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Johnson and Biden thrown together by geopolitical necessity

Joe Biden’s first overseas trip as US president this week will include a meeting with Queen Elizabeth at Windsor Castle on Sunday, an encounter with the 95-year-old monarch that is certain to be the focus of American media attention.

But Biden will first spend three days at a boutique Cornish hotel in the less formal company of Boris Johnson, the British prime minister he memorably described in 2019 as “a physical and emotional clone” of Donald Trump.

Political circumstance and geopolitical necessity have thrown Biden and Johnson together. Ahead of the G7 summit — which Johnson will chair — their relationship is viewed by both sides as being rich in potential but laced with potential danger.

Johnson’s first face-to-face meeting with the US president in Cornwall will be a crucial moment for both leaders. One is trying to re-establish American global leadership, the other trying to prove that “Global Britain” is more than a slogan.

Things got off to a good start in London on Saturday at a meeting chaired by UK chancellor Rishi Sunak, with agreement between G7 finance ministers on a US-backed plan for taxing global companies.

The Carbis Bay Hotel in Cornwall, where Joe Biden and Boris Johnson will hold their first face to face talks © Anthony Devlin/Bloomberg

In the run-up to the G7, which starts on Friday, the Biden camp has been talking up the “special relationship”, a term coined by Winston Churchill 75 years ago that nowadays evokes a collective cringe among many British diplomats.

“The term special relationship does as much harm as good,” said Christopher Meyer, former UK ambassador to Washington. “It raises expectations.”

But Meyer notes that Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, on a visit to London last month went out of his way to stress that Churchill’s idea of the relationship still applied and the US had “no closer ally, no closer partner” than Britain.

Both sides want to bury the idea that Biden, who regards Brexit as a mistake for Britain, is still wary of Johnson. Analysts and officials say both leaders have made a big effort to cast aside tensions: one of Biden’s first calls after his inauguration was to Johnson.

Heather Conley, senior vice-president for Europe at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said: “Biden is a retail politician and he understands that we’ve got to go beyond the ideological differences and get busy on the agenda.”

It is Johnson’s good fortune that in the year that Brexit took full effect, the UK is chairing both the G7 and the UN COP26 climate summit, giving him the chance to assert that Britain has a convening power as an “independent” country.

Kim Darroch, another former British ambassador to Washington, said: “Because these are both important meetings for Biden, the president wants a good relationship with the UK and the PM.” 

Boris Johnson calls Joe Biden after he won last November’s US presidential election
Boris Johnson calls Joe Biden after he won last November’s US presidential election © Andrew Parsons/No10 Downing Street

In many areas the interests of Biden and Johnson are aligned. The US president wants to assert global leadership in areas such as climate change, global vaccinations, containing Russia and Iran and reform to global corporate taxation. Johnson has similar ambitions and wants the two summits to produce results.

But there are areas of tension, which even a long weekend on the white Cornish sands of Carbis Bay are unlikely to erase. The biggest is on the UK’s approach to implementing the Northern Ireland protocol — part of Johnson’s Brexit deal.

The president’s assertion last year that “I’m Irish” was a reminder of his determination to ensure that Brexit does not destabilise the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to the region after three decades of violence. Talks between London and Brussels on the issue next week immediately precede the G7 and Amanda Sloat, senior director for the National Security Council, confirmed on Friday that Biden would raise the issue with Johnson.

She said Biden had made it clear he wanted to see the agreement upheld and “continued economic and political stability” in Northern Ireland. She had “no doubt this is a message he will reinforce in the UK”.

Max Bergmann, a former Department of State official under Barack Obama and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said he hoped there would be a “direct confrontation” on the issue, but if it happened it would be off-camera.

A pub in Cornwall hangs out the flags of the G7 members ahead of the summit this week
A pub in Cornwall hangs out the flags of the G7 members ahead of the summit this week © Tom Nicholson/Reuters

Darroch said: “I think the next 12 months will be fine unless we do something on the Northern Ireland protocol which really upsets the Irish government and they get straight on the phone to their friends in Congress. That could be quite troublesome.”

On China, Johnson takes a more hawkish stance than most other G7 countries but some believe he could come under pressure from Biden in the coming months to toughen Britain’s stance towards Beijing.

Johnson’s recent “integrated review” of foreign and defence policy, with its commitment to pursue “a positive economic relationship, including deeper trade links and more Chinese investment in the UK”, was criticised by hawks in Britain.

“I think Boris wants it both ways: to do just enough on China to keep the Americans and the anti-China lobby in his party off his back, while if possible avoiding a deep rift with the Chinese leadership,” Darroch said.

“He will end up closer to Biden on China policy than some Europeans. But he will find it difficult if Biden’s ask of the UK on China goes up significantly. Once upon a time we could hide behind an EU common position. No longer.”

British officials say that while western leaders have welcomed the return of the US to the international system, they may be less comfortable when Biden starts demanding that they stump up more cash for issues such as global vaccines, fighting climate change or defence spending.

“All of us are going to realise quite soon what it is like to have an engaged US on the scene again,” said one senior European diplomat, noting that some countries may start to chafe against a new assertive approach from Biden.

“There’s a feeling in some European capitals that we’re the ones who have been keeping the show on the road over the past four years when it comes to things like climate or vaccines,” the diplomat said.

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