Fireworks lit up the night sky over London after Joe Biden was projected by news outlets to be the winner in last week’s presidential election. If it was anything like the mood in the liberal precincts of America’s cities, the fireworks were meant to celebrate Donald Trump’s departure from the White House more than Biden’s arrival in it.
But not everyone in the sceptered isle is so keen to see Trump’s backside. A very different narrative is being spun by some in the British press that Trump was actually a stalwart friend whom the British will miss dearly.
Case in point: Douglas Murray, a sharp polemicist who writes widely on matters of politics and culture, argues that Biden “and the Democrat high command” have no affinity for modern Britain. Some readers will recall the conservative consternation on both sides of the pond over President Obama’s decision to remove the bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office. (At the time, now-Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that Obama was motivated by an “ancestral dislike of the British empire.”) Once more, this latest bout of paranoia seems poorly defined and overdetermined.
In Murray’s mind, Biden and his surrogates “loathe Brexit Britain.” On what grounds does he justify this bold claim? Murray cites Democrats’ belief that the Brexit movement had something to do with the election of Donald Trump. This is quite strange. After all, many Trump-aligned Republicans feel the same way. Trump himself endorsed Brexit and was in turn endorsed by many leading Brexiteers. In the waning days of the 2020 presidential campaign, the visage of deranged Brexiteer Nigel Farage appeared at a Trump rally in Arizona. This was a surpassingly odd choice, since there’s scant evidence that EU agricultural tariffs were a primary motivator of swing voters in Scottsdale. In any case, it would be hard to miss the connection between twin campaigns ostensibly launched against the globalist elite in the Anglosphere in the same year.
It’s a sound bet that Biden, and most of the Democratic elite, had grave misgivings regarding Britain’s 2016 exit from the European Union. (So too, one might add, did a majority of the British governing class, both Labour and Tory.) But it strains credulity that a leader in the mold of Biden, elected on the promise of uniting his own divided nation, would regard 52 percent of the British public (the number that voted to quit the EU in the 2016 referendum) as speaking for the whole of Great Britain. The assumption that Biden is driven by some deep animosity to the U.K. is wholly without basis, which may help explain why Murray fails to give a single example of it.
Murray does not stop there, alas. He proceeds to suggest that the humiliated Trump is “a great friend of the U.K.” This is not merely speculative and provocative; it is something close to lunacy. To refute the assertion that Donald Trump is a friend of the British people, one need not show that he is the antithesis of the Victorian virtues. One need not prove that he is completely ignorant of, and indifferent to, the works of the British empire. It is not even necessary to show that his upper lip is distinctly soft, or that he has adopted the label of those isolationists who wished to abandon Britain in its lonely fight against the Luftwaffe.
It is simply a category error to think that Trump, a pathological narcissist, is even capable of affection or allegiance of this sort. This has been the blind spot of the vast majority of Trump’s apologists from the beginning, presuming that this kind of man could ever be a different kind of leader. As Trump will ever make plain, he can serve no cause greater than himself because he feels no passion—and has no competence—for principle beyond self-interest.
Murray ignores the crushing weight of this contrary evidence and instead notes a technical point about Trump’s years-long support for what Murray dubs a “generous” trade deal with Brexit Britain, concluding that “he is on our side.” But it’s not remotely true that Trump was keen to help our British friends in their hour of need. Murray neglects to mention that before negotiating a U.S.-U.K. free trade pact, Trump slapped Britain with erroneous national-security tariffs on steel and aluminum, as Thomas Wright noted in Politico. The Trump administration also hinted that Britain may have to unravel key features of its overwhelmingly popular National Health Service in exchange for inking a deal. As Trump enters the final weeks of his administration, it’s a credulous fool who thinks there’s a shadow of a chance for a trade deal to be finalized in between outrageous tweets heaping scorn on American democracy and drawing up pardons, including perhaps his own.
None of this is to say that President Biden will make a uniformly excellent steward of U.S. foreign policy. Many of Trump’s sins of commission will be repudiated but many of Obama’s sins of omission will likely be replicated. One gets the impression that Biden understands that after years of scorn and malign neglect, Europeans and Britons must be enjoined to come in from the cold. NATO, and the principle of collective security that undergirds it, will receive the respect they deserve. The European Union will not be treated as a foe of the United States. Biden may even have learned from experience that the dangers of unchecked Russian adventurism demand a firm American response at the head of a broad European alliance. No more ill-fated resets with Vladimir Putin, much less the kind of kowtowing to which the Russian despot has become accustomed.
