07 November 2016

The Civil Service has been accused of failing to do contingency planning for Brexit. There are no constitutional barriers for planning for a change in the US, but, Jill Rutter writes, the right-field candidacy of Donald Trump will be raising its own problems.

Hillary is a known quantity… 

Hillary Clinton, as she has reminded us through her campaign, has 30 years of political experience she may drag over the finish line into the Executive Office. She is well-known in the offices of prime ministers, chancellors and presidents round the world. Her top team will likely reflect that experience – people who served in her husband’s and predecessor’s administrations, governors, Congress. And while she may sound a bit more reserved nowadays about free trade, she is anchored into the policy mainstream on NATO, on climate change and on the US’s global role. However, one consequence of the primary battle is a shift Left in the Democrats, which means she will be under pressure not to hand plum economic jobs to ex-Wall Streeters.

…while her opponent represents a series of unknowable unknowns.

‘The Donald’, as he likes to style himself, is none of the above. Sure he is as well-known as Hillary, but he has chalked up not a single month of political office, and has no track record to run on. It is also very hard to work out who his key advisers will be. His campaign is very much a family affair. Much of the Republican establishment has distanced themselves from him – some so far they will be voting for Hillary. It is not clear who his key economic, defence or foreign policy advisers are – and 50 former Republican national security advisers publically declared against him in August. They are unlikely to be summoned back into the State, Defense or Homeland Security departments. There are also clear policy differences between Trump and his more experienced vice-presidential running mate, Mike Pence. Trump publicly declared he disagreed with Pence on Syria – in a presidential debate. So the prospects that Trump would sit back and let Pence run the Executive while he ‘makes America Great again’ look low.

We know a bit more about where Trump stands on policy…

There has been so little policy focus in the campaign, it is hard to zone in on specifics. But there is a clear theme: America First. That places question marks over the norms of the post-Second World War order: NATO, a generalised commitment to freer trade, and the US prepared to shoulder a hyper-power sized share of the burden of global stability. There are a few clear pledges on domestic policy – cut taxes, repeal of Obamacare and build the wall. But there is a big gap between those and a thought through policy platform.

But both would face governing challenges – worse after a polarising election

Both candidates will face a challenge in terms of how much they could actually do if elected. That will depend on the Congressional arithmetic. But Trump and Pence are short of any of the Capitol Hill experience that can help US presidents get Congress to work. And after such a polarising election, gridlock looks the most likely outcome even for such a seasoned operator as Clinton. That means domestic inaction – but means that the President may be tempted to focus even more on redefining the US’s international role.

These unknowns will make planning in the UK very difficult

In the run-up to a US election, the British Embassy in Washington will try to build contacts to people who are likely to form part of the next administration – and try to work out how a new president’s policy positions will affect UK interests. Most famously Jonathan Powell (who went on to be Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff) was detailed to get to know the team of a little known Governor from Arkansas back in 1992. That set the basis for the close relationship between new Democrats and New Labour. Access to the Trump campaign will have been harder. The National Security Council should have been having discussions on the potential implications of a Trump presidency for NATO, relations with Russia, the Middle East and wider security issues. But they will hang on any post-election words for more concrete indications of a new style of governing. Diplomats will then lobby for an early visit to the US to cement the specialness of the special relationship.

But what will they talk about?

The UK has in the past presented itself as a bridge between Europe and the US. Brexit makes that harder – and makes it more likely that presidents will fly direct to Berlin without a London stopover. Trump is much more sympathetic to Brexit Britain than Clinton. At the end of the day, much turns on personal chemistry. The top echelons of British Government have not been quiet on the subject of ‘The Donald’ when he looked like a joke candidate in late 2015, and threated to ban Muslims from the US and declared London a no-go area. At the time, the Home Secretary said: ‘I just think it shows he does not understand the UK and what happens in the UK’. Then-Mayor of London was more personal: ‘The only reason I wouldn't visit some parts of New York is the real risk of meeting Donald Trump.’ The Prime Minister at the time said: ‘I think if he came to visit our country, I think he'd unite us all against him.’ If he wins on 8 November, two out of three of them will be waiting on the tarmac to greet him as Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary. They will just have to hope he doesn’t bear grudges.

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