Photograph: Hollie Adams/EPA
Late on Tuesday, September 21, US President Joe Biden accepted British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the White House. The British Prime Minister's visit to America was first in the eight months of Biden's presidency. Before that, Johnson met with Vice President Kamala Harris, who said relations between the United States and Great Britain were stronger than ever before. Is that true? Let's try to figure it out.
Back ahead of the overseas trip by the British Prime Minister, the Axios portal, citing government sources, reported Boris Johnson's intention to use his visit as relations reset between Great Britain and the United States. Those are in the doldrums today, there is no secret about it. Especially after the transition of power in the United States, with Democrat Joe Biden having replaced Republican Donald Trump.
As planned, the leaders of the two countries discussed the crisis in Afghanistan, the Indo-Pacific situation, joint efforts as regards combating COVID-19, as well as Russia, China and climate change. Biden and Johnson also touched upon preparations for the 26th UN Climate Change Conference due on November 1 to 12 in Glasgow, Scotland. Climate change was, by the way, key at the Oval Office meeting.
As recently stated by the US administration, this issue is one of the American president's priorities, for which reason Biden gives it that much prominence. As for the British Prime Minister, he intends to urge the world leaders to take meaningful steps against climate change, when addressing the UN General Assembly. Incidentally, just before Johnson's trip, The Times reported London's fears that the $100 billion pledged by the US to the international climate change fund won't be enough to help the developing economies reduce carbon emissions.
It is worth noting the reaction by ordinary Britons to their Prime Minister's visit to the United States. One of them posted the following on social media: "If Johnson is so much concerned about the climate, let him row a boat to Biden." "We need to solve the problem through our own environment rules before asking others, as the only sphere we dominate is setting goals that we do not plan to achieve," wrote another one. Many users note there are only few people able to act, and Johnson isn't among them. Encouragers are counting thumbs, one of the readers noted. As regards the two leaders' meeting, the British expected no cogent outcome. "I don't believe this political gesture by Boris Johnson will yield any clearly defined agreements," still another user said.
Indeed, Biden and Johnson did not sign any documents, sticking to mere discussions and assurances of taking joint action on some issue or other. For instance, the two leaders agreed that the Russia and China approach should become basis for common values of Britain and the United States, and "the AUKUS, announced last week, clearly embodies the shared values of Great Britain and America and their approach to peace."
Just a reminder: in June this year, Biden and Johnson signed a new Atlantic Charter, stating their intention to "ensure that democracies can deliver on solving the critical challenges of our time." Undoubtedly high-sounding words, but many experts tend to believe that the charter is a mere show-off, with nothing substantive behind it.
It should be highlighted that relations between Washington and London are packed with problems, and they sometimes cast doubt on the very essence of bilateral ties. Suffice it to recall a number of scandals of recent vintage. For example, July 2019 saw Donald Trump say Washington would no longer deal with British ambassador Kim Darroch after a leak of his memos containing sharp criticism of the American leader. Back then, he was supported by Theresa May. Later, a scandal broke out when Britain signed a contract with China's Huawei telecommunications company. London was eventually forced to terminate the contract over Washington's threats to stop supplying F-35 fighter jets and to disrupt communication with US intelligence. On top of that, Biden has repeatedly threatened Johnson that he will punish Britain if it fails to meet its obligations under the Northern Ireland agreement with the EU. It may be for this reason that Washington and London have never reached the previously much-ballyhooed trade agreement, on which Britain lays its post-Brexit hopes.
Historically, the "special relationship" between Washington and London was built on personal trust and mutual understanding. Donald Trump even called British Prime Minister Theresa May his "Maggie", to revive the close bond enjoyed by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Trump did also have a close relationship with current British leader Boris Johnson. And between Biden and Johnson there is no spark as yet, since the current leaders of the United States and Great Britain represent entirely different political groups. Biden is a globalist, while Johnson is an isolationist, just like Trump. Therefore, their attitudes are different by default, with Biden seeking global dominance of the United States and Johnson is fighting for Britain and its interests alone.
London's recently adopted "Global Britain" strategy may be representative of the latter argument. After Brexit, the United Kingdom wants to declare its claims within the context of the everyday world and is eager to pursue a global policy independently of the United States. Imperial ambitions are obviously still strong in Great Britain. For example, while Washington and Moscow seek rapprochement, Britain keeps following a stringent anti-Russian policy. Besides, London has seriously set sights on depriving New York of its status as a hub of financial world, having recently unveiled a particularly ambitious plan. According to REUTERS, by doing so Britain hopes to win back positions lost after Brexit and generally revitalize its financial climate.
It stands to reason however that implementing the "Global Britain" project is hardly possible without the United States as a unipole. London is only able to play its global game under the shelter of Washington's political, military and economic power. A sample evidence of this is the current crisis in Afghanistan, where the United States suffered a crushing defeat, along with the rest of collective West, including Britain. Aware of Washington's importance to London as regards its grand plans in a global context, Boris Johnson was fawning on and making up to Joe Biden during their White House meeting.
Johnson's team considers his meeting with Biden a triumph signaling the United Kingdom's ability to succeed in world affairs after Brexit. This comes amid discord growing between the United States and France, with London's part having proved decisive in the conflict. But whether Britain will benefit from this is a question far from being rhetorical. By establishing AUKUS, London has very much spoiled enough already fractured relations with European countries, primarily France.
One final comment is that Biden's meeting with Johnson ended up with a full-grown scandal. American journalists were hindered from asking a single question. After the two leaders spoke to British media, Biden administration officials sent other reporters packing. One of the American correspondents shouted out a question about the US migration crisis, but Biden's answer was drowned in the noise. After that, White House journalists lodged a complaint with Press Secretary Jen Psaki. American freedom of speech in all its glory, that's what it is.