Democrats now overwhelmingly see Brexit as a monumental act of folly that will make the U.K. weaker and poorer. They have little love for Johnson, who is often, and somewhat unfairly, regarded as a kindred spirit of Trump. Given all that, analysts might assume that a potential Biden administration would simply ignore the U.K., putting it at the “back of the queue,” as Obama once warned, allowing London to stew in its own juices.
Read: The pandemic’s geopolitical aftershocks are coming
However, Johnson’s course correction in foreign policy may change the way a potential Biden administration views Britain. Johnson banned Huawei from the U.K.’s 5G infrastructure. Downing Street has worked with Australia, Canada, and the U. S. to impose sanctions on China for its actions in Hong Kong. In response to China’s new security law in Hong Kong, Britain offered refugee status to up to 3 million Hong Kong residents and ended its extradition agreement with the territory. The U.K. has also proposed a new organization of democracies (the D-10) and introduced new sanctions against individuals involved in human-rights abuses, including 25 Russians, 20 Saudis, two high-ranking Myanmar military generals, and two North Korean organizations.
I talked with two people familiar with Johnson and his team’s thinking. They spoke on condition of anonymity so they could discuss it freely. Downing Street now accepts that the past 10 years of foreign policy have not been particularly effective. The U.K. needs a strategy, and they know that the hyper-prosperity agenda—seeing the world outside of Europe as a massive economic opportunity—was not it.
Johnson believes the U.K. has a vital interest in an open and rules-based order. Without that, Britain runs the risk of getting stuck between competing blocs. But the U.K. can’t just go back to the old liberal order of unfettered globalization and integration. In his speeches, Johnson and his cabinet now invoke the New Deal and Franklin D. Roosevelt, rather than Ronald Reagan, welcoming a larger role for government intervention in the economy. This reflects a leftward shift on foreign economic policy, with a greater focus on the resilience of open societies and a recognition that the global economy must change how it dispenses wealth.
London also sees the international order as a strategic space where liberal ideas compete with anti-liberal alternatives, rather than a place where all powers will converge on a shared approach. This partly explains the decision to stand up to China and other authoritarians. This view is closer to how Biden sees the world—where competition with China is a consequence of an effort to build a community of free societies—than Trump’s singular focus on China as an economic threat.
Why Johnson has gone in this direction is unclear. The charitable explanation: The shift is an act of conviction, although that seems incomplete at best. As the foreign secretary and the mayor of London, he supported closer engagement with China. Less charitable: The old approach collapsed under pressure from multiple sources. The U.S. made clear that it would not tolerate a situation whereby the U.K. was compromised by technological dependence on China. China’s behavior, particularly over Hong Kong, revealed the true nature of the Xi regime for those who were still clinging to old orthodoxies.