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British foreign policy in an age of Trump 2.0

Though he still faces Republican Party primaries, a presidential election, and a range of criminal indictments, there is a significant possibility that Donald Trump will once again enter the White House as President of the United States (US). Defying all political convention, recent polling suggests he is tied closely with Joe Biden, the incumbent President and Democratic Party candidate, heading into the November 2024 election.

A second Trump administration would alter the course of American foreign policy drastically and bring widespread change to the current global landscape. And whether it is in Europe, the Indo-Pacific, or elsewhere, there are few single events which would have such a profound impact on the United Kingdom’s (UK) international interests as Trump’s potential return. The next US election may seem far away, and other concerns may be more pressing currently, but it is time for British policymakers from all political stripes to begin proactively constructing contingency plans for this possibility.

Trump 1.0 to Trump 2.0

Trump’s first term of office was one of foreign policy chaos. There were nuclear threats towards the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea), the announcement of sanctions on Iran via Twitter, and attacks on institutions vital to US national security, such as the Central Intelligence Agency

Trump’s belief that foreign affairs had to be transactional also led him to withdraw from a range of trade, climate, and security agreements. He threatened to remove all US troops from the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) unless they quintupled their defence spending, and even indicated he would leave the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Isolationism has deep roots in American political thought, but such behaviour tested relations with key strategic allies from Europe to East Asia.

Most disturbingly, Trump displayed an infatuation for numerous autocratic leaders of different foreign powers. His relations with Kim Jong Un, the North Korean Supreme Leader, did bring landmark talks on nuclear weapons. But his intimacy with Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, was more unsettling. From evidence of Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 US election in support of the Republican candidate, to Trump defying his own intelligence community to side with Putin in Helsinki, the relationship between the two presidents was at times alarming.

Trump’s flair for the unpredictable and his lack of a clearly defined strategy outside of ‘America first’ isolationism make it difficult to anticipate exactly how his second administration would develop. He is also yet to lay out his views clearly on several important topics, such as the AUKUS agreement, the series of military coups in Africa, or his stance towards Taiwan. 

But it is still possible, through past policies, recent campaign rhetoric, and other Republican figures, to make general predictions of what his second round of foreign policies would look like, especially in the two regions most important to current British strategy: the Indo-Pacific and Eastern Europe.

On the People’s Republic of China (PRC), there is little to suggest his approach would differ much from that displayed during his first term. A combination of bellicose rhetoric and economic protectionism would likely continue, and the renewed trade war would also likely feature many of the policies of the Biden administration, such as the legislation to limit Chinese semiconductor chip manufacturing. 

But Trump’s desire to gain the best ‘deal’ for his myopic definition of American national interests could once again push alliances and partnerships with important Indo-Pacific nations to the limit. Even though the US’ relationship has been strengthened recently with South Korea and Japan, Trump’s past policies suggest there would be no guarantee that he would be interested in maintaining the revitalised security relationship agreed at Camp David. A unified, cohesive posture in the region would likely dissipate, opening space for further Chinese manoeuvring.

With European security issues, his speculative policies are even more troubling. Continued US membership in NATO would not be guaranteed given his past statements, and he has displayed a distinct lack of sympathy for Ukraine’s cause against Russia. Without elaboration, he has claimed that he could end the war in a matter of hours – likely meaning pursuing a ceasefire arrangement which gifts the Kremlin territory – and there are fears he would reduce drastically, or even cut entirely, US military aid to Kyiv. 

 A second Trump presidency would mean the liberal internationalism of the Biden administration would be gone.

Such fears are only exacerbated by dwindling motivation for supporting Ukraine among certain sections of the American public, and a small, yet vocal and increasingly powerful, wing of the congressional Republican Party. Amidst this political climate in the US, it is unsurprising that some have speculated Putin may be attempting to drag out the conflict until late 2024 in the hopes that Trump’s return would help his war effort.

The challenges to British foreign policy

With the US being Britain’s strongest and most important ally, the whim of the American public in November 2024 could have significant implications for the future of the UK’s foreign policy. There is little doubt the ‘special relationship’ between the two nations would continue, but the impact would be on far more than bilateral relations. A second Trump presidency would mean the liberal internationalism of the Biden administration would be gone, and Britain would be faced with a difficult and evolving set of security challenges in an increasingly uncertain geopolitical context.

The UK’s policy towards Ukraine would be the most affected. The US has been by far the strongest supporter of Kyiv to date, providing over $70 billion (£57 million) in military and economic aid – but under Trump’s projected policies this may disappear. If the goal remains to see Ukraine expel Russian forces from their territory completely, Britain and NATO’s European states would have to increase their assistance to Kyiv significantly to match current levels of supply. 

The UK and the rest of Europe would also be tasked with taking far greater responsibility for their regional security. Though this is something which they arguably should be doing already, it is unclear how some European leaders would react, especially as signs of reluctance toward resisting Russia are beginning to emerge.

Britain is already committed heavily to Ukraine and has the capacity and motivation to further increase its assistance. But a requirement to focus more on European security could have detrimental consequences for the UK’s other strategic ambitions, most notably in the Indo-Pacific

The wealth of trade and investment opportunities in the region would still exist, but the security challenges would likely deepen. Not only would the PRC find advantages from the disruption Trump would bring to alliances, but the UK would be tasked with balancing their own refocused goals in the region alongside increased responsibilities in Europe. It is currently unclear how, during ongoing financial turbulence, Britain would deliver two comprehensive strategies on different continents with capabilities further burdened.

While it still remains uncertain who will take the oath of office on Capitol Hill in January 2025, times of change may be arriving. Tests to British national security and defence policy would only be one component of Trump’s return. There would also be threats to the global consensus on climate change and Net Zero policy, as well as damage to the free and open international order, and the galvanising of other populist leaders on a variety of different continents. 

UK policymakers cannot stop Trump returning, but if they act together proactively with their European and Indo-Pacific partners they can mitigate some of the future turmoil by ensuring robust contingency plans are in place. Binding multilateral agreements which provide all the required aid to Ukraine until the Kremlin’s forces are dispelled would be a good place to start, as would stronger security pacts with the UK’s closest East Asian partners, such as Japan and South Korea.

A British election in the same year as the American does complicate matters, and concerns with international affairs may be low on the UK’s list of priorities. But scrambling to react in late-2024 would be insufficient, especially when the warning signs are already visible. It is now time policymakers from across the UK’s political spectrum begin to explore strategies which manage the problems which could be brought on by Trump’s return.

Ronan P. Mainprize is a PhD Candidate at the University of Warwick focusing on intelligence, US foreign policy, and international security.

Embedded image credit: Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0 cropped and overlaid)

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