Letter for Washington: Biden, meet Boris
The case for tentative optimism about transatlantic relations
This week began with what some of the more excitable members of the Westminster press corps described as a diplomatic coup for Boris Johnson, who won the race to be the first European leader to speak to president-elect Joe Biden by phone.
The substance of the discussion was less reassuring than Johnson’s lofty spot on Biden’s call list. The incoming president reportedly reminded the prime minister of the United States’s commitment to the Good Friday Agreement, emphasising something he had pointed out during the campaign: that a UK-US trade deal will be contingent on an open border between the Republic of Ireland and the UK.
With the proudly Irish-American Biden preparing to take office, the border question is just one reason why most observers think the Biden-Johnson years are unlikely to be a golden age for the special relationship.
Johnson’s reputation in Bidenworld could hardly be much worse. Obama administration alumni remember Johnson’s embarrassing 2009 suggestion that the former president’s “ancestral roots” meant he was hostile to Britain. If you want a flavour of the sentiment among the kind of people who will staff the Biden administration, consider former Obama adviser and co-host of Pod Save The World, Tommy Vietor, who recently described Johnson as a “shapeshifting creep”, adding: “We will never forget your racist comments about Obama and slavish devotion to Trump”.
British diplomats have so far failed to rebut the claim that Boris is the British Trump. Not that that is an easy task. The like-for-like transatlantic comparisons might be shallow, but Trump and Brexit (and therefore Boris) will forever be intertwined in the minds of Americans on both sides of the partisan divide.
“What would Joe think?” will not be the question that keeps Johnson up at night
Whatever reputational damage has been done in recent years, the question is how much it will matter during the Biden administration. My suspicion is not as much as most seem to think.
For all the focus on a trade deal, there are other areas where there is plenty of scope for productive co-operation between the UK and the US. As host of next year’s COP26 summit, Britain has a chance to work hand in glove with America on climate policy. The UK also hosts the G7 in 2021 while Johnson’s plan for a D10 summit of the world’s largest democracies to offer a counterbalance to China chimes with the kind of multilateral but tough approach that Biden’s foreign policy advisers have talked up. Biden’s plan to reinvigorate traditional alliances will be music to the ears of British officials, while the president-elect’s description of Russia as the biggest threat to American security matches the hard line that the British government has taken with Moscow, including fresh sanctions imposed this summer.
Brexit complicates things, of course, with Biden’s win changing the calculus of UK-EU negotiations. The geopolitical upside of coming to an amicable agreement with Brussels now includes keeping Washington happy. But even here it is easy to overstate things. With considerable domestic trouble in store for the prime minister whatever the outcome of the negotiations, “What would Joe think?” will not be the question that keeps Johnson up at night.
As for the prospects of a UK-US trade deal, Biden’s loyalty to Ireland isn’t the primary reason why an agreement is unlikely. In fact, for all that Biden has angered Conservatives with his Irish border threat, the election result hasn’t changed much. Trump’s support for Brexit was never going to have been enough to will a trade deal into existence. His mercantilist administration would have driven a hard bargain and, just as importantly, British voters and MPs appear unwilling to swallow the regulatory changes that such a deal would bring. On the question of the Irish border, Nanci Pelosi and Democrats in the House of Representatives were threatening the same veto as Biden long before the presidential race.
For those judging the special relationship on a trade deal alone, the next four years are likely to prove disappointing. But that is the wrong way to measure the health of US-UK relations; through a wider lens things will likely look a lot less hopeless.
Ironically, the misapprehension in Bidenworld that Boris is Trump-lite might be something the prime minister can turn into an advantage. Expectations are very low in Washington — which means they can easily be exceeded. If the Biden team expects to be dealing with a chaos agent in the Trump mould, they will find a British government that, for all its undeniable dysfunction, takes a decidedly non-Trumpy approach to foreign policy.
In the past, the former vice-president has characterised the “Biden Doctrine” as the belief that “it all gets down to the conduct of foreign policy being personal… All foreign policy is a logical extension of personal relationships.”
A lot, therefore, depends on the chemistry between Biden and Johnson, who have never met. When they do, the president-elect might be surprised by how much he finds himself in agreement with the man he has privately called the “physical and emotional clone of Donald Trump”.
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