Image — Migrants from Hong Kong gather in Piccadilly Circus in London to express solidarity with pro-democracy activists charged under their country's National Security Law. Photo by May James/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.

New Opportunities for Britain Come with Health Warning

A greater emphasis from Britain on its global role over its European role could be a risk, but the Biden administration can help steer a balance.


  • Opinion
  • 10 Mar 2021
  • 10 min read


We do not know whether the sighs of relief at Donald Trump’s defeat in November were as audible and profound in 10 Downing Street as they were in chancelleries across Europe, but they should have been.

Trump’s brand of nationalist politics, his disdain for allies, and his soft spot for dictators were a massive challenge to all medium-sized democracies which look to America to underpin their defence, and for leadership in a world where the rules are coming under increasing challenge. 

Joe Biden’s administration offers a new beginning for America’s friends and allies, perhaps especially for Britain. The platform for the UK’s revitalization in the era of Thatcher and Blair was becoming a leading member of the European Union, a European power in good standing with Washington with a global outlook and interests. In his recent book Britain Alone, Philip Stephens notes that by ‘pulling up the European anchor, Britain left itself without a role’. 

Can calmer waters and the more considered world view of a Biden-led America help Britain find a new role? The publication of the Integrated Review of Britain’s defence, diplomacy and intelligence will show us how the British government is thinking, and signs are it is inclined to put more emphasis on Britain’s ‘global’ role and less on its ‘European’ one. This may provide some mileage on important issues such as climate change and values in foreign policy, but it does come with health warnings.

Climate success can boost Britain’s reputation

Prospects for success at the Glasgow COP26 have been transformed by the Biden administration’s outlook on climate change. Britain has always been in the European mainstream on climate issues and has done well in reducing its emissions, almost eliminating the use of coal and replacing it with low-carbon gas and zero-carbon wind. 

Britain also has a good record as a convening power, bringing countries together and using diplomacy and intelligence skills to find solutions. For Glasgow to be a success, American leadership is needed but America also has to put its own house in order. President Biden must commit to much more ambitious climate reductions at home, maybe reducing America’s emissions by as much as 50 per cent by 2030 as a stepping-stone to being ‘net zero’ by 2050.

That requires serious measures such as a carbon tax and an emissions trading scheme; only with that level of American commitment will John Kerry’s international advocacy with China and others be empowered. As Kerry said at the recent Munich Security Conference, Glasgow is the ‘last best hope’ to limit temperature rises to 1.5 degrees. 

If COP26 can get the world onto a realistic path to that goal then the reputation of the UK and its national confidence would receive a much-needed boost, just as the 2012 London Olympics provided almost a decade ago.

Values help Britain be a force for good

Democracy is on the back foot in many parts of the world so the return of values to American foreign policy is a welcome step. In its first two months, the Biden administration has found a balanced path in dealing with Saudi Arabia and Turkey, giving them opportunities to restore their standing as reliable and constructive partners and allies. It would be a strategic mistake to cast major countries such as these adrift, and no sensible statesman would contemplate that move. But there are certain standards their leaders need to be held to. 

So, for Britain to be a force for good in the world, it has to stand up for core values such as freedom of the individual and the rule of law, especially where we helped establish them.

Hong Kong is one good example, as China is using its raw power over the territory to torpedo ‘One Country, Two Systems’. The British government response is welcome, not just calling out Beijing for reneging on its commitments but also offering up to three million Hong Kong citizens a new life in Britain. It is a bold move but also one in its national interest as welcoming highly-skilled Hong Kong entrepreneurs and tech innovators will help get the British economy moving forwards again.

When it comes to values, being selective is not an option. America is no longer a laggard in addressing disasters like Yemen and Libya – in both of which Britain has had a hand – and Ukraine. Britain and America need to stand up for their values in these war-torn places too, as well as avoiding action which fuels the violence.

Britain has been absent from peacebuilding diplomacy in recent years. The Biden era offers the US a chance to get back into the habit of creating small groups to drive forward policy and build pressure to resolve conflicts, as was successfully achieved in the Balkans, the Middle East, and parts of Africa.

Health warnings for both Britain and the EU

By tucking back in under an American-led framework, Britain can find some shelter from the dangers of a ‘Trumpian’ world of great power rivalry and declining multilateralism. The EU is better placed than the UK to defend itself economically, but both would benefit hugely from a common transatlantic approach on Russia and China which recognises the stark challenges both countries pose to democracies in Europe and Asia.

Restoring Western unity is a paramount objective, and that requires both realism and solidarity. To get there, the Biden team should deliver clear health warnings to Britain and the EU.

For Britain, the message is ‘beware overreach’. Brexit has not changed Britain’s global postcode, it is still a European country; nor has it inflated Britain’s power. The best contribution to Asian security may be for the UK to take on a greater burden in NATO to ensure the defence of Europe and the Atlantic, freeing up American capabilities for the bigger task further away. And certainly, be cautious about sailing an under-equipped aircraft carrier through the South China Sea simply to make a point about ‘Global Britain’. Striking a bold posture in the world when it is not backed up by the necessary hard power is to be avoided.

For the EU, President Biden should welcome Europe’s ambition for strategic autonomy, so long as that means more than just sticking a finger in America’s eye on China.  The European Commission’s ambition to be geopolitical should be admired, but it is making a poor fist of it so far. The EU has three big neighbours – Russia, Turkey, and Britain – and is making a hash of its relations with all three.

  • With Russia, the EU’s aim seems to be to deepen its economic dependence and seek a warmer, less conditional relationship with President Putin.  
  • With Turkey, some European leaders seem determined to pick a fight with President Erdogan rather than seeking fair solutions to Turkey’s valid concerns, though there have been some welcome moves of late to pull back from confrontation. 
  • With Britain, the EU can claim it is defending its interests in the wake of Brexit but, when an old friend paints themself into a corner, friendly neighbours should try to help. At present, the EU is seeking to inflict as much damage as it can on the UK economy, and is thoughtlessly contributing to undermining the Northern Ireland peace process. That is not the basis for a future partnership between like-minded allies.

The Biden administration must call out this inverse ordering of EU priorities. One practical step is to revitalize the Transatlantic Quad of France, Germany, the UK, and US in the same way it is boosting the Asian Quad with India, Australia, and Japan. These small groups really work as a means of ensuring unity and grinding out common policies on difficult problems.

Ultimately, Britain welcomes the Biden agenda. As two countries still recovering from deep domestic divisions, the UK and US can help each another find a new balance that addresses some of the underlying causes. The EU was rightly shocked by both Brexit and Trump, but now has scope to contribute to a new and more resilient order. Opportunities abound, but is there the collective wit to take them?

This article is part of the series America’s Global Role: The View from Abroad by the US and the Americas Programme at Chatham House.