Letter from Washington: Same old special relationship
Neediness has defined US-UK relations for 80 years
Franklin Delano Roosevelt is to Joe Biden what Winston Churchill is to Boris Johnson. If there are two former leaders who America and Britain’s current President and Prime Minister have sought to emulate, it’s the wartime duo that set out the Western commitment to the defence of democracy off the coast of Newfoundland 80 years ago. And so there was a tidiness, albeit a self-aggrandising one, to Biden and Johnson’s new Atlantic Charter, signed at their first meeting at the G7 in Cornwall this week.
Things aren’t quite as high-stakes this time around, of course. And for all the merits of Biden and Johnson’s big-picture commitments to combatting climate change, “building back better” (to use a phrase Biden nabbed from Johnson last year) from the pandemic, and defending the principles and institutions of an open society, their charter was overshadowed by a prickly if platitudinous American intervention in the row over the Northern Ireland protocol.
As the summit wore on, however, there were reminders of the ways in which Johnson’s Britain can be useful to the Biden administration. Wrangling over the wording on China in the G7 communiqué, for example, saw Britain in lockstep with the US while Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel preferred a more cautious approach.
Nevertheless, the Brexit friction was enough for some to claim that Johnson’s dreams of a revived relationship with America had coming crashing down to earth. Take The Guardian’s Jonathan Freeland, according to whom Johnson “wants to pose with Biden and the G7 even as he remains a poster boy for the populist unilateralism of his old pal Trump.”
If this is too harsh on the Prime Minister, a rosy report of US-UK relations under Johnson and Biden would be just as unconvincing. For all the areas of strategic common ground, the Yeats-spouting Biden hardly seems smitten with Johnson, who he once called a “physical and emotional clone” of Trump.
The rather less exciting truth about the state of the special relationship is that it is neither flourishing nor floundering. Instead, its basic dynamics remain almost unchanged since Churchill coined the phrase in Fulton, Missouri in 1946: a British over-eagerness to please, a close and important day-to-day working relationship on defence and intelligence, but also a frequent gap between fraternal rhetoric and deep differences of opinion.
“You’d have thought Winston was being carried up into the heavens to meet God,” Hopkins later recalled
He may have rolled out the red carpet this week, but Johnson appears to know as much. Tom McTague revealed in The Atlantic this week that the Prime Minister prefers not to use the term “special relationship” because it seems needy and weak.
And indeed neediness has always been the relationship’s defining dynamic. When Winston Churchill was steaming towards the at-sea rendezvous off Newfoundland where the first Atlantic Charter was signed he was anxious. Harry Hopkins, FDR’s foreign policy adviser and go-between, accompanied Churchill on the journey and later recalled the Prime Minister nervously badgering him about whether or not he thought FDR would like him. “You’d have thought Winston was being carried up into the heavens to meet God,” Hopkins later recalled. In The Churchill Complex, his history of the special relationship, Ian Buruma writes of Hokins’s words that “the true nature of how the special relationship would develop over time could not have been expressed more succinctly.”
In his own book on Churchill, Johnson lauds the wartime leader’s “subtle but unmistakable manipulation of the priorities of the United States. He used a tool of diplomacy that was as old-fashioned and erratic as the man himself. It was called charm.” And Churchill himself famously said of his courtship of Roosevelt: “No lover ever studied every whim of his mistress as I did those of President Roosevelt.”
The alliance’s basic one-sidedness remains. Johnson knows as much, and isn’t betting too much on special treatment from Washington
Read between the lines of the charm offensive in Cornwall this week and it seems that both Johnson and Biden are reasonably sanguine about the special relationship. Both appreciate its significance but neither seem nearly as infatuated with the idea, or one another, as some of their predecessors have been.
The alliance’s basic one-sidedness remains. Johnson appreciates this fact, and isn’t betting too much on special treatment from Washington. A Prime Minister who held out more hope for help from the US might have been more swayed by Biden’s intervention over Brexit. Johnson evidently was not.
With Britain at an economic and geopolitical crossroads after Brexit, many predicted that the special relationship was all the UK would have left. That was always a cartoonish view, but so far a US-born Prime Minister seems uncharacteristically — and surprisingly — unromantic about Anglo-American relations.
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