Andy Thornley / F.
In April 2016, two months before the Brexit vote that separated the UK from the European Union, Boris Johnson wrote a seething article criticizing Barack Obama. Why was Johnson, a Brexit advocate and then the Mayor of London, so upset with the American? President? Obama “intervened” in the Brexit campaign, as some saw it, and warned against leaving the EU. He angered Johnson and his allies by announcing plans to discuss the negative effects of Brexit on his visit to the UK.
Johnson’s criticism of Obama for getting involved in the Brexit debate was angry, but not uncomfortable. But Johnson’s line criticizes Obama for removing a bust of Churchill from the Oval Office because the statue was “a symbol of the part-Kenyan president’s aversion to the British Empire”.
First, Johnson was wrong about the bust removal. He claimed Obama had the sculpture removed from the Oval Office based on an animus towards the British war leader who was writing misleading reports at the time. Johnson was wrong. The bust was on loan to the Bush administration from 2001 for the duration of his tenure. When Bush’s term was up in 2009, the bust went with him. Regardless of the semantics surrounding the bust’s whereabouts, the article itself and the language it contained caused uproar and widespread condemnation in the face of the Kenyan-born indictment that was at the heart of the birth movement. Even Churchill’s grandson as a politician condemned the article and the commentary
However, this was a rare, dark moment in an otherwise remarkably close relationship between Britain and the United States. There are many famous moments of common unity, fate and strength. Our common mother tongue undoubtedly helped, despite the age-old gag that we are two people separated by a common language. Our common stance in conflicts of the 20th and 21st centuries, including the World Wars, the Cold War, the Gulf War and the War on Terror, has contributed to coherent military cooperation. All those BBC shows on American television and US football exhibition games at London’s Wembley Stadium don’t hurt either.
The key to the close bond was also the close ties that many duos have between the president and prime minister. From Roosevelt and Truman’s strong military relationship with Churchill, to Reagan and Thatcher’s shared conservative ideologies, to Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, who reshaped their left-wing parties, and George W. Bush and Blair, who remained linked in the war on Terrorism , Britain and the US have been in lockstep – or close enough – for decades.
But now in 2020 Boris Johnson is the UK Prime Minister. He will embark on a journey with Joe Biden, the president’s self-described brother, whom Johnson mocked with a Kenyan barb.
Can the “special relationship” survive a Biden-Johnson partnership?
The history of the relationship since the beginning of the 20th century brings me to a cautiously confident yes. Relations between the two countries are too close for a personal break to be serious. Only once since the fateful Suez Crisis of the 1950s, when the two nations faced each other on different sides of the Israeli advance into Sinai, have London and Washington been at odds with each other. This includes the 1980s when Reagan’s government invaded Grenada, which Thatcher publicly approved but privately and angrily not.
However, the politics and agendas of two men have brought them into conflict. Johnson is firmly to the right of British politics while Biden is of course to the left of center. Biden also has a much tougher stance than his predecessor on the UK withdrawal agreement with the EU. The negotiations are taking place between the UK team, led by David Frost and Michel Barnier, and his EU delegation. Negotiations have been slow, but the temperature is rising with December 31st as the cutoff date. If a deal is not agreed, the UK will go with a “no deal”, the implications of which are unclear. Britain would trade with most of the world under WTO rules, which would mean high trade tariffs for Britain.
While Trump didn’t delve too far into the Brexit debate other than barking his approval, the new president-elect made his stance very clear. Biden has a long history in external relations, having spent over three decades on the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee and even chairing it for two years. Biden has a deep understanding of the importance of multilateral work while Trump condemned it. Biden does not want UK harm that could undo the work of the Good Friday Agreement between the Irish Republic, the Irish Republican Army political leadership and the UK during the Clinton administration. Biden only doubled that stance earlier this month when he said in a press release: “We don’t want a guarded (Irish) border. We have worked too long to get Ireland up and running … The idea of re-closing a border between north and south is just not right … “
This is putting Johnson under pressure. The Irish border has been a problem for Boris Johnson since he became Prime Minister last year and reaching an agreement with all parties will not be easy.
