Boris Johnson to turn the tide in relations with Joe Biden with historic summits in 2021
Common ground for the two leaders can build on with climate change and bounce back better
The surfers who typically ride the waves off the coast of Cornwall, in the south west tip of England, recommend a seriously thick 5mm wetsuit this time of year because the waters are so cold.
When Joe Biden arrives at the picturesque village in June for a G7 summit the sea will have warmed considerably – perhaps not enough for the 46th President to take a dip, but surely enough for a photo opportunity stroll along the broad sands.
By that time, Boris Johnson will be hoping that a similar thaw will have taken place between himself and the new Potus.
Downing Street insiders are pinning their hopes on the charms of Carbis Bay alongside Britain’s hosting of the COP 26 summit on climate change in November to provide “massive opportunities” to rekindle the alliance.
An inauspicious start
There is considerable legwork to be done by Boris Johnson’s government.
Their working relationship will have to overcome tensions that can be traced back to Mr Biden's time as Barack Obama's vice-president and the 2020 campaign.
The Prime Minister caused irritation among Democrats with his references to Barack Obama’s heritage and for being rather too chummy with the discredited regime of Mr Trump. There was also the Brexit threat to Northern Ireland’s peace agreement that triggered a rare tweeted rebuke direct from Mr Biden.
The US president's Irish heritage has been a lodestar of his long political career. Mr Biden’s refusal to speak to world leaders during his presidential campaign left no opportunity to smooth things over.
Happily for Mr Johnson, his threat of ripping up the Brexit agreement which would have broken international law never came to pass. He will hope the other issues will equally have been put to bed and his formidable optimism coupled with Mr Biden’s friendly pragmatism could see a strong transatlantic relationship restored.
A green future
On the heels of the G7 meeting, global leaders will also be making their way to the UK in November for the COP26 meeting on the Paris Climate accord.
“These events (G7 and COP 26) give us a big opportunity to work with the Americans on something that was obviously an issue for us with the Trump administration, in that we were pretty upfront about disagreeing with their stance on climate change,” said a UK government source. “We know climate is a massive priority for the US president as it is for the prime minister.”
The two men share a political slogan Build Back Better that foresees a recovery from the recession triggered by the pandemic that is dominated by green growth. The march towards reducing the carbon economy is a share political goal for both men. Mr Johnson hopes that the November meeting can set tough targets that give Mr Biden a chance to show the US is back in the driving seat in the global efforts to tackle climate change.
Security ties gives the UK an opening
Washington is united in wanting Nato to spend more on defence. London remains a key international ally of the US military in a way that no other European nation can challenge. It was a key demand of Mr Obama and Donald Trump and will be at the top of the Biden agenda too.
The British government last year approved the largest rise in its defence budget since the end of the Cold War, with £16.5 billion additional spending over four years.
Trump was right to make the world wake up to the threats China poses
Tobias Ellwood MP
Mr Johnson will doubtless emphasise the strong ties with America as US Marine squadron F35 jets are deployed on the Royal Navy’s aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth. The carrier’s destination of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific signals where the struggle for world power is now focused.
The bow wave from HMS Queen Elizabeth cutting through the South China Sea will likely be followed by a political tide confronting the rising power of Beijing. It is the looming clash with China in the post-Trump era that will dominate the political landscape after the Covid pandemic and potentially strengthen the British-American bond.
“Trump was right to make the world wake up to the threats China poses,” said Tobias Ellwood, MP, chairman of the Defence Committee. “But he didn't do anything about it. So the G7 group of nations coming to Cornwall is a fantastic opportunity to build a bigger alliance.”
By signing an investment treaty with China the European Union has hardly endeared itself to Mr Biden’s team and a principled stance by Britain would be well-received.
“It’s going to take a while before the EU and US relations work themselves out and China's going to be one of the big issues,” Sir Lawrence Freedman of King’s College London said at a webinar this week entitled ‘UK in a changing Europe’.
