The chasm between what the presidencies of Trump and Biden mean for the ‘special relationship’ between the US and the UK has starkly demonstrated how dependent the UK is on the occupant of the White House for its relationship with the US. It would be easy for the UK to forget the lessons it learned from engaging with Trump, who put less value on the bilateral relationship with the UK, because of the comparative enthusiasm of President Biden. However, it is exactly the experience of the Trump era that should convince UK policymakers to think about how to insulate the UK from volatility in the White House. US-UK cooperation on areas like security and defence will never be in question, but the likelihood of a broad trade deal, as well as wider economic and political coordination, is presently intertwined with the presidency. But avenues do exist for the UK to mitigate the risk of upheaval to its interests in the US every time there is a presidential election. If UK policymakers increase their engagement with the US as the federalised state it is by valuing sub-national relationships, the UK can guarantee more continuity with its objectives. Further, this federalised approach is transferable beyond transatlantic engagement.
On top of the agenda items, like climate change or military intervention, the UK must still work with the White House, no matter who is the president. But there is still sizeable ground for collaboration with and progress through state governments. There are around 89,000 governments across the United States. This structure and the relationships that exist between federal, state, and local government leads to a broad policymaking arena. Congress is typically the body that finances, provides a framework for, and oversees national policies and the federal bureaucracy. However, implementation and enforcement of policies often falls to state and local governments. State governments also produce primary legislation on most major policy areas. Together, this means that states and localities play a pronounced role across policies of UK interest, like infrastructure, healthcare, education, and the environment.
It is on economic matters that the case for a federalised approach is clearest. Given the size of state and city budgets and the scale of their economic autonomy—often setting their own tax rates and their own fiscal budgets, and therefore their own fiscal priorities—the space for the UK to advance its interests should not be understated, States like California and Texas have economies larger than most countries. And the UK Government website does already demonstrate an awareness of the states’ economic importance. There are short analyses from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and Department for International Trade on areas like the UK-Texas and UK-Michigan economic relationship. The former purportedly supported 120,000 Texan jobs in 2017, with the UK as Texas’ seventh largest export market. In Michigan, that was 35,000 jobs and exports worth $1.1 billion.
There is evidence that the UK has already capitalised on this economic integration, likely made easier by close cultural ties, to forge cooperation. The UK Government and Michigan signed a memorandum of understanding in 2018 to “share data, host meetings, workshops and conferences, share best practices and develop new programs” pertaining to the automotive sector. The unique draw of London facilitated a sub-national agreement with Chicago on financial services and technology. The London-Chicago agreement, in fact, builds on the fact London has attracted more Chicago-based companies than any other European city in the last ten years. In signing the agreement, then-Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel noted “the economic and cultural partnerships between Chicago and London have generated unparalleled investment and job creation on both sides.” Of course, from a foundation of cooperative economic agreements, it becomes easier for the UK to expand its sphere of influence in the US. There is already evidence for the appetite of the states and cities here too: the UK and Texas have agreed a ‘bio-bridge’ to focus on medical and life sciences innovation; there are agreements between Manchester and New York on tourism; and Aberdeen and Utah on academic collaboration. Meanwhile, Scotland and California have signed an agreement to cooperate on the tackling of the climate emergency.
Clearly, by building a patchwork of sub-national agreements that drive progress on key UK objectives—from financial services and a radical overhaul of the automotive sector to life sciences innovation—the UK can better insulate itself against unsympathetic or uncooperative presidents. The fact that Boris Johnson’s Government worked to establish a Special Relationship Economic Working Group with President Trump, which was ultimately rudderless, failed to capture any top-level US interest, and became defunct without any notable achievement demonstrates how important this approach could be. So, it is imperative that the UK does not forget the lessons of Trump simply because it receives a warmer reception from President Biden. Instead, this more cooperative environment should generate enthusiasm in Whitehall to refocus on the US, deepening existing sub-national ties, whilst investing resources—across the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the Department for International Trade, and likely its security and defence operations—to expand both its hard and soft power presence across the US system too.
Eschewing a purely central government focus can and should be a blueprint for the UK’s approach to federal systems across the world. Again, there is some evidence that this is occurring already. In 2013, the UK signed a memorandum of understanding with the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo, covering education, prison administration, trade, transparency, and the environment. London and the German state of Bavaria have depended economic ties too. But given the extent of the current Prime Minister’s Global Britain ambitions, the leadership opportunities presented by the presidency of COP27 and the G7, and the UK’s significant resources across special envoys, the diplomatic service and willing commercial outriders, there is no reason a state-based approach to the UK’s international engagement should not be extended beyond federal centres in partners like Canada, Australia, Germany, and Brazil.