I.It is a stroke of good luck for Boris Johnson that Britain is hosting this year’s G7 summit. As president of the club for rich democracies, the prime minister’s centrality in the proceedings is guaranteed. He is first in line to meet Joe Biden, who flies to Cornwall on Wednesday for his first official trip abroad as president of the United States.
The choreography flatters Johnson and presents him as America’s point man in Europe. That is the role that the UK traditionally sees itself in transatlantic relations. The truth is more complicated. Leaving the EU removes Britain’s influence in Brussels, diminishing its usefulness to Washington as a bridge to the rest of the continent. President Biden sees Brexit as a strategic ineptitude and a gratuitous division between countries that the United States would rather see united.
It doesn’t help that Johnson also exudes contempt for Britain’s closest neighbors. He has prioritized nationalist bravado over compromise. This has been noticed in Washington, especially in regards to Ireland, the country from which the ancestors of the current president of the United States originated and to which he has a strong cultural connection.
Biden is well aware that Britain has behaved cynically in its dispute with Brussels over the Northern Ireland protocol in the Brexit withdrawal agreement. Talks in London on Wednesday ended without resolving issues that appear technical on the surface but are essentially a matter of confidence. Johnson signed an agreement that required border controls at Irish seaports. It then denied that there were any harmful consequences and tried to evade responsibility for its implementation. From Brussels, it appears that the prime minister is cynically breaching a treaty that he may never have intended to honor.
Biden does not want to issue public reprimands and expose divisions when the purpose of his trip is to orchestrate a show of solidarity between democratic governments. Privately, he has already urged Johnson to make the Northern Ireland protocol work and is likely to repeat that message in Cornwall. For his part, Johnson has to dispel the idea, common among American Democrats, that he is a character in the Donald Trump mold and that Brexit was conceived as an illegal sabotage of international order.
Johnson is a protean character and capable of adapting his style to Biden’s agenda. (A former aide to Barack Obama put it less charitably when he called the Conservative leader “a shape-shifting creep”) The president of the United States is a diplomat and a bridge builder. The two men will minimize any differences and amplify the problems that bring their countries into strategic alignment, such as the COP26 Climate Conversations later this year in Glasgow.
Johnson sees these summits as a platform from which to fulfill his rhetoric of “global Britain,” an international actor, free from continental ties. The reality of the UK’s post-Brexit status is less palatable to the Eurosceptic palate. When President Biden talks about strengthening transatlantic relations, he sees Britain for what it is in terms of geography and history: a European country. When the G7 caravan moves from Cornwall and Biden moves to Brussels, Johnson faces the same urgent diplomatic task that he has been avoiding all year. It must restore functional relations with the EU. It is a project that begins by honoring the treaty that he signed when he left.