UK’s Starmer hoping for Biden, preparing for Trump

Keir Starmer, the UK’s new prime minister, was quiet on the question of relations with the US prior to his election, choosing to avoid, in particular, talk of how he would manage a second Donald Trump presidency.

Starmer is a center-left politician – the first to come to power in the UK for over a decade – so his views are hardly aligned with Trump’s. But the US presidential election is a few short months away and, depending on the result, the relationship between the UK and US could look very different on the other side of it.

After the first US election debate, and Joe Biden’s dismal performance, the new British government will be focusing on how to plan for Trump’s potential return to the White House in January 2025. And while Starmer has been silent in public, he and his top team have been preparing behind the scenes for some time.

Before arriving in government they put significant effort into building relationships with figures in the US leadership. This is a well-trodden path for UK Labour politicians and was most notable in the close relationship between Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and President Bill Clinton in the 1990s.

Impressively, Starmer and his foreign secretary, David Lammy, have been trying to build relationships on both sides of the aisle. They’ve spoken to Republicans as well as Biden’s Democrats on visits to the US.

Lammy, who was the first black British man to study at Harvard Law School and spent time working as a lawyer in the US after graduating, recently said in a speech the special relationship is “core not just to our own national security, but the security of much of the world”.

Responding to a question about past comments he had made about Trump, he said that the two sides must work together “whoever is in the White House.”

Lammy speaking to members of the international media days before the election. Image: Alamy / Zuma Press via The Conversation

The questioner may have been referring to the time before he became a minister when Lammy called Trump a “a racist KKK and Nazi sympathizer” and said he would protest in the streets if Trump was allowed to come to the UK.

Lammy’s cautious response to questioning now reflects his far more tempered language on the subject since it first started to look like Labour could actually win power, and he may be a member of the cabinet.

Proving the UK is useful

Starmer will be aiming to demonstrate the usefulness of the UK in the US-UK alliance. With Biden, this will be fairly routine. In the event of a Trump victory in November, however, Starmer would need to show this usefulness to those around Trump – a more difficult task.

Diplomatically, Starmer can help US administrations manage relations with NATO, encouraging more reluctant members, such as Germany, whilst restraining some of the more proactive NATO members pushing to expand the alliance.

Given Trump’s stated commitment to reevaluating the purpose of NATO, Starmer will also need to coordinate with European allies to demonstrate NATO’s relevance to the US.

Militarily, the UK has to demonstrate intent to restore the armed forces, especially after the US declared that the UK military was no longer a “top-tier” military partner.

Doing so would make it clear that the new British government is listening to its American allies but would also show that the UK intends to be able to deploy its military in support of US and NATO operations. Trump has repeatedly referred to his reluctance to deploy the US military and his expectation that allies carry more of the military burden.

Until the presidential election in November, Starmer will be dealing with President Biden. The two met at the recent D-Day commemorations and less than a week after taking office, Starmer will meet Biden again, this time as prime minister at a Nato summit.

Like every other world leader, Starmer will have to tread carefully here. Given Trump’s overt dislike for his successor, proximity to the Biden administration creates the potential for difficulties when trying to build good relations with any incoming Trump administration.

Biden has been clear in his foreign policy priorities since entering office: competition with China, and guardrails on the relationship with Russia. These guardrails flew off when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022. Yet, the Biden administration has been able to coordinate international support for Ukraine and had a clear set of priorities.

In contrast, Trump has given little insight into how he would approach foreign policy. He has declared he would “end” the Ukraine conflict but given scant detail on how.

What we do know is that he intends to stop funding Ukraine’s defense efforts and wants European allies to pay to restock US military supplies. He has also pledged to fully support Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza, which has been a point of division within Starmer’s party since before the election.

Democratic leaders from around the world struggled to deal with Trump during his first term. Typically, they either had to ignore controversies that swirled around him or become an apologist for Trump. The former US president’s preference for “strongmen” was repeatedly on show.

It would be near impossible for Starmer to emulate those who do what Trump likes best by rolling out the red carpet and lining the streets with applauding crowds. Freedom of speech in the UK means that Starmer would not be able to prevent protests against Trump if he were to come to the UK – and such protests are practically inevitable given what happened last time he visited.

Starmer would do best to try to avoid a state visit from Trump – which would include meeting the king.

The Trumps on their state visit to the UK in 2019. Photo: EPA/EFE/Stringer via The Conversation

The implications of the year ahead for the “special relationship” are clear: demonstrating the UK’s value will be far easier for Starmer in a Biden presidency than in a Trump presidency. Starmer would feel compelled to react against the damage Trump would do to US credibility rather than be able to support it – but this would further degrade the US-UK alliance.

The UK’s new government has been preparing for a relationship with either a Republican or Democratic president. As will be the case for many world leaders, Starmer will be hoping for the predictability of Biden, whilst planning for the chaos of Trump.

Christopher Featherstone is Associate Lecturer, Department of Politics, University of York

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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