Britain Is Holding Its Breath

Britain Is Holding Its Breath

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

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.