Personalities trump politics in Britain’s future with US under Joe Biden

Stuart Lau
·5-min read

Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential election on Saturday has left Britain isolated in the West while grappling with its own future relationship with Washington.

The quagmire is less about politics than personalities. A year ago, when Boris Johnson was elected prime minister, Biden’s first reaction was this: “You’re also going to see people saying, ‘My God, Boris Johnson, who is kind of a physical and emotional clone of the president, is able to win.’”

That president, of course, was Donald Trump, beaten last week by Biden in the first defeat for a sitting president seeking re-election since 1992.

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Johnson’s comment on the victory of his one-time critic was more diplomatic. “The US is our important ally and I look forward to working closely together on our shared priorities, from climate change to trade and security.”

On Sunday, Johnson sought to reassure Washington that he would work with the new administration closely, focusing on climate change as an issue where a Biden presidency would see eye to eye with Britain, which is slated to host a key United Nations conference on climate change next year. Biden has said he will sign an executive order to rejoin the Paris climate accord as soon as he takes office.

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“The United States is our closest and most important ally, and that has been the case president after president, prime minister after prime minister – it won’t change,” Johnson said on the BBC. “I think there is far more that unites the government of this country and governments in Washington at any time and any stage than divides us.

“There is a huge amount of work we need to do together to protect those values – a belief in democracy, in free speech around the world, in human rights, in free trade, in the rules-based international order – all these things are currently under threat.

“I think now with President Biden in the White House in Washington we have the real prospect of American global leadership in tackling climate change.”

Johnson’s comments mirrored his government’s previous remarks on China, an issue that a high-ranking member of parliament said would render Anglo-American cooperation a necessity under Biden.

“To Trump’s credit, the world is recalibrating its view on China, and not a moment too soon,” said Tobias Ellwood, chair of the House of Commons’ defence committee. “But his response was just confrontational, with no collective strategy to contain arguably the biggest geopolitical threat we now face.

“Biden recognises the West must advance a counterweight to stop China extending its authoritarian influence and ensnaring ever more countries into its infrastructure, technology and military programmes,” he wrote in The Daily Telegraph newspaper.

Ellwood’s view was echoed by US Senator Chris Coons, a close ally of Biden’s, who told the BBC: “I expect Joe Biden to re-energise our focus on democracy and open society in the face of challenges from Russia, China and Iran and elsewhere in the world.”

Johnson’s focus on shared values and climate change as common ground between the two country’s leaders was seen as a bid to quell concerns over his personal rapport with Trump. Both are seen in their respective societies as divisive figures stirring up nationalistic sentiments for personal political gain.

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Under Johnson, one of the key advocates for Brexit in the 2016 referendum, Britain has steered close to US foreign policy positions. On China, for instance, Johnson made a U-turn this year to ban Huawei Technologies from its 5G networks, amid strong lobbying from the Trump administration.

Apart from Biden’s opposition to Brexit, the London establishment has another concern – that of Biden’s Irish heritage and his personal special relationship with Ireland.

In the words of one Irish diplomat, Biden will be the most Ireland-friendly US president since John F. Kennedy, the only other Irish-Catholic to occupy the White House in US history. The Irish leader, Taoiseach Micheal Martin, said last week that Biden was “as Irish as you can get in terms of his background”.

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In recent months, Biden warned Britain that any post-Brexit trade deal with the US would be contingent upon London respecting and protecting the Good Friday peace agreement with Ireland – which critics of the British government say risks being compromised by the way Brexit is moving.

The next US president will be sworn in on January 20, less than three weeks after the transition period ends for Britain to exit from the European Union. No deal has yet been reached between London and Brussels, while the EU’s top Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, will continue the talks in London on Monday.

“I don’t think Joe Biden will feel particularly warmly toward this British government, and they’re going to have to work very hard to change that,” George Osborne, former British chancellor of the exchequer, said on CNN.

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