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How Joe Biden can help Britain modernise its role in the world

Robert B. Zoellick

The US needs a policy for post-Brexit Britain: one that embraces the country but offers enough flexibility to encourage the UK to modernise its world role.

The guiding stars of President Joe Biden’s foreign policy appear to be democracy, allies and multilateralism, climate change, economic and technological innovation, open societies and a prudent strategy of defence and deterrence. What country offers a better fit than Britain?

Yet London’s course looks uncertain. Having left the EU with an agreement for trade in goods, Britons now worry that their services businesses will become supplicants. The country’s empire is long gone, leaving the Commonwealth as a cultural memento.

In fact, the UK offers opportunities. It is the world’s fifth-largest economy, with renowned universities and leading-edge research capacities. The Bank of England and UK Treasury have earned worldwide respect. Nuclear-armed Britain expects to spend more on defence than any other European member of Nato, contributes to the US-led intelligence network, funds innovations in development and holds a permanent UN Security Council seat. London’s law courts serve as paragons of justice. By offering millions of Hong Kongers residence in Britain, the UK has advanced the one serious, positive response to China’s suppression of liberty.

Nevertheless, the UK could slide into a “Little England” mindset, floundering in frustration with the EU and even breaking apart. That would be a tragedy, and a serious loss for America’s long-term interests. Britain needs encouragement — and added leverage — as it renegotiates its place with the EU and the world. By acting independently of EU processes, the UK can gain agility. And a more successful Britain will have more influence with the EU.

The Biden administration should offer a hand by making Britain’s two showcase events of 2021 successful. As host of the G7 summit in June, the UK plans to invite Australia, India and South Korea, to foster greater co-operation among major democracies. This is an idea Biden has advocated. The US should welcome British leadership, while working behind the scenes to ensure practical accomplishments, whether through vaccines for developing countries, global economic recovery or cyber security and freedoms.

Britain will also host the UN COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow in November. In addition to promoting the US environmental agenda, the Biden administration and Britain need to gain momentum for climate policies globally. They could draw in developing countries through plans for forestation, soil carbon and agricultural reforms, energy efficiencies and technology transfer. Now is the time to build private sector partnerships through investor incentives, carbon reporting and corporate governance standards. London, Washington and Brussels should encourage China to shift from participation to leadership on climate by translating Beijing’s vows into plans to limit peak emissions and incorporate green policies into overseas investments.

The US should work with London to align UK defence and intelligence spending with America’s, as Australia has done. Cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, maritime defences and special operations capabilities would be more valuable than big platforms. Britain must retain its sovereignty on military decisions, but is likely to benefit from interoperability with the US. Participation in the defence of the Baltic states and Poland against Russia’s hybrid threats would demonstrate London’s vital role in European security.

On economic components, Biden could gain bipartisan support for a North America-UK free trade agreement including labour and carbon provisions. The deal should set world-class standards for digital trade and tech entrepreneurship while respecting sovereign protections for privacy and security. An accord would help Britain offer a timely signal to investors. A transatlantic negotiation needs to recognise the importance of Britain’s EU ties. It should also help London and Brussels to recognise trade-offs between precautionary EU regulations and innovation.

In 1789, a US founding father, Alexander Hamilton, proposed a startling strategic arrangement with America’s recent British foe, explaining: “We think in English.” Of course, a US-UK initiative would be founded upon mutual interests, not just shared histories and cultures. Given shifts in global power and the reopening of vast Eurasian land and sea networks, the US should prize its democratic allies — especially those along the maritime perimeter. America must help an independent, friendly Britain to succeed. 

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