“But I think the position that Britain is in at the moment is not bad, in terms of being able to work pretty closely with the incoming administration and it's quite notable that the EU is actually being more cautious.”
Tip-toeing towards a trade deal
Pictures of US jets on British warships will also be a key image of Global Britain in the post-Brexit age. It might help fast-track a trade deal that Mr Trump blithely promised but his predecessor Barack Obama poured cold water on, suggesting Britain would be “at the back of the queue”.
“A new trade agreement is not a priority for the Biden administration,” said Dr Dan Allin of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “But the alliance between the US and Britain is very serious and very deep and there's no reason why a Biden team would be vindictive.”
We need our foreign secretary to be empowered to have a British global strategy and a Johnson and Biden that can come together and really transform this
Tom Tugendhat MP
Mr Johnson will potentially find himself agreeing with Labour’s shadow foreign secretary who said that Mr Biden’s tenure provided an opportunity “to strengthen and deepen the relationship” based “not just on shared interests but on shared values as well”.
However, Lisa Nandy said that Britain’s “trashing of international law” over its threat of a hard border in Northern Ireland “was such a mistake because the special relationship is based on both the US and the UK being safe, steady, reliable, dependable partners”. It also undermined Mr Biden’s commitment to Ireland, she said.
Ms Nandy is among many who believe there is currently no defined global strategy in Britain that as yet makes sense to the US and beyond. While that may be understandable, the UK is embroiled in the tumult of Covid-19 deaths and has only just completed a post-Brexit trade deal that doesn’t help Mr Biden.
“We need our foreign secretary to be empowered to have a British global strategy and a Johnson and Biden that can come together and really transform this,” said Tom Tugendhat, MP, and chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
“We have to decide what we want from it. When I speak to counterparts in France and Germany, they are very clear about what they want out of their relationship with the US but I don't see that same level of priority here in the UK.”
However, Boris Johnson has always seen opportunity in strife and Britain’s well-placed vaccination programme, along with the G7 and COP26 summits, will see him head down to Cornwall with Brexit in the rearview mirror and, it is hoped, the pandemic petering out.
He now has just over four months to right the relationship with Mr Biden and a dash across the Atlantic to Washington to move things along can’t be ruled out. “I think you can expect a lot of movement in the coming days once Biden has unpacked his bags,” said the Downing Street source.
Shortly, there will be a transatlantic call to break the ice.
No doubt Mr Johnson will offer a view on Mr Trump’s disgraceful last weeks in office before he moves the chat towards aircraft carriers, green deals and also the current most pressing global issue – an international vaccine programme to halt the stampede of Covid.
Joe Biden has shown in just a couple of days more inclination to take the pandemic seriously than his predecessor. On Thursday he unveiled a Covid-19 plan.
“Over time, we’ve always managed to make the relationship work,” Mr Ellwood said. “From JFK and Macmillan, to Bush and Blair. Biden is an enormous pragmatist and should have no problem striking the correct relationship with Britain.
"But where we perhaps need to be aware is that our favoured nation status is being challenged by France and Germany so we cannot take that relationship for granted.”
The coastline of Cornwall is unlikely to provide another romance akin to the Reagan-Thatcher era.
“Boris Johnson is starting from a low point with his verbal recklessness while in journalism,” Dr Allin said.
“There's no question that there are people on the Biden team who have a pretty low view of him. But Britain's hosting of the G7 and climate meeting will be very important because after Covid this is the number-one priority for Biden in foreign policy terms.”
There’s plenty advice on offer for Mr Johnson. Emphasise a focus on climate change and don’t cause division with Europe, some say. Others believe vaccination geopolitics is going to be the major issue this year.
Come June, the British leader could well be in a position to help many other countries in need of inoculation. The sands of Carbis Bay may seem distant in January but its summer shores promise a moment when the tide might have turned for Mr Johnson.
Updated: January 22, 2021 09:45 PM