In April 2016, two months before the Brexit vote that untethered the United Kingdom from the European Union, Boris Johnson penned a seething article criticizing Barack Obama. Why was Johnson, a champion of Brexit and then the mayor of London, so irked at the American president? Obama had “intervened” as some saw it, in the Brexit campaign, warning against an exit from the EU and he irked Johnson and his allies by announcing plans to discuss the negatives of Brexit on his visit to the UK.
Johnson’s critique of Obama for inserting himself in the Brexit debate was angry but not untoward. But Johnson’s line critiquing Obama for removing a bust of Churchill from the Oval Office because the statue was “a symbol of the part-Kenyan President’s ancestral dislike of the British empire.”caused much controversy for it’s racist undertones.
First, Johnson was wrong about the bust removal. He claimed that Obama had the sculpture removed from the Oval Office based on some animus towards Britain’s wartime leader misleading reports at the time. Johnson was incorrect. The bust had been loaned to the Bush Administration from 2001 for the duration of his time in office. When Bush’s time was up in 2009, the bust left with him. Regardless of the semantics surrounding the bust’s whereabouts, the article itself and the language in it caused uproar and wide condemnation given the born-in-Kenya charge that was at the heart of the birther movement. Even Churchill’s politician grandson was damning of the article and the comment.
However, this was a rare, dark moment in an otherwise remarkably close relationship between the UK and the United States. There are many famous moments of shared unity, destiny, and strength. Our shared mother tongue has no doubt helped with this, despite the age-old gag that we’re two people separated by a common language. Our shared stances in 20th and 21st-century conflicts, including both World Wars, the Cold War, the Gulf War, and the War on Terror, have contributed to cohesive military collaboration. All those BBC shows on American television, and U.S. football exhibition games in London’s Wembley stadium don’t hurt either.
Also, the key to the tight bond has been the close relationships of many presidential-prime ministerial duos. From Roosevelt and Truman’s strong military-based relationship with Churchill, through Reagan and Thatcher’s shared conservative ideologies and even more recently with Bill Clinton and Tony Blair reshaping their left-of-center parties, and George W. Bush and Blair tied together in the War on Terror, UK and U.S. leadership have been in lockstep—or near enough—for decades.
But now in 2020, Boris Johnson is the British prime minister. He will begin a journey with Joe Biden, the self-described brother of the president that Johnson derided with a Kenya barb.
Can the “special relationship” survive a Biden-Johnson partnership?
The history of the relationship since the beginning of the 1900s brings me to a cautiously confident, yes. The ties between the two countries are too close for any personal rupture to be serious. Only once since the fateful Suez Crisis of the 1950s, when the two nations squared off on different sides of Israel’s push into the Sinai, have London and Washington been remotely at odds. That includes the 80s when Reagan’s Administration invaded Grenada, for which Thatcher publicly approved, but privately and furiously did not.
However, the two men’s politics and agendas put them at odds. Johnson is firmly on the right of UK politics, whereas Biden is, of course, 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 heating up, with December 31 the key date. If a deal is not agreed, then the UK leaves with a ‘No Deal,’ the ramifications of which are unclear. The UK would be left trading with most of the world on “WTO rules”, meaning high tariffs for the UK when trading.
Whereas Trump did not delve too far into the Brexit debate, other than barking his approval, the incoming President-Elect has made his stance very clear. Biden has a long history in foreign relations, having spent over three decades on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and even chaired it for two two-year periods. Biden has a deep understanding of the importance of multilateral work, whereas Trump condemned it. Biden does not want any damage done by the UK that could undo the work of the Good Friday Agreement forged between the Irish Republic, the political leadership of the Irish Republican Army and the UK during the Clinton Administration. Biden doubled down on this stance as recently as earlier this month when he said in a press statement: “We do not want a guarded (Irish) border. We’ve worked too long to get Ireland worked out… The idea of having a border north and south once again being closed is just not right….”
This puts pressure on Johnson. The Irish Border has been a problem for Boris Johnson since he became prime minister last year and reaching an agreement with all parties won’t be easy.
