President Joe Biden will be greeted by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday at the start of his first overseas trip, during which he will attend the Group of Seven summit in Cornwall, England. It is the start of a new era in US-UK relations after Johnson entered an almost servile alignment with former President Donald Trump and himself navigates rough waters after pulling his country out of it. European Union.
The UK’s departure from the EU gives the couple an opportunity – and an incentive – to work towards common ground as Johnson is hungry for trade deals.
Johnson, until recently, was so steadfastly close to Trump that it would seem difficult for it not to color his relationship with Biden. In 2019, after Johnson’s Conservative Party won a majority in parliament, Biden called the new British prime minister a “physical and emotional clone” of Trump. But in the seven months since Biden’s election, a lot has changed.
First, there is a renewed appreciation of the value of the long tradition of a “special relationship” between the two English-speaking peoples. Dating from the immediate post-war period, when Winston Churchill first coined the expression (in the same speech in which he called the line separating Soviet and Western Europe the Iron Curtain), the concept has become central in the relationship between the United States and Great Britain in good times as in bad times.
So it was no surprise that, despite Biden’s derogatory description, his first telephone exchange with a European leader was reported with Johnson. As the British Guardian newspaper put it, “There will be some relief in Downing Street on the first call, amid concerns about how Johnson’s perceived closeness to Trump would be viewed by the new administration.”
Of course, none of this would be quite so surprising if you take a closer look at Johnson himself. After all, the Prime Minister is the ultimate political chameleon. This may help him in his dealings with Biden, as the new US president himself has proven to be quite adaptable over his half-century in public service.
In one notable example, when Biden removed Churchill’s bust from the perch on which he had graced Trump’s Oval Office, Johnson officials repeatedly refused to criticize the move – even though Johnson sees himself as a Churchill of the last. days. Instead, Downing Street only observed that “the Oval Office is the President’s private office and it is up to the President to decorate as he wishes”.
The tone was markedly different from Johnson’s reaction to President Barack Obama, from the Oval Office from which a bust of Churchill was also removed. In 2016, Johnson, then mayor of London and seeking to make international headlines, devoted an entire column to the Sun newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch, implying that it was a “snub” to Britain. caused by the “Party- The Kenyan President’s ancestral aversion to the British Empire.” Such comments are hard to forget.
Still, Biden and Johnson are both survivors. Both are deeply attached to a relationship that goes far beyond any failure in an office. These common interests run wide and deep – from banking, finance and commerce to law enforcement, national security and intelligence. And the UK’s departure from the European Union gives the pair an opportunity – and an incentive – to work towards common ground, as Johnson looks forward to trade deals with the US and the EU.
Prior to Biden’s departure, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said the two leaders expect their meeting “to cover only the waterfront – I mean, really, a wide range of issues on which the two agree “.
Indeed, Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s meeting with Johnson over a month ago has been described as having “affirmed the strong alliance between our two countries”.
But Biden can’t be too comfortable with Johnson – and cut an overly generous trade deal – without risking raising alarms across the Channel in France. After Britain finally managed to separate, amid great trauma, from the EU in January, the US has a higher price to pay by being seen as the favorites.
Indeed, with Johnson being known to blow hot and cold on all winds, it was British political commentator, Philip Stephens of the Financial Times, who wrote: “If Biden wants a reliable European partner, he had better go. turn to America’s oldest ally. , that is to say France.
France, and in particular its President Emmanuel Macron, is preparing to assume the leading role in Europe. Macron sees himself, with some justification, as the anointed, if not titular, leader of the continent. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has held this unofficial, almost unchallenged position, for most of the time she ruled Germany. But now Merkel, who has decided not to run for a fifth term, will leave after voters go to the polls on September 26. This will create a vacuum in the position of a recognized European leader.
Macron appears willing and able to intervene transparently, which would also help his chances in his own candidacy for a second term in next spring’s elections in France. He has already taken steps towards claiming this mantle, proposing the creation of a “real European army”. And his Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs promulgated “President Macron’s Initiative for Europe: a sovereign, united and democratic Europe”.
Biden should therefore cultivate his relationship with Macron as carefully as that with Johnson. He will have the chance to do so when they meet at the G-7. And here, the task may be easier. After receiving the back of the hand from Donald Trump, Macron should welcome Biden like a breath of fresh air.
But the French need to be reassured about a key question posed in European capitals: whether Biden can be just a brief – if totally welcome – respite from Trump. After an interregnum, the American electorate could backtrack and descend into the depths of nationalist interest. In other words, an ally that we cannot yet fully trust in the long term.
These relations across the ocean require constant reassurance, especially in the aftermath of the four years of the Trump administration. Now is the time for Biden to prove to Europe that his politics have legs, that he is putting in place sustainable practices and policies that will carry on America’s democratic tradition, and that he is committed to nurturing close ties. with our deepest friends and allies.