This would all accord with Biden’s larger dispensation to promote American principles and Western unity. The return of great power competition has reignited the antique struggle between democracy and autocracy, and Biden is patently opposed to American neutrality in this contest. This posture should give heart to depressed democracies around the world, although whether Asian democracies have cause for relief will be measured by the seriousness of Washington’s strategy toward China, which remains an open question.
And there’s considerable reason for pessimism about U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. It is this realm where the Obama administration most obviously shirked its duties to advance American interests and principles. Its abdication of responsibility here was founded on a deeply flawed analysis of security and progress that would garner high marks at the American University of Beirut, but which fared poorly against the harsh realities of the region. Obama’s casual indifference to murderous Iranian expansionism was paired with steely indifference to the cause of Iranian dissidents protesting a fraudulent election put on display by a moribund theocracy. The distaste for imperial policing led the Obama administration to abort the Iraq expedition before consensual government and a monopoly on force had taken hold in Baghdad, which precipitated the return of Islamist violence in the guise of ISIS. The Syrian war broke out late in Obama’s first term, and continued every day of his second term without a modicum of American power being brought to bear to suspend that vast butchery. The Obama administration’s acute opposition to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank was not attended by any great efforts to assuage Israeli fears.
And so, although Biden will almost certainly reinvigorate the wounded Western alliance, he may well fail to revive America’s diminished position in the Middle East. The high economic and political and strategic stakes of America’s growing competition with China require that the American president act in a concerted manner to build up situations of strength in East Asia. Toward this end, Biden should follow his instinct to shore up America’s security alliances and economic partnerships. Both have suffered sustained structural damage, and repairing them will require a delicate combination of intelligence and imagination as well as spine and sinew.
In February 1941, Henry Luce famously took to the pages of Life to declare the birth of “the American century.” His editorial, which today is more often cited than actually read, had two main objectives. In the near term, it called upon the United States to abandon its isolationism and join the battle against the Axis powers. In the longer term, it summoned the United States to supplant Britain as the chief guarantor of world order and build an international system conducive to “American principles.”
Eighty years later, the United States has broadly fulfilled the role Luce imagined for it. In the three decades since the end of the Cold War, however, Americans have demonstrated rising ambivalence about the continued viability (and in some cases morality) of this role. Despite a brief exception after September 11, 2001 when the United States deployed its power to the Hindu Kush and Mesopotamia with the broad assent of the American public, it has grown to resemble—psychologically if not materially—the very sort of weary titan that Britain was after its ferocious confrontation with Hitler.
Donald Trump has been the ugliest possible manifestation of this growing American diffidence and timidity. His predecessor was a far more elegant and palatable expression of an America that was no longer keenly interested in the business of upholding the liberal world order. But whereas Barack Obama generally preferred to conceal American retrenchment with paeans to American global leadership, Trump has been a gratuitous flouter of American-established norms without any pretense of hypocrisy. Obama promised “nation-building at home,” signaling to friend and foe alike that they would have to find their way in a world devoid of American leadership. Trump offered a program of “America First” that treated trusted allies with bitter contempt and sworn adversaries with obsequious praise—the love letters Trump exchanged with Kim Jong-un will live in infamy.
Undoing the damage done to the country’s elaborately constructed and long-maintained system of alliances will be the first order of business for the incoming Biden administration. America’s allies will be watching closely to ascertain whether Biden’s promise of improved alliance-maintenance is more than mere rhetoric. In light of Biden’s long-honed political instincts, as well as the contemporary nature of the Democratic party, the results will probably be mixed. But this will stand in stark contrast to Trump’s performance, which has been almost uniformly dreadful.
Winston Churchill, to invoke another figure conservatives like to cite more than read nowadays, told a story about the man who received a telegram reporting the death of his mother-in-law and asking for instructions. The man telegraphed back: “Embalm, cremate, bury at sea. Take no chances.” Americans, Britons, and all who revere the liberal order ought to adopt a similar approach to the overdue end of the Trump presidency.