Are US-UK relations finally back on track?

The 'special relationship' has suffered a great deal this summer
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson (2L) and Britain's First Lady Carrie Johnson (L) walk with US President Joe Biden and US First Lady Jill Biden prior to a bi-lateral meeting at Carbis Bay, Cornwall on June 10, 2021, ahead of the three-day G7 summit being held from 11-13 June.  G7 leaders from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the United States meet this weekend for the first time in nearly two years, for the three-day talks in Carbis Bay, Cornwall. - 
 / AFP / Brendan SMIALOWSKI

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will be able to breath an enormous sigh of relief following this week’s White House summit with US President Joe Biden.

Prior to the meeting, there had been concerns that the tensions between the two leaders that had arisen over the bungled US withdrawal from Afghanistan might have a negative impact on their nascent relationship.

The British government, which had loyally supported the American-led coalition for two decades, made little effort to disguise its deep unhappiness at Mr Biden’s unilateral decision to end American involvement, as well as Washington’s subsequent incompetent handling of the withdrawal itself.

For his part, Mr Biden, who is known to bear grudges against those who do not give him due respect, was said to be less than impressed by the discourteous tone adopted by some senior Tories, who took to using Donald Trump’s disparaging term for the American leader as “sleepy Joe”.

Mr Johnson was particularly concerned that this diplomatic frisson might affect Mr Biden’s support for the British government’s ambitious climate change agenda, with Mr Johnson keen to demonstrate his green credentials ahead of November’s Cop26 climate change conference in Glasgow.

In the event, given the cordial nature of the exchanges between the two leaders when they finally met in the Oval Office this week, Mr Johnson’s fears were quickly allayed as Mr Biden, keen to move on from the fiasco in Afghanistan, made the climate change agenda the primary focus of the summit.

Mr Johnson, who has made promoting “Global Britain” a central pillar of government policy, has staked a great deal of personal political capital on making Cop26 a success. To that end, he is attempting to persuade the world’s major powers to make lasting commitments to tackling carbon emissions while also making firm financial commitments to help developing nations tackle the issue.

A central feature of Mr Johnson’s climate change agenda is to persuade developed nations to fulfil commitments made in the 2015 Paris Agreement to commit $100 billion a year by 2020 to help developing countries to cut their emissions, a move scientists believe will minimise the impact of climate change.

Even though the Paris Agreement generated much attention at the time, developed nations have been less forthcoming in honouring their commitments, with commitments of just under $80bn a year being reached prior to the coronavirus pandemic.

epa08687564 A handout photo made available by UN photo shows Teodoro L. Locsin Jr. (on screens), Secretary for Foreign Affairs of the Republic of the Philippines, speaking during the 75th General Assembly of the United Nations, in New York, USA, 21 September 2020. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 75th General Assembly of the United Nations most of the meetings will be held virtually.  EPA/Manuel Elias / UN Photo / HANDOUT  HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES
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The British government made little effort to disguise its deep unhappiness at Mr Biden over Afghanistan

Mr Johnson therefore used his appearance at the UN General Assembly this week to warn that more must be given by rich economies to support developing countries’ transition to net zero. “In coming together to agree the $100bn pledge, the world’s richest countries made an historic commitment to the world’s poorest – we now owe it to them to deliver on that,” Mr Johnson told the UN.

“Richer nations have reaped the benefits of untrammelled pollution for generations, often at the expense of developing countries. As those countries now try to grow their economies in a clean, green and sustainable way we have a duty to support them in doing so – with our technology, with our expertise and with the money we have promised.”

Britain has already made some progress in persuading developed nations to increase their contributions. At June’s G7 summit, which was hosted by Mr Johnson in Cornwall, all G7 countries committed to enhance their contributions during the next five years, with new pledges amounting to $4bn per year in additional finance being made by major economies.

But with fewer than 50 days to go until the UK-hosted COP26 Summit, Mr Johnson is keen to build on the success of the G7 summit and ensure that the $100bn target is finally met.

In this context Mr Biden’s announcement that he was planning to double funds for helping developing nations with climate change represents a major breakthrough for Mr Johnson. Mr Biden’s announcement, which will require Congressional approval, would bring the total American contribution to around $11.4bn a year, a move the Biden administration claims will make the US a global leader in climate change finance.

Making the announcement, Mr Biden told the UN: “We are fast approaching a point of no return. To keep within our reach the vital goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C, every nation needs to bring the highest possible ambitions to the table when we meet in Glasgow for Cop26, and then have to keep raising our collective ambition over time.”

Mr Biden’s commitment to support Mr Johnson’s bold climate change agenda was certainly welcome news for Mr Johnson, who had arrived in New York playing down expectations that the $100bn target could be met. The British leader said Mr Biden’s announcement was a “very good start” towards achieving the goal, and said the president’s funding pledge would take them “a long way towards” his target. “This is very good news in the sense the United States has stepped up to the plate with a massive contribution.”

There was other good news for Mr Johnson in the form of Mr Biden’s announcement that the US was to relax travel restrictions between the US and Britain, starting in November, thereby ending a ban first introduced by the Trump administration in March last year.

But while both leaders were keen to move on from the tensions that arose over the Afghan crisis, not everything went Mr Johnson’s way during his White House meeting, as the US leader made it clear that it would be some time before Mr Johnson’s much-vaunted free trade deal with the US would be completed.

Mr Johnson made a US trade deal a central issue during the Brexit campaign, claiming that it would more than compensate for the financial losses caused by Britain’s exit from the EU. But with Mr Biden raising concerns over the problematic issue of Northern Ireland’s future trading arrangements with Brussels, it was clear that the Biden administration does not view concluding a new trade deal with the UK a major priority.

Nevertheless, given the transatlantic tensions that were evident prior to Mr Johnson’s US trip, the British Prime Minister can return home safe in the knowledge that, on the climate change issue at least, the so-called special relationship between Britain and the US is firmly back on track.

Published: September 23rd 2021, 2:00 PM
Con Coughlin

Con Coughlin

Con Coughlin is a defence and foreign affairs columnist for The National