The Good Friday Agreement stipulates there must be free movement between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which remains a part of the United Kingdom. Until Brexit, that was easy enough since both Ireland and the UK were part of the European Union. The EU, U.S., and the Republic of Ireland have stated clearly that this must not be compromised in any way. Those who voted for Brexit, however, insist it means a hard border between all regions of the UK and the EU including customs, passports, and the like. Johnson promised that there would be no separate rules for any region of the UK, and MPs, campaigners, and voters have tried to hold him accountable for that. More on that here.
It looked like the EU had won the tug of war when Johnson appeared to commit to a border down the Irish Sea—meaning that any tariffs or checks that would need to be imposed on goods or people traveling to the country from Ireland would be imposed on the journey from Ireland or Northern Ireland to mainland UK as opposed to when crossing from to Northern Ireland. However, Johnson has since put forward legislation in Parliament to override any potential Brexit deal and the dealings with the Border. Many critics, both for and against Brexit, say the legislation could be in contravention of International Law. This legislative threat posed to the Good Friday Agreement by Johnson will not be well received in Foggy Bottom or the White House. Further underlining Biden’s commitment to upholding the peace process is his recently announced first official Presidential visit, which will be a visit to the Republic of Ireland next year, the symbolism of which is not lost on London.
With Biden applying pressure, Johnson and his negotiating team know that they need to solve the Brexit agreement fast or lose out on the chance for a new U.S.-UK trade deal. A deal is essential as the U.S. trade agreements with the UK are all based on their being part of the EU. When Britain unmoors herself from the continent, she’ll desperately need a trade accord with Washington. In 2018 the U.S. accounted for 19 percent of the UK’s exports and $4.5 billion of its tourist dollars, not to mention the intimate ties between London and New York in the world of finance. The UK needs the U.S. if it is to thrive at all post-Brexit.
And that is not the only sticking point for a UK-U.S. trade deal. The regularity with which the phrase “Chlorinated Chicken” is mentioned in the same sentence as the notion of a trade deal demonstrates the trepidation with which many Brits approach the idea. Fears over health codes and food standards dominate the discourse. There are fears in the UK that a deal would open up our prized National Health Service (NHS) to be wrecked by private healthcare organizations from the U.S.
As for the U.S., what value does the UK still present to them as a trade partner in the 21st century? The UK has a diminishing place at the geopolitical and financial table. How important is a trade deal for the U.S.? It’s not important enough, it seems, to prioritize negotiating a deal in the first 100 days for the incoming president.
Another problem for Johnson is that Biden already has a kindred spirit in British politics, Sir Keir Starmer, now the leader of the opposition Labour Party, a figure considered to be a potential great unifier of the left and center. Starmer has his thorn in Johnson’s side and his shadow cabinet could pose a greater issue for Johnson when it comes to relations with the Biden. Ties have already been forged for some time between Democrat and Labour politicians. There was never a chance Biden and Johnson’s relationship would be like Clinton-Blair, Reagan-Thatcher, Churchill-Roosevelt, or Churchill-Truman, but if Jeremy Corbyn was still party leader, that would be better for Johnson. Biden would not cozy up to a political figure, like Corbyn, derided by some in UK politics as an anti-Semite. Being close to the U.S. president is surely an advantage to Labour and a concern to Johnson and his Tories.
In spite of these hurdles, it is hard to imagine many closer alliances for the U.S. 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 is about shared history,and a cross-cultural fascination between both sides. The ‘Special Relationship’ has ebbed and flowed. Thatcher and Carter were not natural allies in office. The same could be said for John Major and Clinton in the 90s, especially since Major’s Tory government was seen as helping Republicans in 1992 find dirt on Clinton’s years at Oxford, most of which turned out to be rubbish. However, the relationship has endured and been a source of strength for both sides. Under Biden and Johnson, it will continue, even if there are frosty moments. The question is really about Johnson’s future. He won in a landslide as Labour’s seats in Parliament dwindled to near historic lows. He has nowhere to go but down now that Corbyn-style socialism is no longer the face of Labour, and the real pain of Brexit is at hand instead of the gauzy theorizing about an independent Britain unshackled form EU bureaucrats in Brussels. Boris will fall a lot more quickly if he can’t be seen in London and New York and Washington as a friend of Joe’s.