Kim Darroch is the former U.K. ambassador to the United States. The following is an edited excerpt from “Collateral Damage: Britain, America, and Europe in the Age of Trump” (William Collins, 2020), out September 17.
The pandemic is destined to live on in the images it has bequeathed us: the haunted look in the U.K. prime minister’s eyes as he emerged publicly from his near-death experience after contracting the coronavirus; the 2-meter distancing lines that have seemingly overnight appeared on pavements everywhere; the tented testing centers that have sprouted in empty car parks; the aerial video of coffins being loaded into a mass grave on New York City’s Hart Island; and most of all, the unearthly sight of doctors and nurses in full protective equipment, masked, suited and gloved.
They remind me of the plague doctors of the 17th century, who wore terrifying, nightmarish masks dominated by what appeared to be huge curved beaks but were, in fact, medieval respirators stuffed with herbs and spices and intended to filter away the “miasma,” the bad air erroneously thought to be the source of the plague.
Is COVID-19 going to change the world? Life before the pandemic already feels like a lost age; and absent either a cure or a vaccine, some things may never return to how they were.
I suspect, however, that the impact will primarily be to accelerate existing trends. One, in particular, is profoundly concerning: the fragmentation of international structures, of countries and of societies. Multilateralism, as represented by the post-1945 international order, the United Nations, the IMF, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, even NATO and the European Union, has never been weaker or more disparaged.
A Biden win would be better for the multilateral system and for NATO.
Independence movements are springing up everywhere. And as the culture wars across the West demonstrate, societies are increasingly and bitterly divided.
On the face of it, one of the most obvious lessons of the pandemic is the need for international cooperation: to stop transmission from one country to another, to work jointly on vaccines and cures, to pool resources in producing and distributing drugs and medical equipment, to work together on economic recovery.
The reality, however, is that countries have almost without exception pursued national responses, on issues ranging from when and whether to close borders to testing regimes, lockdown decisions and quarantine rules. Efforts are being made to set up multilateral structures for consultation and coordination; but as of now, major countries like the United States, Russia and India are not participating. And there is hoarding, not sharing, of pharmaceutical supplies and medical equipment.
Alongside the public health challenge, the global economy has been wrecked. The IMF estimates that an extra $6 trillion of government debt has been incurred across the developed economies. The immediate priority will be saving jobs and getting economies growing again, so there will be no early return to austerity.
But free trade, already under attack with Donald Trump’s dismantling of American trade deals, his disdain for the WTO and his decision to launch a trade war with China, could be the most serious casualty. There is a risk of a comprehensive retreat from the globalization of the last decade and a surge of economic nationalism, as companies look to shorten their long-distance supply chains and governments are tempted to pursue decoupling and self-sufficiency.
This seems to me both likely and precisely the wrong answer to the challenges we collectively face, serving only to slow global recovery from the pandemic’s ruinous impact. In short, it is a moment for visionary leadership of ambition and imagination, of the kind that rebuilt the world after World War II.
The November election and the special relationship
The pandemic may also have changed the political outlook in the U.S.
Opinion polls are snapshots in time. They don’t necessarily prefigure the future. I remember vividly that in the 2016 race, Hillary Clinton was ahead, often by substantial margins, in every opinion poll until the one that mattered: November 8, Election Day.
That said, there is no doubt that, as I write, the president is having a bad run. Biden enjoys significant leads in most of the battleground states, and a substantial lead nationally; one recent poll had him 14 points ahead. And judging by Trump’s Twitter feed it bothers him, badly.
But Trump is a formidable, inexhaustible campaigner. His base will turn out for him. In contrast, Biden has never excelled as a campaigner or a debater and seems to have spent his entire career either on the cusp of a gaffe or recovering from one.
So it’s too early to call it. But I have started to wonder whether America has tired of the Great Disrupter and the daily strife and chaos. Perhaps Americans want some calm and quiet. Perhaps they don’t want to hear about politics every day. Perhaps they have had enough of all the aggravation.
What are the implications for the U.K. of the U.S. election outcome? Whoever wins, I expect the foundations of the relationship — the defense, security and intelligence cooperation, the cultural interchange — to remain as strong as ever. If Trump triumphs, I think we will get a quick free-trade deal — provided we are prepared to make some substantial concessions, particularly in allowing hugely increased imports of low-cost U.S. agricultural produce. I don’t see the U.S. doing a deal on any other basis.
A Biden win would be better for the multilateral system and for NATO. He would want to repair relations with allies and rejoin the Paris climate change agreement. But I question whether his winning would mean a new flowering of the bilateral relationship.
The Democrats remember Boris Johnson’s attacks on Obama. They are, in the main, not Brexit enthusiasts; Biden declared that if he’d had a vote, he would have cast it for Remain. They may not see a free-trade deal with the U.K. as their first priority; remember, Obama said the U.K. would be “at the back of the queue.” And Biden hasn’t actually fully committed to joining the CPTPP; he has talked about renegotiating some aspects of it to make it a better deal for the U.S. That could take a while.
Meanwhile, in the U.K., Johnson is insulated from his own sliding poll ratings by an 80-seat majority and another four and a half years before he has to face the voters. But he still has to deliver a post-Brexit deal with the European Union.
I believe that the prime minister genuinely wants a deal. But I worry that he has locked himself into an unrealistic set of demands and parameters. I suspect that this in part reflects pressure from the faction in No. 10 and the Cabinet that would prefer no deal.
They argue that the pandemic, by disrupting supply chains and encouraging a move toward economic nationalism, has greatly reduced the costs of falling back on WTO terms for future trade with the EU. And they think that the key to rebuilding the economy is the complete freedom to pursue a radical, liberalizing, legislative and regulatory agenda; against this imperative, with whom you trade and under what terms is a secondary consideration.
The Brexit vision was based on a series of separate, beneficial free trade arrangements with the global big players: the U.S., the EU, China.
But it also in part reflects the widely held British view that, when dealing with the EU, economics will always override theology: As I was told often by ministers and MPs visiting Washington, “They will still want to sell us their BMWs’.”
Just as our EU partners consistently misread British politics, I believe this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the European project, which has never been about markets and trade. And while I hope I am wrong, I think this misconception makes no deal an all-too-possible outcome.
In which eventuality, I wonder quite where we will then find our friends, partners and collaborators in this unquestionably interdependent world.
The Brexit vision was based on a series of separate, beneficial free-trade arrangements with the global big players: the U.S., the EU and China. A U.S. deal will require some politically painful climbdowns. The EU deal is looking at risk. And relations with China are increasingly fraught, over Hong Kong, over Huawei, over China’s trade practices. Who is going to line up with us if China retaliates?
On October 7, 1777, at the Second Battle of Saratoga, the British General John Burgoyne surrendered to the leader of the American forces, General Horatio Gates. It was a turning point in the American War of Independence. A painting of the surrender scene hangs in the U.S. Capitol’s Rotunda; I would walk past it every time I visited Congress. Shortly after the defeat, a young British nobleman, Sir John Sinclair, wrote to the famous Scottish economist and philosopher Adam Smith and said, “If we go on at this rate the nation must be ruined.” Smith replied: “Be assured young friend, that there is a great deal of ruin in a nation.”
I, of course, hope that we aren’t ruined. My misgivings about our circumstances are real, but I am a confirmed optimist. And I believe in a measure of British exceptionalism. We may not always channel efficiency, or discipline, or orderliness. But we have a genius for creativity and for improvisation. I hope that will see us through.
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