President Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson are anything but natural soul mates — different political parties, different generations, different styles as leaders. When the two sit down together on Thursday, they will begin to see whether the term “special relationship” defines not just their countries but the two of them as well.
For Biden, the meeting with Johnson will mark the beginning of his first foreign trip as president. The schedule is packed, from the Group of Seven summit in Cornwall this weekend to the NATO and European Union summits next week. Biden’s itinerary also includes a visit with Queen Elizabeth at Windsor Castle on Sunday and will be capped by the most closely watched event of the trip, a face-to-face session with Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 16 in Geneva.
Given that schedule, the meeting with Johnson might seem mostly obligatory and ceremonial, and perhaps that will be the case. But history has shown the powerful results that can occur when a president and a prime minister find themselves bonded personally and politically and by shared objectives. Though presidents and prime ministers for at least the past 80 years have found reasons for common cause, some pairings became more personal and consequential than others.
That was the case, of course, with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill during World War II as they joined their nations to defeat the Nazis and save the world from fascism. It was the case with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, who in the 1980s were remaking the politics of their countries, ushering in conservative eras with lasting consequences.
It was the case with Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, who not only personified generational change but were engaged in mutual efforts to refurbish and rejuvenate their political parties with centrist ideas after both the Democrats and the Labour Party had suffered successive election losses. It was also, to the surprise of many, the case with Blair and George W. Bush, as the hawkish Labour prime minister rallied instantly behind the Republican president in the days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Blair later became Bush’s staunchest foreign ally in what became the misadventure that was the Iraq War, something that scars the legacies of both leaders still today.
In the coming days, every expectation is that Biden and Johnson will get along famously. Johnson will chair the G-7 meeting, which will deal with issues ranging from the pandemic to global taxation to climate change. Both leaders have an incentive for that gathering to be seen as harmonious and productive, particularly after four years of the presidency of Donald Trump, who hectored leaders of America’s European allies and turned these normally collegial events into tense and contentious gatherings.
Ahead of the trip, White House officials have signaled a desire to make the most of the president’s relationship with the prime minister. Speaking to reporters on Monday, national security adviser Jake Sullivan spoke positively about the contact to date between Biden and Johnson, describing phone calls between the two men as “constructive” and “warm.”
“They’ve been very much down to business,” Sullivan said of the calls between Biden and Johnson. “They’ve gone through extensive agendas in both of them. And I expect that their meeting together will just cover the waterfront. I mean, really, a wide range of issues where the two of them and the U.S. and United Kingdom do see eye to eye.”
Biden and his foreign policy team are experienced and pragmatic. They want to create no friction with Johnson. Not only will the prime minister chair the G-7 summit, which amounts to Biden’s coming-out moment on the world stage as president, but later this year will also chair the U.N. climate conference that will be held in Glasgow in November.
Given Biden’s decisions to rejoin the Paris climate accord and to host a virtual climate summit as president and his pledge to push the world toward more ambitious targets to reduce carbon emissions, and Johnson’s commitment to confront the climate crisis, there is a natural partnership for both to seize upon this year. Though of different political parties, some of their governing instincts intersect. Johnson, for example, is a big-spending conservative.
But there are reasons to question whether the two will develop something more significant over a longer period of time. They do not see eye to eye on the issue that consumed British politics for several years, the 2016 Brexit referendum that led to Britain leaving the European Union.
Johnson was a leader of the pro-Brexit campaign, which Biden and former president Barack Obama saw as a mistake. Whether Johnson embraced the “leave” campaign out of conviction or out of mere political opportunism is a related issue.
Johnson’s support for the Brexit agreement made him a favorite of Biden’s predecessor. Trump treated badly the former prime minister, Theresa May, repeatedly belittling her through the course of their interactions and calling into question her negotiating strategy with the E.U. As May was teetering because of the tortured negotiations and the divisions in her Conservative Party, Trump was openly praising Johnson, who was already maneuvering to become her successor.
Johnson, a shrewd and flexible politician, appears to have made a swift and necessary pivot from the Trump era to the Biden era. When Biden announced that the United States would rejoin the Paris climate accord, Johnson was an enthusiastic endorser. But there are aspects of how Biden and Johnson do business that could affect their relationship.
Biden is by many descriptions a substantive leader, based on the many decades he has been in public life and the range of issues he has dealt with over those years. He is confident he knows his brief and generally comes to his responsibilities well prepared. Johnson is, by contrast, a politician with little interest in details, someone more likely to wing it rather than do the necessary preparation. His critics question whether he brings enough seriousness to his job. Will Biden be comfortable and confident over time in dealing with Johnson?
There’s also one important substantive problem that could create friction between the two leaders. One of the knottiest issues of Brexit is what to do about what has been an open border between Ireland, which is a member of the E.U., and Northern Ireland, which is no longer a member as a result of the Brexit breakup. The goal of the long negotiations has been to prevent the creation of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, but the issue has proved to be enormously complex. It remains unresolved and flared again this week.
Biden has been explicit about how important he sees the issue. Last fall, Biden tweeted, “We can’t allow the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a casualty of Brexit. Any trade deal between the U.S. and U.K. must be contingent upon respect for the Agreement and preventing the return of a hard border. Period.”
Presidents and prime ministers, even those with the closest of ties, have had disagreements.
In the coming days, Biden and Johnson will find mutual self-interest in working together and projecting that the special relationship between the two countries is as solid as ever. But Britain’s place in the world is changing as a result of Brexit, and the two leaders, so different in so many ways, are only in the opening stages of getting to know one another. Later days and events will determine whether their relationship truly blossoms into something significant.
By Dan Balz
The Washington Post