After looking briefly last week at world prospects in the coming months under a new US government, two occurrences encourage me to consider what a Biden presidency might mean for Britain. These are the removal of the bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office and last weekend’s telephone call between President Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
I commented earlier that Biden would be less isolationist than his predecessor. In tackling global issues in co-operation with America’s traditional friends, he will rebuild overseas alliances and is already rejoining international agreements and organisations like the Paris Climate Accord and the WHO. He will also want to revive the Iran nuclear deal and will be tough on Russia while bringing pressure on China in relation to human rights, including in Hong Kong.
To many, removal of Churchill’s bust looks to be a somewhat trivial matter. But political commentators love to attribute significance to such actions and to ponder which world leaders will receive a call from the incoming US President. This has almost become a spectator sport and is seen as a crude measure of the importance Washington attaches to its future relationships with other countries.
The Churchill bust was presented to George W Bush by former Prime Minister Tony Blair. It was removed by Obama in 2009 which prompted at the time the incautious remark by Johnson - when he was Mayor of London - that it was a sign of an ‘ancestral dislike of the British Empire’; and this was seen as an obvious dig at Obama’s Kenyan roots. But many Americans regard Churchill, whose mother was originally from Brooklyn, as the best friend the nation ever had - and not just because of his leadership during the Second World War. So the bust was then restored in 2017 by Trump who said it was an honour to have it back as a symbol of the US’ special relationship with Britain. Now, Biden has removed it again and introduced the busts of charismatic but controversial Mexican-American union leader, Cesar Chavez, and civil rights activist and heroine, Rosa Parks, to join that of Martin Luther King which was already there.
It is interesting that soon after the publicity about removal of the Churchill bust, the US Embassy in London uploaded a video defining the special relationship, saying that it concerns trust between like-minded people together with shared values and priorities and co-operation across-the-board while the US and Britain are also the largest investors in each other’s countries. Moreover, everyone knows the UK is the US’s strongest ally globally. So, many believe that with a new administration in Washington this is an opportune time to rekindle the relationship for mutual benefit.
In order, presumably, to press home this positive message, Biden’s 35-minute phone call to Johnson - the first to a leader in Europe - was reported to have been ‘warm, friendly and wide-ranging’ and covered such issues as climate change, ‘green’ policy concerns, co-operation on security and defence and a post-Brexit trade deal. One major change in the bilateral relationship is the need for the US to adapt to dealing with a newly-independent Britain now outside the EU and, therefore, no longer a bridge to Brussels. There will also be new demands on the US to tackle issues in Europe itself and rebuild trust; for example, among many other issues, in relation to NATO.
Many in Britain believe it is important to draw up, without delay, a bilateral trade agreement with the US. But the signs are that, initially, America will focus on its domestic priorities like the economy and COVID-19, so this will probably not happen quickly. A complicating factor may be Biden, who traces his roots back to Ireland and takes pride in his heritage, and his colleagues think that Brexit was an historic mistake, and he and Nancy Pelosi are on record as saying a future UK/US trade deal is contingent on no unravelling of the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland.
Leaving that aside, where there is likely to be early co-operation is in relation to climate change which is high on the Biden policy agenda as a global crisis that needs to be tackled immediately. Working together in practical ways on climate change will surely be important in putting the spark back in the special relationship. An important part of this will be the UN Climate Change Conference (known as COP26) which the UK is hosting in Scotland in November. It will be a major event with world leaders present - together with thousands of other attendees - to discuss such subjects as climate technology, capacity-building, education and sustainable development and to agree a coordinated action plan. Mr Biden is expected to attend this as well as the G7 meeting in June which the UK is hosting in Cornwall in the west of England.
People see the new President as a known pragmatist with long experience of how Washington works who has a reputation for reaching out to others and is bound to restore a more systematic approach to governance. They regard this as a marked contrast to his predecessor who also, for example, placed too great a value on personal relations with foreign leaders – such as Mr Trump’s supposed relationship with North Korean dictator Kim Yong-un, and the so-called ‘love letters’ he bizarrely claims to have exchanged with him.
In international relations, leaders surely have to set the overall strategy, tone and attitude for the interdependence and cordial relations between governments that are at the core of international endeavour. But those concerned with foreign affairs are more often than not guided by the famous dictum of Lord Palmerston, the British statesman who served twice as Prime Minister in the mid-19th century, that in international relations there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests – and who in Britain would disagree that it is in the nation’s interest to maintain that special relationship with the US?
A diplomatic spat – much ado about nothing?
