Joe Biden never met Boris Johnson but his first impressions were not favorable. Mr Biden in 2019 called the British Prime Minister a “physical and emotional clone” of Donald Trump; he sees Brexit as a strategic disaster.
Yet when Mr Biden is appointed US president next Wednesday, a new phase in UK-US relations will begin, with Mr Johnson seeing the partnership as the keystone of his post-Brexit vision for the United States. “World Great Britain”.
Personal relations between the British Prime Minister and the US President have rarely been so difficult even before the inauguration ceremony took place; but both sides believe it can be overcome.
Mr Johnson’s role as host of the G7 and UN COP26 climate change summits this year gives him a unique opportunity to build a partnership based on common political goals. A trade deal between the UK and the US is seen as one of the big potential Brexit prizes.
Mr Johnson is smart about comparisons to the incumbent President, who has called the British Prime Minister “Britain Trump”. An ally says, “Boris hates comparisons with Trump. He wants to be a mainstream European leader. When he looks at himself in the mirror, he wants to see Macron, not Trump.
But Brexit has tarnished Mr Johnson’s reputation in Democratic circles in Washington. Mr Biden was vice president to Barack Obama, who made it clear that US interests were best served by Britain remaining at the heart of the European project.
The Prime Minister’s threat to violate international law over the Brexit settlement in Northern Ireland has been rebuked by Mr Biden, who is proud of his Irish ancestry. Mr Johnson’s suggestion in 2016 that Mr Obama didn’t like Britain because he was “partially Kenyan” is still remembered in Washington.
British diplomats wonder if there will be a lot of chemistry when Mr Biden and Mr Johnson finally meet. “I’m not sure Boris’ version of public school charm and flowery language will work with him,” one said. “The way he conducts conversations might irritate Biden.”
But while previous presidents have bonded on a personal level – say Bill Clinton and Tony Blair or Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher – the transatlantic relationship generally transcends the personalities of the principals.
A British official notes that the depth of commercial, military, cultural and historical ties generally combine to create a strong relationship between the Prime Minister and the President. “You can’t always say at the outset how they’re going to fare,” the official said. “Events forge relationships.”
Christopher Meyer, former British Ambassador to Washington, said: “I think it’s going to be okay. On the difficult issues Joe Biden will need to tackle with his allies, there is a remarkable level of alignment of national interests between the United States and the United Kingdom.
It is Mr Johnson’s luck that the completion of the Brexit process on January 1 with the conclusion of a trade deal with the EU coincided with his assumption of the presidency of two major international events in 2021.
The Prime Minister sees “an independent Great Britain” as a unifying power, capable of operating at the global level and committed to the international order and with respect for democratic values.
The June G7 summit, Mr Biden’s first major international gathering, aims to chart a course out of the Covid-19 pandemic. Other democracies, including South Korea, Australia and India, will be invited as guests – part of an informal “D-10” group favored by London and Washington.
“Biden is going to want to make a good impression,” said Kim Darroch, another former British envoy to Washington. “We should go very early and ask them what he wants out of it.”
Mr Johnson’s other good fortune is that Mr Biden is committed to working with his allies and to tackling climate change; in November, the COP26 summit in Glasgow aims to accelerate efforts to reduce emissions.
Another area of growing alignment between London and Washington concerns China, with Mr Johnson’s government taking an increasingly belligerent stance towards Beijing on human rights and technology issues.
As Britain, under David Cameron’s government, has been accused by fellow European leaders of bowing to Beijing, things are changing. Mr Johnson tells his colleagues: ‘People think I’m lenient with China – that’s not true.’
Mr Johnson’s government bans Huawei from its 5G networks – albeit under pressure from the United States – and last week took steps to ban Chinese imports using forced Uyghur labor. The EU, meanwhile, signed a new investment agreement with China at the end of 2020.
Tom Tugendhat, who co-chairs the Chinese research group of conservative MPs campaigning for a tougher stance on relations with Beijing, said: “The Biden team has already set a tough agenda on China, but with a lot more international cooperation as the outgoing administration. “
Leslie Vinjamuri, Director of the United States and the Americas program at Chatham House, said: “Democracy, human rights and technology are the major areas of coordination where we should expect to see a real effort from the Johnson government and the new Biden administration to coordinate policies. . “
Tom Wright, an expert on US-Europe relations at the Brookings Institution, said: “I don’t think Biden is going to hold a grudge for the previous things. If the UK is active in how to operationalize many of these common interests, act on them, and have good ideas and initiatives, this will be more important to Biden than has happened before. .
Additional reporting by Sebastian Payne