The anxieties of Britain’s ruling Conservatives about how Anglo-American relations may unfold under a Biden administration were partly calmed midweek when President-elect Joe Biden chose to phone Prime Minister Boris Johnson ahead of conversations with France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel.
“Special relationship maintained as Johnson is first on Joe Biden’s call list,” the Times of London proclaimed on its front page Wednesday. The two men spoke for around 25 minutes. Britain’s newspapers — and Downing Street officials privately — appeared gleeful, too, that Biden phoned Johnson ahead of talking with Ireland’s Micheal Martin.
“The prime minister warmly congratulated Joe Biden on his election as president of the United States,” a spokesman said. “They discussed the close and long-standing relationship between our countries and committed to building on this partnership in the years ahead, in areas such as trade and security, including through NATO.”
Speaking in the House of Commons Wednesday, Johnson hailed his “refreshing” conversation with Biden, and in his enthusiasm misspoke, describing Donald Trump as the “previous president.” Trump once described Johnson as “Britain Trump,” lauding him for championing Brexit and embracing him as a kindred spirit.
“One of the many merits of the excellent conversation I had yesterday with president-elect Joe Biden was that we were strongly agreed on the need for once again the UK and the US to stand together to stick up for our values around the world,” Johnson told lawmakers.
Speaking later Wednesday during a visit to a food distribution center in the British capital, Johnson said: “Sticking up for democracy around the world, human rights, free trade, NATO - Joe Biden is a very strong believer in the transatlantic alliance and indeed the special relationship — and above all climate change.”
But there was no mention by Johnson, or his aides, about whether the pair had discussed during the phone call a key issue that’s been dividing Britain’s Conservatives and America’s Democrats — Johnson’s threat to ignore parts of Britain’s withdrawal Brexit agreement with the European Union regarding Northern Ireland.
A Biden spokesman later said the issue had been raised. The Democrats have warned that Britain’s exit from the European bloc should not impact the island of Ireland or undermine peace there.
Former President Bill Clinton helped to broker the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. Democrats, along with leaders of the Irish Republic, worry Brexit will lead to a so-called ‘hard border’ separating the two halves of Ireland.
Biden was blunt in a tweet in September. “We can’t allow the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a casualty of Brexit,” Biden wrote. “Any trade deal between the US and UK must be contingent upon respect for the Agreement and preventing the return of a hard border. Period,” he added.
Britain has been eager to secure a trade deal with the US, hoping it will help compensate for some of the commercial losses it will sustain from Brexit. The fear in London has been that Biden may follow through on Barack Obama’s thinly disguised threat in the run-up to the 2016 Brexit referendum that leaving the EU would place Britain at the “back of the queue” when it comes to future trade deals.
Differences to patch
Biden himself has shown little liking in the past for Johnson, describing the British leader at a fundraiser during the primary race for the Democratic nomination as “a physical and emotional clone of the president [Trump].” Biden is said to have taken as much offense as Obama over a newspaper column Johnson wrote when he was mayor of London in which he accused Obama of being “part-Kenyan” and harboring an “ancestral dislike of the British Empire.”
Tuesday’s phone conversation reversed British fears that Johnson would be relegated downward on the international call list. Keeping Britain’s place at the front of the line is regarded in Downing Street as a major diplomatic achievement. British diplomats, including Karen Pierce, the British ambassador in Washington, have been scrambling for weeks to ensure an early call would be made.
But Tuesday’s phone call has not banished Conservatives’ fears entirely.
Some diplomats expect Britain could face a challenging time with a Biden administration — at least in the first few months. Johnson and Biden’s world views are very different, they say. And some pro-EU British lawmakers suspect — and hope — Biden will press Johnson to offer more compromises in the ongoing talks between London and Brussels about Britain’s future relationship with the European bloc.
“The Brits are going to be very aggressive in trying to re-establish the special relationship, using the security side to do so,” says Christopher Skaluba of the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank. “They need it and want it and that broader tie is essential to how they see themselves and their role in the world post-Brexit,” added Skaluba, who had a lengthy tenure as the principal director for European and NATO policy at the Pentagon.
“The problem for Johnson is that he is seen by many in the Democratic foreign policy establishment through the prism of Brexit and his relationship with Trump,” says Hans Kundnani of Britain’s Chatham House. “A lot of the Biden people are very pro-EU and pro-Germany,” he told VOA.
Kundnani singled out Anthony Blinken, a veteran diplomat and longtime confidant of Joe Biden, who is being tipped as a possible secretary of state or national security adviser, and Julianne Smith, another former Biden aide who served in the White House during the Obama administration as well as at the Pentagon.
In a podcast discussion last year, Blinken expressed concern that the Good Friday Agreement could be compromised because of Brexit. “The United States played a pivotal role in getting peace in Northern Ireland,” he said. “It certainly is a lot harder without the EU and no one, of course, wants to go back to a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland,” he added.
“I think their instincts will be to downgrade Britain a bit and try to work with Germany more on transatlantic relations,” said Kundnani. “But then I suspect it will become apparent pretty quickly that on several major issues, particularly around China and Russia, Germany won’t be as cooperative. I am curious how then the Biden administration reacts and how it recalibrates?”
British diplomats appear to be planning for just that eventuality. Peter Ricketts, a former British national security adviser, told British broadcasters that Biden won’t come with any sentimental regard for the British. “Britain is going to have to earn its keep with Washington and show we are working in ways they help the American interest as well,” he said.