President Joe Biden will be greeted Thursday by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the start of his first overseas trip, in which he’ll be participating in the Group of Seven summit in Cornwall, England. It’s the start of a new era in U.S.-U.K. relations after Johnson adhered to an all-but-slavish alignment with former President Donald Trump and is himself navigating choppy waters after having taken his country out of the European Union.
The U.K.’s departure from the E.U. gives the pair an opportunity — and incentive — to work toward common ground as Johnson is eager for trade agreements.
Johnson, until recently, was so unwaveringly close to Trump that it would seem hard for this not to color his relations with Biden. Back in 2019, after Johnson’s Conservative Party won a majority in Parliament, Biden called the new British prime minister a “physical and emotional clone” of Trump. But in the seven months since Biden’s own election, much has changed.
First, there is a renewed appreciation of the value of the long-standing tradition of a “special relationship” between the two English-speaking peoples. Dating to the immediate post-World War II era, when Winston Churchill first coined the expression (in the same speech in which he named the line separating Soviet Europe from Western Europe the Iron Curtain), the concept has become central to the relationship between the U.S. and Britain through good times and bad.
So it wasn’t surprising that, despite Biden’s disparaging description, his first telephone exchange with a European leader was reported to be with Johnson. As Britain’s Guardian newspaper put it, “There will be some relief in Downing Street at the early call, amid concerns about the way Johnson’s perceived closeness to Trump would be seen by the new administration.”
Of course, none of this would be quite so surprising if you look more closely at Johnson himself. For at his core, the prime minister is the ultimate political chameleon. That may help in his dealings with Biden, because the new U.S. president himself has proven utterly adaptable during his half-century in public office.
In one notable example, when Biden removed Churchill’s bust from the perch on which it had graced the Trump Oval Office, Johnson officials refused on multiple occasions to criticize the move — even though Johnson fancies himself as something of a latter-day Churchill. Instead, Downing Street observed only that “the Oval Office is the president’s private office and it’s up to the president to decorate as he wishes.”
The tone was markedly different from Johnson’s reaction to President Barack Obama, from whose Oval Office a bust of Churchill was also removed. In 2016, Johnson, then mayor of London and looking to score international headlines, devoted an entire column in the Rupert Murdoch-owned Sun newspaper to the topic, insinuating that it was a “snub” to Britain that was caused by the “part-Kenyan president’s ancestral dislike of the British empire.” Such comments are hard to forget.
Still, Biden and Johnson are both survivors. Both are deeply committed to a relationship that goes far beyond any bust in an office. These shared interests are broad and deep — from banking, finance and trade to law enforcement, national security and intelligence. And the U.K.’s departure from the European Union gives the pair an opportunity — and incentive — to work toward common ground, as Johnson is eager for trade agreements with both the U.S. and the E.U.
Before Biden’s departure, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said both leaders expect their meeting to “just cover the waterfront — I mean, really, a wide range of issues where the two of them see eye to eye.”
Indeed, Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s meeting with Johnson more than a month ago was described as having “affirmed the strong alliance between our two countries.”
But Biden can’t get too cozy with Johnson — and carve too generous a trade deal — without risking setting off alarms across the channel in France. After Britain finally managed to separate itself, amid great trauma, from the E.U. in January, the U.S. has a greater price to pay in being perceived as playing favorites.
Indeed, with Johnson known to blow hot and cold with every wind, it was a British political commentator, Philip Stephens of The Financial Times, who wrote, “If Biden wants a reliable European partner, he would do better to look to America’s oldest ally,” i.e., France.
France, and especially its president, Emmanuel Macron, is poised to take on the leading role in Europe. Macron sees himself, with some justification, as the anointed, if not titular, head of the continent. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has held that unofficial position, all but unchallenged, for most of the time she has ruled Germany. But now Merkel, who has decided she will not run for a fifth term, will be leaving after voters goes to the polls on Sept. 26. This will create a vacuum in the position of a recognized European leader.
Macron appears willing and able to step in seamlessly, which also would help his chances in his own bid for a second term in next spring’s elections in France. Already, he has made steps toward claiming this mantle, proposing the creation of a “true European army.” And his Europe and Foreign Affairs Ministry has promulgated “President Macron’s Initiative for Europe: A sovereign, united, democratic Europe.”
So Biden should be cultivating his relationship with Macron as carefully as the one with Johnson. He will get the chance to do that when they meet during the G-7. And here the task is likely to be easier. After having received the back of Donald Trump’s hand, Macron is likely to welcome Biden as a breath of fresh air.
But the French need to be reassured on one key question being asked across European capitals: whether Biden may be merely a brief — if totally welcome — respite from Trump. After an interregnum, the American electorate could reverse course and descend again into the depths of nationalist self-interest. In other words, an ally not yet to be fully trusted for the long term.
These relationships across the ocean require constant reassurance, particularly in the wake of the four years of the Trump administration. This is the moment for Biden to prove to Europe that his brand of politics has legs, that he is installing enduring practices and policies that will carry on America’s democratic tradition and that he is committed to nurturing close ties with our deepest friends and allies.