Britain Is Holding Its Breath

The results of the U.S. election will pose existential questions in London.

A man in London holds up a stylized American flag featuring Donald Trump
Jeff J. Mitchell / Getty

It is that time again, when the world outside the United States stops, when we foreigners hold our collective breath and look up from our own domestic concerns to discover whom the citizens of America have chosen as their new Caesar—and ours.

The outcome has always mattered, and mattered enormously, but has rarely affected an American ally’s core strategy: The U.S. was simply too important, its foreign policy too settled, for any other country’s policies to be tied to one particular candidate. A leader of a European state might dislike or disapprove of an American presidential hopeful’s politics, philosophy, or temperament, but this did not usually swell into fears about the fundamental interests of the state itself. Ronald Reagan’s election was beneficial to Margaret Thatcher, but a Jimmy Carter victory would’ve been fine for Britain. Barack Obama’s election was welcomed by most in Europe, but John McCain was perfectly acceptable. Even George W. Bush’s victory in 2000 was not existential. (Perhaps the one exception to this rule is the 1940 election of Franklin D. Roosevelt, upon whose shoulders Winston Churchill rested many of his hopes—and the free world’s. But even in that case, Roosevelt’s opponent, Wendell Willkie, was very pro-British, and FDR ultimately used him as an informal envoy to London in 1941.)

This rule no longer holds. For weeks, if not months, the angst of the British establishment has dripped onto the pages of its national newspapers and magazines. Boris Johnson’s government is panicking about a Joe Biden victory, one report says; the claim is then quickly dismissed in another outlet, which points out that the prime minister certainly wants a Democratic victory. The arguments and briefings go round and round. On the one hand, Britain needs Donald Trump’s support for a post-Brexit trade deal, we read—something a Democrat-controlled White House and Congress are unlikely to prioritize. But on the other hand, we’re told that this is nonsense and that of course Johnson’s government favors a Biden win, because Trump threatens everything the British government holds dear, especially after Brexit, whether that be NATO, global trade, the United Nations, environmental protections, or the Iranian nuclear deal.

Whatever the merits of these claims and counterclaims, the important point for Britain is that it is no longer simply an interested outsider observing the American democratic process, but a co-opted combatant whose national interests appear to be on the line. Suddenly, its political characters are onstage introducing Trump at rallies, while its prime minister is a bogeyman of one party—a name to drop into sound bites to signal distaste. Britain’s current government risks joining Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel in aligning with one party, which means that the opposition aligns with the other. Not only has American politics changed, but the ferocity of this change has dragged other countries into the drama.

Britain’s security and economy are so closely tied to its special relationship with the U.S. that the election poses particularly difficult questions. How, for example, can Britain develop a security strategy if it cannot rely on American support for NATO? How can it design a trade strategy outside the European Union if it does not know whether the U.S. will support free trade, the World Trade Organization, or the idea of an agreement with Britain from one presidency to the next?

This leads to a truly existential question for Britain: If the potential election of Biden—the most centrist, cautious, trans-Atlantic, status quo candidate imaginable—causes apparent soul-searching in London, then perhaps the problem lies not with America, but closer to home. Indeed, if the election of one president or another is an existential challenge, then perhaps the issue is Britain’s strategy itself. If Britain’s global trade policy is dependent on reaching a deal with the U.S., then is that strategy wise to begin with? If Britain’s national defense relies on an America that is now stretched and resentful of its burden, is this sensible either?

To ask such questions invites an even deeper discussion about the very nature of what Britain wants to achieve with its foreign policy. For example, it has long been taken for granted that Britain should seek to maximize its influence in Washington. But few officials or advocates in London ask: to what end? We are told we must invest in our military to protect our standing in America. But again, to what purpose? Will spending more than Germany on defense mean that Biden visits London ahead of Berlin, or gives Britain preferential treatment on trade or, well, anything? If no, then why spend the money? Does the British national interest require sending warships through the South China Sea? Does Japan suffer by not sending ships to the North Sea? Does Germany suffer by doing almost nothing, by comparison, for international defense?

In the end, all these challenges reveal the essential question that lurks underneath: What kind of country does Britain seek to be? This question may well have been prompted by the U.S. election, but it is not for Biden or Trump to answer.

In January 1961, John F. Kennedy gave his inauguration address. “Let the word go forth from this time and place,” he declared, “that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.” But this new generation did not have fundamentally different ideals, he said. They would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Such promises, of course, led to Vietnam and a changed America that today offers few of these assurances.

Kennedy ended his speech with the appeal for which it is now famous: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Yet a subsequent appeal, not as well known today, was added for the citizens of the world: “Ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”

Perhaps Britain, like the other countries of the American alliance, must follow this advice 60 years on, even if it’s for the less grandiose goal of its own freedom rather than that of mankind.