Stephen Hunsaker explores what impact the upcoming US election might have on the UK, suggesting that the most direct consequences will likely be in the foreign policy domain – especially if Donald Trump is elected.
People often say that the US thinks the world revolves not around the sun but instead the stars and stripes. This may be a slight hyperbole, but it’s also not entirely inaccurate, metaphorically speaking.
As the 2024 US presidential election ramps up to 5 November, the question that many Brits may be asking is: what does it really matter for the UK?
The answer is a mixed bag of direct impacts in areas like national security and foreign policy, potential opportunities for post-Brexit Britain in areas like trade and AI, and indirect impacts for the upcoming UK general election – which is likely to also be held at the end of 2024.
The US presidential election looks all but certain to be a rematch of 2020 between Democratic incumbent Joe Biden and former Republican president Donald Trump – and which of them ends up coming out on top this time will greatly affect relations between the US and UK.
What might the direct impacts be?
On matters of foreign policy, Trump, in addition to a majority of other Republican candidates, have campaigned on foreign policy positions which are at odds with both the UK Labour and the Conservative Party positions. Trump has threatened to upend many cornerstones of current US foreign policy, from defunding military support for Ukraine (and requiring the EU to reimburse the US for ammunition used in Ukraine), withdrawing from NATO or not coming to Europe’s aid if attacked, to withdrawing from international treaties like the Paris Agreement (again),
If Trump wins, a lack of US support and common position, particularly with the escalation of war in the Middle East, and continuation in Ukraine, as well as tensions growing in the East regarding China and Taiwan, could place the UK in a challenging foreign policy position where it has traditionally been a close ally of the US. It would require not only the UK but also Europe, to become more defensively autonomous and to do so quickly. In doing so, a Trump presidency may draw the UK and the EU closer together and further from the US.
By contrast, if Biden wins re-election it can be expected that in matters of foreign policy, there will be fewer differences between the US and UK approach, regardless of which party wins the UK election. Already the UK and US have been in close agreement on the war in Ukraine, the conflict in Gaza, and most recently the attacks on Houthis in Yemen.
What potential opportunities would either US president bring?
The US remains the UK’s largest single-country trade partner. A free trade agreement with the US has been one of the primary aims of the Conservative government since Brexit, and negotiations were opened in May 2020. While there were some positive words exchanged on both sides, the Johnson government was unable to sign an agreement under the Trump presidency as tensions with Trump’s protectionist ‘America First’ ideology made any concession difficult. Trump threatened tariffs on UK car imports and a desire for the UK to open itself up to US food products like chlorine-treated chicken and hormone-treated meat.
Less progress has been made towards an agreement under Biden’s presidency, who has not shown interest in signing trade deals with the UK or any country, instead focusing on his watershed Inflation Reduction Act which supported massive investment in domestic production.
While a Conservative government after the next UK general election is likely to continue to pursue a Free Trade Agreement with the US, Keir Starmer and the Labour Party have not indicated whether this is also their position, instead stating they would focus on fewer, higher quality trade agreements or a more targeted digital trade deal.
Whichever party wins the UK election, if either Trump or Biden wins the next election, the conclusion of an agreement with the US will still not be likely. Biden’s position on FTAs, international trade, and the UK will likely not change much in a second term. While Trump has previously pursued a deal with the UK it is unclear if that will translate to an actual agreement as the UK and Trump will continue to have a set of diametrically opposed views on key trade issues, including on pharmaceuticals to tariffs on foreign car imports, and poultry and meat standards.
Beyond a trade agreement, some have mooted that the UK could play an intermediary role, likely as a middle ground or even as a mediator, in global regulation between the US and the EU, especially for green infrastructure subsidies and AI.
This looks increasingly less likely for green investment as the UK has been unable to get a foot in the door. No significant green investment plan has been put forward by the current government, and Labour has recently cast doubt on its £28 billion green investment plan.
On AI, the UK has been able to work with the US and EU already, hosting an AI summit in November 2023, which both attended. However, the EU and the US have taken different courses on how to regulate AI, with the EU passing an AI Act in February 2024, while the US has taken a lighter touch approach, with regulation a distant prospect. It does not look like the UK will play an influential role on either front in decision-making on how to regulate the technology as its indecision on which approach to take has left the UK behind in the conversations.
Under a Trump presidency it is unclear if any conversations will happen around AI regulation and future green subsidies would likely be completely off the table (look no further than Trump’s complete disdain for wind turbines).
While no date has been set for the UK election, recent reports have implied that Sunak might call the election for October instead of November to avoid coinciding too closely with the US election, due to concerns of global insecurity after the US election. There’s also no evidence that a Trump victory ahead of the UK election would help the Conservatives in the polls.
Either way, the next US president is certain to determine whether the UK has a strong ally on the global stage, or will have to forge a more difficult path alone.
By Stephen Hunsaker, researcher, UK in a Changing Europe.