LONDON — No matter who wins Tuesday’s presidential election, the future will most likely remain challenging for British and European firms looking to do business with the U.S., according to Allyson Stewart-Allen, who argues that domestic issues will dominate the agenda in a Joe Biden, or a second Donald Trump, term.
The chief executive officer of consultancy International Marketing Partners Ltd. and coauthor of “Working With Americans: How to Build Profitable Business Relationships,” (Routledge), Stewart-Allen argues that an inward-looking America under Biden or Trump will further damage the image of “brand USA,” and could deter Europeans from investing there.
With one foot in the U.S. — she’s California-born and -raised — and the other in London, where she’s been living for decades with her English husband and family, Stewart-Allen sees both countries from a rare vantage point.
“Since Trump took office, the U.S. has been seen as a much more nationalistic and isolationist place: The messages around ‘America first’ and ‘Make America great again’ are about prioritizing the U.S. before any other place or country. You also have the messages of ‘We don’t want immigrants.’ If you combine all of that, you perceive the U.S. brand as much less welcoming, open and tolerant. You see it a less attractive place — possibly — to want to hire people, set up offices, and create jobs if you are a non-U.S. company. All of that isolationism is bad for the American economy and bad for the world,” said Stewart-Allen over a mint tea at London’s Goring Hotel.
America could be stuck with that dubious isolationist image for years — no matter who wins.
“Domestic issues will be the priority for both candidates, and I think the U.K. and Europe will find less engagement with whomever wins. Rebuilding brand USA (in the eyes of the world) will probably not be the priority. If Biden gets in, his priorities will be around health care and job creation, and if Trump gets back in, his priority will be about manufacturing at home, locking out China, locking out other countries, slapping tariffs on their goods. I am not sure either candidate sees the value in reengaging their international partners.”
She said U.K. businesses in particular will be vulnerable because the country will be out of the European Union as of Jan. 1, and negotiations with the U.S. about a free trade deal are ongoing. If Trump wins, there’s a good chance a deal could be hammered out by the first quarter of 2021; if Biden wins, who knows what could happen?
“Biden would put in a new regime, which would call for new relationship building, and starting afresh. Also, will Biden make a U.K. trade agreement a priority when he’s got enough domestic issues on his plate as a new president? I think the U.K. should be worried about both [candidates] because Trump is going to have some distractions, too. I don’t think trade with the U.K. is going to be his top priority if he gets back in.”
From a wider trade perspective, the U.K. and Europe already have strained relations with the U.S. that have little to do with Trump.
Both countries have seen onerous tariffs slapped onto their luxury goods exports by the U.S. due to the ongoing Airbus-Boeing subsidies spat. The dispute predated the Trump administration by more than a decade, and it’s not finished yet. The European Union still has room to retaliate with tariffs of its own.
The U.K. and European countries including France and Germany quake every few months when the office of U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer reexamines the current tariff regime. The office hasn’t made any major changes to tariffs so far this year, but with the snap of a finger, the 25 percent duty on luxury goods such as cashmere sweaters and Savile Row wool suits from the U.K. could shoot up to 100 percent.
Stewart-Allen — whose past clients include Burberry; members of Walpole, the British luxury lobby, and the U.K. Department of International Trade — said Biden and Trump would both do well to try and buff America’s tarnished image abroad, and show the world what American capitalism can represent.
“My clients in the U.K., and in Continental Europe, used to aspire to the American commercial model — our version of ‘Winner takes all’ capitalism and ‘If you win, you win big’ mentality. Scaling is a concept that has historically been admired, but now, the views I get are that America is a sorry and sad place. This isn’t a COVID-19 thing, it is a longer-term view that America’s brand of capitalism is broken.”
Stewart-Allen said the tech and social media companies — including Google, Apple, Facebook and Instagram — are perceived as not taking responsibility for being publishers. “There is a perception they don’t have a conscience, that they’re not protecting kids, not removing harmful content and allowing fake news on their platforms to persist. If you end up combining all of that, the perception of U.S. business is not anywhere nearly as favorable as it used to be.”
Asked what advice she gives her clients right now, given the difficult environment, she said she tells them to persist if they are committed to being successful in America.
“I say keep going, get on with it and get your plans under way. If you wait for clarity, you’ll never have it. While you’re sitting and waiting, your competitors are not sitting and waiting, they’re getting on with building market share, their brands, their infrastructures and information — despite all this. If it goes bad, or if a law comes in and that’s negative to your product category, you’ll deal with it when you get there. You’ll not have wasted the time because you can apply the learning to your other domestic pursuits,” she said.
“Do your research now, use the time to assess the market opportunity, put a dollar figure on it, start talking to potential strategic partners, maybe look at acquisition targets. You can do all that now and nothing’s lost.”