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Crossroads – Where the US-UK Relationship Goes From Here

As President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take office, reports say officials and politicians in London have been frantically pivoting to ready themselves for the incoming Biden administration. 

Creating a tight working relationship with President-elect Joe Biden like the kind President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher or British Prime Minister Tony Blair and President George Bush enjoyed is crucial for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. A core element of his post-Brexit roadmap relies on securing a trade deal with the US. The assumption many had been working under was that this was best achieved under a Trump presidency. Not only had Trump talked up a potential trade deal significantly more, but he had spoken warmly of Johnson and Brexit as extensions of his own populist movement. 

By contrast, the outlook for a trade deal with a Biden presidency at face value appears more challenging. For one, the perception that has undergirded Trump’s positive view of Johnson – that he is “Britain Trump” – jeopardises Johnson’s relationship with Biden. Indeed, with Biden being notably hostile to Brexit, he may well be uneasy enabling a core part of Britain’s post-Brexit future. His former boss, President Obama, had said Britain would be, “back of the queue” for a trade deal. Furthermore, as a proud Irish American, Biden has stated clearly that there will be no trade agreement if the UK does not respect the Good Friday Agreement. Finally, many assume Biden will be far more focused on repairing US relations with other European leaders, specifically Angela Merkel, as they are the relationships most neglected by Trump. 

Johnson’s response to a potential Biden administration should rest on two elements. Firstly, Johnson must demonstrate that despite differences, no two countries have more aligned foreign policy goals than the UK and US. On climate change, multilateralism, Iran and many other issues, Johnson and Biden see eye to eye. Secondly, to combat Biden’s view that Johnson is, “kind of a physical and emotional clone of the President,” Johnson must stress his record as a liberal and reform-oriented Conservative.

With respect to shared foreign policy aims, Johnson has much to talk about to strengthen relations with Joe Biden. Historically, the UK and US have stood united in foreign policy and the, “special relationship” between the two countries has been an integral force in the global community. But there has been a growing sense over the years, as other allies such as Germany grow in importance, that the “special relationship” meant far more to the UK than it did to the US. Johnson must address this. 

Fortunately, Britain and the US now have the potential to be more aligned than they have been for several years on a plethora of issues. On climate change for example, Joe Biden is expected to re-join the Paris Agreement, seeing the US once again take a leading role in tackling the issue. Similarly, Johnson is also a believer in the need to take strong action against climate change, and has announced a series of measures on infrastructure, construction, and energy, among others. Johnson will be hoping that the UK’s hosting of the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in 2021 will provide an important moment of unity for the UK and a potential Biden administration on climate change.

On Iran, the UK also shares similar ambitions to a potential Biden administration. Biden has said that he intends to re-join the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) if Iran returns to full compliance. On this issue, Johnson concurs: as Foreign Secretary when Trump pulled out of the JCPOA, Johnson travelled to Washington to make a last-ditch attempt to persuade Trump against withdrawing from the agreement.

Johnson and Biden’s Iran policy signals a broader area of coherence between the two men. Unlike Trump’s language of ‘America First’, both are committed multilateralists. Boris Johnson’s proposal of a, “D-10 alliance” of the world’s ten leading democracies shows an instinct to tackle vital issues with allies, not alone. Such an approach greatly differs to Trump’s unilateral approach on issues such as Iran and China. 

That both Biden and Johnson, despite differences, share this one unifying belief in the importance of acting with allies and not alone is crucial. If Johnson can stress this coherent world view and set of priorities to Biden, the two leaders may well be set for a fruitful relationship.

The second element of Johnson’s approach to a potential Biden administration is perhaps more subtle and challenging. History has often found its moorings in the personal relations between leaders, with Mikhail Gorbachev and Reagan’s friendship being a prime example. By this metric, the prospects for US-UK relations under a potential Biden administration are not starting off on a good foot. 

Johnson’s relations with liberal America have been tarnished by his criticism of what he perceived as Obama’s anti-British attitudes caused by an “ancestral dislike of the British Empire.” More broadly, globally many now perceive Johnson as a Trumpian populist and nationalist after his role in the Brexit campaign. This reputation threatens UK-US relations under a Biden Presidency.

However, while the “Britain Trump” characterization of Johnson has credible foundations, it is an overly simplistic view that ignores much of Johnson’s record, especially pre-Brexit. One must not forget that in the early 2000s, when Blair was dominant and the Conservatives seemed antiquated, Johnson, along with David Cameron and George Osborne, represented      Conservative modernisers who were pushing a more socially liberal agenda. For example, Johnson voted in favor of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 and repealing Section 28. On the environment, Johnson’s green beliefs make him no climate denier. Johnson was elected Mayor of London, a city that is fundamentally liberal. No populist nationalist could have achieved such a position.

As Mayor of London, Johnson championed many progressive causes such as the London Living Wage and appeared at London’s gay pride parade. Johnson even endorsed Barack Obama in 2008, and after Donald Trump’s comments in 2015 that parts of London were no-go zones governed by Sharia law, Johnson said that Trump was “betraying a quite stupefying ignorance that makes him, frankly, unfit to hold the office of president of the United States,” and that he “would invite [Trump] to come and see the whole of London and take him round the city — except I wouldn’t want to expose Londoners to any unnecessary risk of meeting Donald Trump.”

Whilst Johnson today is a different figure than he was pre-Brexit, his position on the environment and LGBTQ rights among other issues is virtually unwavering. His “levelling up” agenda to invest in opportunities beyond London for forgotten areas marks him as one of the most left-leaning Conservative Prime Ministers in history. 

Johnson is no radical liberal, but he has justified reason to disavow his current Trumpian characterization. If Johnson can stress that he and Biden actually share much common ground, their relationship has the potential to be far stronger. 

The UK-US relationship is vital and has proven its durability, but under a potential Biden presidency it stands at a crossroads. For a Biden-Johnson partnership to succeed, Britain’s Prime Minister must make a conscious effort to reach out beyond his comfort zone, and show Biden he is a moderate Conservative committed, along with America, to protecting democracy, the climate and multilateralism.

The importance of Johnson building this relationship cannot be understated; not only a potential trade deal hinges on US-UK relations, but the future of UK foreign relations does as well. Now cut adrift from Europe, Britain is redefining its place in the world. If the UK feels out of step with the US as with Europe, Johnson may find the world stage a very lonely place. But if the UK and US can work in lockstep, there is the potential for a truly powerful global partnership.

Image: Flickr (The White House)