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How Britain can prepare for a second Trump presidency

In January, Donald Trump, former United States (US) President, won the Iowa Caucuses and, later, the New Hampshire primary, taking definitive strides towards becoming the Republican nominee for November’s general election. His only remaining opponent, Nikki Haley, former South Carolina governor, faces an uphill and improbable battle to unseat the presumptive nominee. While it is far too early to call whether President Joe Biden will remain in the Oval Office come November, or whether Trump will return, preparations taken now in London can help mitigate the probable fallout of the latter outcome and yield benefits even should his campaign fail.  

The full contours of a second Trump administration are unknown at this stage, but it is a reasonable supposition that he will approach governance and international issues with an America-first, if not America-alone philosophy. In so doing, he will challenge Washington’s historical leadership role as well as, more fundamentally, the norms of governance and diplomacy. His remarks about the war against Ukraine, suggesting he could and would end it in 24 hours, open questioning of America’s commitment to NATO and European security, and other outbursts are early indicators of his likely international agenda. Combined with his transactional approach to politics and the fact that he will likely bring with him a far more capable administration, Trump’s return to the White House could create significant friction within the United Kingdom (UK)-US relationship and concomitant joint efforts to address regional and systemic challenges. 

To mitigate the potential negative effects of a second Trump presidency on the bilateral relationship and British national interests, London should work tactically to limit any potential damage whilst simultaneously preparing to seize upon any opportunities that may arise which better position the UK in Europe and globally. 

Tactically, the British Embassy in Washington will need to double-down and expand its already prodigious engagement with the US Congress and broader policy community. Congress will serve as a check on the president’s more ambitious policy efforts – especially if the Democrats secure majorities in one or both chambers. While relying on the storied history of the ‘special relationship’ is an effective starting point, it is insufficient alone. This engagement must focus on how UK-US cooperation can ensure security in the Euro-Atlantic, but also in the Indo-Pacific given Washington’s increasing focus on strategic competition with the People’s Republic of China. The UK should also stress how continued regional and global American engagement is in the average American’s interest.

This is not to say that the British relationship with a second Trump administration will be exclusively hostile or combative – much will depend on the as-of-yet unknown London-Washington dynamic. It does suggest that his mercurial personality, transactional approach, and distinct worldview could make things more difficult, and certainly atypical. Being tactically and political agile and seizing upon the confluence of British and American interests is vital – a win is a win. It is also vital that policymakers in both capitals reflect on the shared interests and goals that transcend the immediacy of the news cycle (and the current occupant of the Oval Office) – the relationship has endured and will continue to do so. 

When approaches diverge too much, or interests simply do not align, the UK must be more strategic, and seek to better position itself to pursue its interests. Importantly, this will require filling the gap in international leadership that could well result from a Trump-led recalibration of American global engagement. Most pressingly, the UK must be prepared to step into any gap created by a reduction in American support to Ukraine. Kyiv’s long-term victory and Moscow’s attendant defeat are predicated on consistent support that enables political and military planning. London’s leadership and constancy was and remains instrumental. The provision of arms and training ahead of renewed Russian aggression in February 2022, through to the continued material, intelligence, and diplomatic support today, has ensured that Kyiv’s defences have held. 

Should Trump sharply curtail or suspend aid to Ukraine, London will need to increase its contribution and work to mobilise additional European support. There is no expectation that it alone can fill the gap, but by working with continental partners, London can offset some of the impact and, more importantly, send a clear signal to Moscow about the commitment of free and open countries to Ukraine. The UK-Ukraine Agreement on Security Cooperation is an example of this deepening commitment, but it must also be met with sustained investments in arms production, which will benefit the UK in the long-term, as well as Ukraine in the short-term. 

The UK may also need to further pursue agreements with allies and partners beyond the US that strengthen the UK’s security posture. The ongoing Global Combat Air Programme with Italy and Japan is a prime example. It is, of course, a long-term programme with development scheduled to begin next year. But inking these types of agreements, and others like the Hiroshima Accord, embeds Britain in an architecture of partnerships that will strengthen its overall security and defence posture regardless of the outcome of November’s election. 

Equally long-term in nature, if not even long-term in focus, is the need for Britain to reinvest its defence posture and force structure. This is vital for the US-UK relationship. Already facing strains resulting from recruiting challenges, programmatic delays, and operational constraints, the UK military’s ability to generate and project power is declining. While politically challenging, this must be reversed. Smart and increased investment in the Royal Navy and the British Army are vital to ensuring the UK’s interests in Europe, the Mediterranean and Red Sea, and beyond (and serving as a credible partner to the US).

Leadership from and signalling by London on defence spending within the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) may yield dividends under a Trump presidency and beyond. It is predictable that Trump will urge, as have successive American presidents, NATO partners to meet their 2% of gross domestic product defence spending target; this may turn out to be a positive development for London, with its track record of continually meeting or exceeding the target putting it in a prime position to display leadership in this area – if London can do it, other European countries should, as well. 

Looking to the Indo-Pacific, America’s pivot to deter Chinese aggression against Taiwan and counter Beijing’s hegemonic ambitions also present opportunities for London now and in the future. Focusing on the operationalisation of the AUKUS agreement will see increased investment in American industry whilst working toward an enhanced defence posture – a win-win for Washington – but also see the UK further embedded in other multilateral arrangements such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with India, Japan, and Australia as well as America.

These – not insignificant – measures will see the UK positioned to ensure its interests throughout the next four years regardless of whether Trump is re-elected to another term, but especially in an era of increasing global instability.

Joshua Huminski is the Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence and Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.

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