over the Trump administration’s demands for the relaxation of UK agricultural standards, and for easier access for the export of US pharmaceuticals.  There was no reason to expect that Trump would be more generous during a second term. Congress would block a Free Trade Agreement if Brexit put the Good Friday Agreement in jeopardy. On climate change, multilateralism, human rights and Iran, clear UK/US policy differences would remain, accentuated by the dysfunctional nature of the Trump White House and a hollowing out of the State Department. The UK would still be valued as a partner in the security sphere, but that value would  decline if NATO were to disintegrate, or if the size and effectiveness of the UK’s armed forces diminished further.

The current tense US/China relationship would probably become even tenser during a second term. Trade imbalances and Chinese trade-related practices would feed tensions. So would security concerns about Taiwan and the South China Sea; the ‘Belt and Road Initiative ‘ was increasingly seen in Washington as a tool of Chinese economic imperialism; and there was mounting US concern over fast-growing Chinese spending on conventional and nuclear weapons.

Less predictable was the US/Russia outlook. Would Trump attempt a reset, less constrained by claims that his 2016 election benefitted from covert Russian influence? Would he relax sanctions on Russia, go easier on Nordstream 2 and pursue a nuclear arms control ‘deal of the century’ with President Putin? How would all that play in central and eastern Europe, e.g. with the Germans, the Poles and Balts?

Turning to what could be expected if former Vice-President Biden were to win the election, Sir David suggested that stark policy differences would result from a radically different vision of international relations and how to conduct them. Biden’s lengthy senatorial career and vice-presidency had made him a multilateralist and equipped him with huge experience of international affairs, knowledge of issues and acquaintance with foreign leaders. He would surround himself with a highly experienced foreign and security team. He would rebuild institutional and diplomatic policy-making capacity.

Biden’s multilateralism would be evident in his administration’s approach to such issues as climate change/the 2016 Paris Accord (NB UK hosting COP 26 in December 2021), global trade/the WTO, global health/the WHO, human rights and the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran (JCPOA).

US/China relations were likely to be a top priority. Being ‘tough on China’ had been as much a Biden as a Trump campaign theme. Anti-Chinese sentiment was strong on both sides of the aisle in Congress. A Biden administration would confront China on some issues  such as Taiwan and the South China Sea and try to work with China on others such as climate change and handling pandemics.

Biden would keep the US at the heart of NATO, while pressing for larger European defence budgets. He would want to work with the EU where partnership seemed possible, e.g. on China issues, and to contain sources of friction. The EU would take priority over the UK in his calculations. He would see the UK’s weight and role in the international system as diminished by Brexit, which he had opposed. He was unlikely to give as much priority to a UK/US Free Trade Agreement as Trump had promised, even if the bilateral relationship was close. He had warned that he would refuse to endorse any FTA  if a ‘no deal Brexit’  compromised the Good Friday agreement.

Overall, a Biden administration’s multilateral approach would be much more in the UK’s national interest than the ‘America First’ approach of Trump but this did not mean there would not be some awkward and uncomfortable moments for the Johnson government.