Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands was a huge headache for the Reagan administration. While Britain was the United States’ first ally for NATO, Galtieri’s junta was seen as a bulwark against communism and the Organization of American States supported Argentina’s claim. The State Department’s instinct was to negotiate a compromise between the two belligerents.
The US Senate, on the other hand, had no doubts about its position. A motion calling for an immediate withdrawal from Argentina was passed with a single dissenting vote (that of longtime opponent Jesse Helms).
The senator who proposed it was Joe Biden of Delaware who, oddly enough, had already served in office for nearly a decade. “My resolution clearly asks us to state which side we are on, which is the British side,” he told CBC. The United States, he added, should leave no doubt that she was “on the side of our closest and longest ally and the most important alliance for America.” .
I never accepted the idea of Biden’s indomitable Irishman making him anti-British. Of course, some Irish-American politicians (although hardly any Irish politician these days) believe that one position must involve the other, but Biden is not one of them. Even when, under Bill Clinton, he horrified US security officials by pushing for a US visa for Gerry Adams, he was not hostile to the UK. His first phone call as president was to Boris Johnson, and his first overseas visit was to Britain. He steadfastly supported the Aukus Pact, fending off European criticism.
Why, then, is he in no hurry to sign a trade agreement with us? For the most basic reason of all: there is no rush to sign trade deals with anyone. Donald Trump’s evil ancestry has shifted the lines of international trade. Politicians from both parties began to repeat his claptrap, partly out of conviction but mostly out of electoral calculation. All kinds of absurd ideas – ideas that had been definitively refuted by Adam Smith two and a half centuries earlier – have returned to circulation. The idea, for example, that a trade deficit jeopardizes a nation’s long-term prosperity (there is no correlation); the idea that trade with low-wage economies destroys jobs (it can displace some low-paying jobs, but it creates many more well-paid jobs); the idea that governments should “protect” key industries (this invariably makes them weak and inefficient – as Ronald Reagan used to say that “protectionism” should actually be called “destructionism”).
America’s illiberal drift has been accelerated by the Covid which, illogically but inexorably, has made people more suspicious and more introverted. As the 2020 election approached, Republican candidates were looking over their shoulders at Trumpy’s primary voters, and Democrats looking over their shoulders at worried unions.
Joe Biden didn’t survive half a century in frontline politics without knowing how to react to public mood. “As president,” announced the man who sought out Atlantic-Pacific trade deals under Obama, “I will not make any new trade deals until we invest in the Americans and have them. equipped to succeed in the global economy ”.
In the short term, at least, Britain has missed its moment. We wasted the first three years after the Brexit vote on a silly internal debate over whether we really wanted independent trade policy. Then, just when we decided we did, smashed the coronavirus wrecking ball.
This does not mean, however, that there is no progress to be made. What, after all, is a trade agreement? It is not, as commentators sometimes seem to suggest, some sort of license that allows countries to sell themselves to each other. Rather, it is a framework that removes identified obstacles and prevents the installation of new ones – or at least provides redress mechanisms if they are erected.
We are not seeking to establish an entirely new relationship with America, as if we were Elizabethan envoys approaching Muscovy or Cathay. Instead, we want to remove the outstanding restrictions.
A lot can happen through sectoral agreements. In recent months, officials have persuaded the United States to drop its bans on British beef and lamb – the second potentially hugely important in a country just starting to take a liking to the product. They defused the Boeing-Airbus dispute that had put in place unnecessary and vexatious tariffs on products ranging from Highland knitwear to whiskey. All this was accompanied by arrangements between professional organizations.
When Liam Fox began to pinpoint trade talks, he privately argued that a series of mini-deals might be the easiest route precisely because it would avoid a big blow that would bring out the worst trends in the world. two sides (American mercantilists have their British counterparts in these resentful Remainers who suddenly pretend to be alarmed by the American steak).
There is something to Fox’s analysis, but the underlying logic continues to strive for a comprehensive deal that will provide a framework within which technologies and unborn products can flow unimpeded. Consider that each country is the biggest investor of the other. One million Americans work for British companies and one million Britons work for American companies. This mutual ownership is based on obvious congruences of language, commercial law, business etiquette, accounting systems and culture.
These same congruences should make the two countries natural trading partners – and would have done decades ago without EU protectionism in agriculture and heavy industry. Similar salary levels and interoperable professional bodies make mutual recognition of qualifications relatively straightforward. The few tariffs that remain on manufactured goods (especially cars) could easily be swept away.
Britain wants better access for its financial services companies, the United States for its farmers. The first is more important economically, the second more difficult politically. But let’s not make the mercantilist mistake of considering imports as a concession. Allowing UK financial services to compete freely in all 50 states will primarily benefit US consumers. Letting American beef appear on our shelves will primarily benefit UK consumers.
The immediate consequence of Biden’s reluctance to go for a full-fledged FTA is to make it easier for Britain to repudiate the Northern Ireland protocol. The main argument against the unilateral repeal was that it would hamper trade negotiations. But with an agreement in a few years, we should act now, show the world that a new agreement does not require border infrastructure and negotiate from there.
In the long run, it is more than trade. The friendship that has existed between the two great English-speaking democracies since 1898 (broken once, and disastrously, when the United States did not support Suez’s intervention) has made the world richer, safer and more free.
The values we now call universal – human rights, representative government, impartial courts, private property, free contract, personal autonomy – have been largely developed in the language in which you read these words. If they have become universal, it is because the Anglosphere has triumphed militarily, first against fascism, then against revolutionary socialism.
These values suddenly seem contingent, the world order on which they are based fragile. Power is shifting towards completely darker and more autocratic regimes. In such a world, English-speaking peoples must once again be ready to act in concert. Yes, the main need is military cooperation, diplomatic support and intelligence sharing. But the strongest alliances are underpinned by economics. Our ultimate goal should not be just an ambitious UK-US free trade agreement, but an Anglosphere market.
In due course, Biden may return to the Pacific trade deal that the Obama regime negotiated and rejected by Trump. If so, the United States would join Australia, New Zealand, Canada and (by then) the United Kingdom. A deeper Five Eyes trade deal could nestle in the Pacific Pact, as the Australia-New Zealand deal does today.
Maybe, who knows ? – Ireland may one day wish to join. John F Kennedy, the first American president of Catholic Irish descent, was perhaps the most solidly Anglophile leader his country has had. He was obsessed with British history, viewed Winston Churchill as the savior of freedom, and deep down wanted to end the defeatism his father had shown as ambassador to London. It was JFK who in 1962 allayed the doubts of its officials and insisted on giving the UK an independent nuclear deterrent – thus making the Aukus deal possible.
The Anglosphere alliance is not based on the temperament of its national leaders. It rests, ultimately, on the will of its constituent nations to unite for freedom – a will that may be tested sooner than we realize. And in his heart, Joe Biden knows it.