A diplomatic row has broken out between the UK and the European Union about the status of the latter’s ambassador in London. On the grounds that the EU is an international body and not a nation-state, the UK government is insisting that its ambassador and staff should not be accorded the immunities, rights and privileges under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961 that are enjoyed by diplomats from sovereign states. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab is quoted as saying the EU’s ambassador in London should be seen as representing an international organisation rather than being treated as a national envoy.
The EU maintains that normal diplomatic status is accorded to its representatives in 142 other countries in the same way as to diplomats from nation-states. It argues that the EU is not a typical international organisation because it has the trappings of a state with its own currency, judicial system and its own anthem as well as the power to make laws.
I believe it is also argued that EU member states have agreed by treaty to share sovereignty through the institutions of the EU in some aspects of government. Thus, in the view of many, it is reasonable to contend that the EU is a de facto independent state. What is more, the EU goes on to argue that the UK is well aware of the bloc’s status in external relations - with its own External Action Service founded in 2010 - and was supportive of this status while still an EU member.
While viewing this from afar and with no inside knowledge since I retired some years ago, the diplomatic status under question, as far as I can see, relates to immunity from arrest or prosecution for any criminal offence, exemption from local taxes and the inviolability of diplomatic premises. So, I wonder whether in practice there will be much difference as far as everyday life is concerned. But, of course, it is the principle that is at stake.
Since Britain is customarily a stickler for adherence to the letter of the law, I am sure this decision to withhold full diplomatic status will have been carefully considered and will be in accord with the Vienna Convention while at the same time taking account of issues like precedent and reciprocity. But many will wonder whether such a strict interpretation of the rules is justified - or even wise - in the circumstances of Britain’s recent departure from the bloc.
In some ways the issue goes right to the heart of the Brexit debate. While the drive towards ever-closer union continues, the EU is not yet the ‘United States of Europe’ with a federal government and political power centralised in Brussels, which many believe is necessary to consolidate democracy and guarantee continued peace and prosperity in Europe. But others maintain that such concentration and centralisation of power is in itself undemocratic and they prefer a European Union of independent sovereign states. Either way, Britain voted in its 2016 referendum not to be part of it and has duly left the bloc.
So, is the status of the EU’s representative in London just a silly spat and a storm in a teacup or is it something more serious? Should the UK stick to the letter of the law or should there be some sort of compromise? However this is viewed, it is one more distraction to sour relations between the UK and the EU that could surely have been avoided by, yes, none other than quiet diplomacy which - after all - those concerned are supposed to be good at!
Vaccinations offer an answer to US tightening its borders
In this smaller third segment of my weekly column, I had intended to write about the recent action taken by Britain in response to concerns about lack of good governance and allegations of corruption in one of its overseas territories, the British Virgin Islands.
However, I want to offer instead some brief comment in the aftermath of the disturbing news at the end of last week that President Biden had signed an executive order requiring incoming travellers to go into quarantine on arrival in the US in addition to providing proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test.
The Minister of Tourism is quoted as describing this as a devastating blow to the Bahamian economy because it brings instability and uncertainty to the international travel market and will deter people from visiting this country.
While confirmation of the details is awaited, it is encouraging to learn our government will be asking the US to exempt The Bahamas from these impending requirements on the grounds of its dependency on tourism from the US and that the risks of infection here are low.
However, I imagine the likelihood of securing an exemption is not high, given that Biden will want to stick to his new tough stance in contrast to his predecessor’s reluctance to admit the seriousness of the virus crisis. So we surely need to muster all the arguments we can.
The relatively small number of COVID-19 cases here and the high recovery rate speak for themselves so we can justifiably claim to have almost beaten the virus. It will also be important to work together with other countries in the region and elsewhere who can make the same claim. But a strong argument to deploy would be the existence of mass vaccination.
From what I am hearing, people are wondering about the delay in starting a vaccination programme.
The public is obviously not privy to what is going on officially behind the scenes, so there may be good reasons why a firm timing has not yet been announced.
But, with finance available from international sources, some find it hard to understand why we are still debating the composition of a committee to consider the whole matter when other countries are already well down the track with vaccinations on a large scale; for example, the UK, which started its own programme in December, has now reached nearly six million vaccinations with three-quarters of the over-80s having already received doses.
So, if there is any possibility of bringing forward an earlier vaccination programme in this country, surely the time has now come to give the matter the highest priority – not least to strengthen the case for an exemption from America’s damaging new virus quarantine and testing rules.