The Good Friday Agreement provides that there must be free movement between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which remains part of the United Kingdom. By Brexit, it was easy enough as both Ireland and the UK were part of the European Union. The EU, the US and the Irish Republic have made it clear that this must not be affected in any way. However, those who voted for Brexit insist that it means a hard border between all regions of the UK and the EU, including customs, passports and the like. Johnson promised there would be no separate rules for any region of Britain and MPs, activists and voters have tried to hold him accountable for this. More about it here.
It looked like the EU won the tug-of-war when Johnson appeared to be getting involved on a border along the Irish Sea – meaning any duties or checks that would have to be collected on goods or people coming from Ireland to traveling the country would be imposed on travel from Ireland or Northern Ireland to mainland Britain as opposed to travel from to Northern Ireland. Since then, however, Johnson has passed legislation in parliament to override potential Brexit deals and deals with the border. Many critics, both for and against Brexit, say the legislation could violate international law. This legislative threat to the Good Friday Agreement from Johnson is not well received in Foggy Bottom or the White House. Another sign of Biden’s commitment to maintaining the peace process is his recently announced first official visit by the President, which will take place in the Republic of Ireland next year and the symbolism of which will not be lost in London.
With Biden exerting pressure, Johnson and his negotiating team know they need to get rid of the Brexit deal quickly or miss the chance for a new US-UK trade deal. An agreement is essential as US trade deals with the UK are all based on being part of the EU. If Britain breaks away from the continent, it urgently needs a trade deal with Washington. In 2018, the U.S. accounted for 19 percent of UK exports and $ 4.5 billion of tourism dollars, not to mention the close ties between London and New York in the financial world. Britain needs the US to be successful after Brexit.
And that’s not the only sticking point for a UK-US trade deal. The regularity with which the term “chlorinated chicken” is used in the same sentence as the term of a trade agreement shows the concern with which many Britons are approaching the idea. Fears about health regulations and food standards dominate the discourse. There are fears in the UK that a deal could result in our esteemed National Health Service (NHS) being destroyed by private health organizations from the US.
What is the value of Great Britain as a trading partner for the USA in the 21st century? Great Britain has an increasingly declining geopolitical and financial place. How important is a trade deal to the US? It doesn’t seem important enough to prioritize negotiating an agreement for the new president in the first 100 days.
Another problem for Johnson is that Biden already has a kindred spirit in British politics, Sir Keir Starmer, now leader of the opposition Labor Party, a figure seen as a potential great unity of the left and the center. Starmer is a thorn in Johnson’s side and his shadow cabinet could be a bigger problem for Johnson when it comes to Biden relations. Links have been forged between Democratic and Labor politicians for some time. There was never a chance that Biden and Johnson’s relationship would be like Clinton-Blair, Reagan-Thatcher, Churchill-Roosevelt, or Churchill-Truman, but if Jeremy Corbyn were still party chairman, that would be better for Johnson. Biden would not take on a political figure like Corbyn, ridiculed by some in British politics as an anti-Semite. Proximity to the US President is certainly a Labor benefit and a concern for Johnson and his Tories.
Despite these hurdles, closer alliances for the USA are hardly conceivable. While there are a handful of sticking points to a smooth and positive relationship between the two leaders, the strength of the “special relationship” is not about the people at the top. It’s about shared history and an intercultural fascination between both sides. The “special relationship” has ebbed and flowed. Thatcher and Carter were not natural allies in office. The same goes for John Major and Clinton in the ’90s, especially since Major’s Tory administration in 1992 helped Republicans find filth in Clinton’s Oxford years, most of which turned out to be junk. However, the relationship endures and has been a source of strength for both parties. It will continue under Biden and Johnson, even if there are frosty moments. The question is really about Johnson’s future. He won a landslide when Labor’s seats in parliament fell to near historic lows. He has nowhere else to go than now, when Corbyn-style socialism is no longer the face of the Labor Party and the real pain of Brexit is at hand, rather than the paper-thin theory of an independent Britain shackled by EU bureaucrats in Brussels is. Boris will fall a lot faster if he can’t be seen as a friend of Joe in London, New York and Washington.