As he begins a week of diplomacy across the Atlantic, Biden hopes to use his first overseas trip as president to assure European allies that the United States has shed the transactional tendencies of Donald Trump’s tenure and is a trusted partner again. A long-time believer in alliances, Biden emphasized deep ties to the UK at the core of his call for Western democracies to compete against rising authoritarian states.
“We affirm the special relationship, it is not said lightly, the special relationship between our people,” Bide said after the meeting. “We renew our commitment to uphold the enduring democratic values that our two nations share and that are the solid foundation of our partnership.”
Although thorny issues such as Brexit and the future of Northern Ireland clouded the meeting, Biden and Johnson began their meeting by immediately adopting a cordial tone as the media watched.
“I told the prime minister we have something in common. We both got married high above our station,” Biden joked after a highly choreographed walk with his spouses.
Johnson laughed and said “I wasn’t going to disagree with that one.” But then he seemed to hint that he would only seek to improve relations with his American counterpart.
“I’m not going to disagree with you on that,” Johnson said, “or on anything else.”
But there are areas of friction. The president strongly opposed Brexit, Britain’s exit from the European Union that Johnson championed, and has expressed great concern about the future of Northern Ireland. Biden once called Johnson a “physical and emotional clone” of Trump.
The British government has worked hard to overcome that impression, emphasizing Johnson’s commonalities with Biden on climate change, support for international institutions and other issues. But Johnson, host of the Group of Seven summit that opened on Friday, has been frustrated by the lack of a new trade deal with the United States.
Johnson, however, described the new US administration on Thursday as “a breath of fresh air.”
Speaking after his first face-to-face meeting with Biden, Johnson said “It was a huge, very long session. We covered a good variety of topics.” He added that protecting the Northern Ireland peace deal was “absolutely common ground” between Britain, the United States and the EU.
Before their formal discussions, the two men looked back at illustrious predecessors of the war, inspecting documents related to the Atlantic Charter. The declaration signed by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt in August 1941 set common goals for the post-WWII world, including freer trade, disarmament, and the right to self-determination for all people.
Reaffirming their nations’ longstanding ties, the two men authorized an updated version of the letter, one that addresses the challenge posed by countries like China and Russia with their promises to promote free trade, human rights and an international order based on in rules, and to counter “those who seek to undermine our alliances and institutions.”
The new letter also pointed to “interference through disinformation” in elections and shady economic practices, accusations the West has leveled against Beijing and Moscow. The leaders also vowed to build stronger global defenses against health threats ahead of a summit where discussion of the coronavirus pandemic is expected to take center stage.
The leaders had planned to visit the spectacular island of St. Michael’s Mount, but the trip was canceled due to bad weather. Instead, they gathered on the beach at the G-7 site in Carbis Bay, gazing out at the ocean as they exchanged courtesies.
Both couples, Johnson is newly married, held hands as they walked. First lady Jill Biden’s black jacket had “LOVE” embroidered across the upper back, a fashion move that was reminiscent of her predecessor Melania Trump’s decision to wear a jacket with “I really don’t care, do you? ” written on the back during a 2018 trip to a Texas border town.
The leaders also announced a new task force between the United States and the United Kingdom to work on resuming travel between their countries. Most of these trips have been banned since March 2020.
Both sides have publicly emphasized that the meeting would be about strengthening ties between longtime allies in a week in which Biden will seek to unite the West to reject Russian meddling and publicly demonstrate that he can compete economically with China.
Biden, who is tremendously proud of his Irish roots, warned that nothing should undermine the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement in Northern Ireland. Some on the British side have viewed Biden with caution due to his heritage. White House officials have said the United States does not plan to get involved in the negotiations.
After Brexit, a new arrangement was needed for the border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and Ireland, because the European Union requires certain goods to be inspected and others not to be admitted at all. Before the June 30 deadline, ongoing negotiations on products, including hot dogs, have been contentious and have drawn the attention of the White House.
Individual conversations between Biden and Johnson lasted about 10 minutes before advisers joined a larger meeting that lasted about an hour, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said. The leaders also discussed climate change, the pandemic, the creation of an infrastructure financing program for developing countries and Afghanistan, and launched a bilateral commission to investigate and defeat cancer.
But Trump’s presence was still felt Thursday. Johnson and Trump, for a time, appeared to be soul mates, both on a wave of populism that in 2016 spawned Brexit and improved the American political landscape.
Biden, for his part, has expressed distrust of Johnson, who once unleashed a Trump-style insult to President Barack Obama, saying that Biden’s former boss was “half Kenyan” and had an age-old dislike for Britain.
Since World War II, the transatlantic “special relationship” has been sustained by a common language, shared interests, military cooperation, and cultural affection.
Brexit has put those ties to the test. But Biden has made clear that he intends to rebuild bridges with the EU, a frequent target of Trump’s ire. That suggests that Berlin, Brussels, and Paris, rather than London, will be the most important thing in your thoughts.
Britain hoped to secure a swift trade deal with the United States after its official exit from the EU in January. The change of administration in Washington leaves the prospects for a deal uncertain.
And there may be one more obstacle, although certainly a small one, to nurturing the “special relationship”: the phrase itself.
Johnson has said that he does not appreciate the “special relationship” used by the president of the United States, because to the prime minister it seemed needy and weak. Johnson’s spokesman said this week: “The prime minister has previously said that he prefers not to use the phrase, but that in no way detracts from the importance with which we view our relationship with the United States, our closest ally.”