How smoothly will Boris Johnson and Joe Biden work together over the next four years? These relationships can be hard to predict. Tony Blair and Bill Clinton looked all set to get on like two peas in a pod. But the Kosovo conflict became a source of frustration. Blair found George W Bush a more straightforward ally with a shared belief in the moral imperative of foreign intervention. Some pundits were quick to declare that the Johnson/Biden era would be less than congenial. The Guardian warned of a “bumpy path.” It was suggested that Biden could prove difficult over Northern Ireland – though the trade deal between the UK and the EU, agreed after Biden’s election, but before he took office, has limited potential friction in this respect. Biden’s decision to remove a bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office prompted some renewed nervousness.
Yet a phone call on Saturday has obliged the media to reset the narrative – for the time being at least. Johnson was obviously cheerful during the call and understandably so. Whenever a US President takes office the order in which the new occupant of the White House speaks to other world leaders is considered a key indicator in the diplomatic pecking order. It might seem a crude – even childish – measure of a nation’s foreign policy clout. It is understood that Johnson was the first such call that Biden made outside of the Americas.
The Downing Street “readout” said:
“They noted the significant challenges facing the world during the pandemic, but also the unparalleled opportunities to build back better and greener together. The Prime Minister praised President Biden’s early action on tackling climate change and commitment to reach Net Zero by 2050.
“Building on the UK and US’ long history of cooperation in security and defence, the leaders re-committed to the NATO alliance and our shared values in promoting human rights and protecting democracy.
“They also discussed the benefits of a potential free trade deal between our two countries, and the Prime Minister reiterated his intention to resolve existing trade issues as soon as possible.
“The leaders looked forward to meeting in person as soon as the circumstances allow, and to working together through the G7, G20 and COP26 this year.”
Perhaps a trade deal may be easier with Biden than it would have been with Donald Trump. The necessary ingredient is to accept that free trade is mutually beneficial. Trump’s mentality is far more to see it in terms of winners and losers. Biden is less susceptible to such populist claims.
What of the personal chemistry between Johnson and Biden? The two leaders have never met but it is suggested the conversation was perfectly amicable. The Daily Telegraph reports:
“The Prime Minister asked the US president about his Amtrak train journeys across the country, a source familiar with the conversation told The Telegraph.
After Mr Biden’s wife and daughter died in a car crash in 1972, the then senator rode on Amtrak every day from his home in the state of Delaware to work in Washington DC. His plan to travel by train to his inauguration earlier this week was scuppered by security concerns.
The president has often talked about his passion for trains and lobbied in the Senate for more public funding for the rail sector, earning him the nickname “Amtrak Joe”.
Mr Biden lamented that he will not be able to take the train, which he has called his “favourite means of transport”, as much as he used to in his new White House role…
The call was said to be “very friendly”, with each “seeming to enjoy the other’s anecdotes”.”
Why would Biden make his relationship with the UK such a priority? It probably helps that the UK is hosting the G7 Summit – which will be held in Carbis Bay, Cornwall from 11-13th June 2021. Also, the United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26, is scheduled to be held in Glasgow in November. There is a shared motive in such events producing tangible results rather than merely being talking shops.
Then there is a question of our contribution to NATO. The UK has met our commitment to spend two per cent of GDP on defence. Some of our European allies are not meeting this target. That was a grievance raised by Trump who felt it unreasonable that the United States was picking up such a large share of the cost of European security. While Trump expressed his views in characteristically blunt language, that sentiment is shared by the new administration.
During the Falklands War, Biden was staunchly supportive of Britain – the “oldest and closest ally” of the US. If he faces future conflicts – with Iran or in whatever unpredictable corner of the globe it might be – then he will be seeking allies. The Trump administration was less isolationist that the “America First” rhetoric implied. Biden is likely to less impulsive in his interventions, more concerned to win international approval. The decision to befriend Boris Johnson may well prove to be shrewd.