Boris Johnson right to ditch ‘special relationship’ tag
UK leader caught between rock and hard place over US trade deal
Boris Johnson: The ongoing tussling over the Northern Ireland protocol – and the UK’s attempts to renege on the commitments of the Withdrawal Agreement – could undermine whatever semblance of amicability exists between himself and Joe Biden. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/Getty Images
Boris Johnson is no fan of the term “special relationship”, reports Tom McTague in The Atlantic. To the UK prime minister it conjures up an image of Britain as “needy” and “weak”. Quite the comment to emerge in the week of the G7 conference, and only a few days before Johnson and US president Joe Biden were set to meet.
But if Johnson is correct in his assessment of the term (and plenty have expressed sympathy – what ever happened to the word “allies?”), he is right to distance himself from it. At a time when the United Kingdom is supposed to be redesigning its role on the international stage, and heralding the era of the so-called “truly global Britain”, needy and weak is certainly a vibe to avoid cultivating.
When Winston Churchill, Johnson’s famed hero, coined the phrase in 1946 he spoke of the cultural exchange, common language and natural kinship that formed the bedrock of the two nations’ relationship. Having emerged victorious from the war, but well aware of the encroaching Soviet Union, it appeared an appropriate time to rhetorically yoke Britain’s interests to her most powerful ally, and to merge their political motivation with a sentimental appeal to friendship.
The Democrats, the political romantics they are, have a tendency to view the peace in the North as somewhat of an American legacy. Running the risk of tarnishing that is something Biden has shown he won’t take lying down
The cultural exchange and kinship has, of course, not gone away. But the relationship has undergone significant changes. And now as Britain charts a new course perhaps its chosen captain is wise to publicly disavow the term. It may simply be at odds with his and Biden’s respective directions of travel – directions that are broadly in sync and not lacking in continuity, but still facing some intractable obstacles.
Most helpful ally
The elephant in the room, of course, is Brexit. It is not a political project that the Democrats are natural fans of. And we ought to not forget that Barack Obama made the case for Remain in 2016. The White House had long seen Britain as its most helpful ally in the European Union, at ease with its role in “amplifying Washington’s liberal, open-market instincts” as Philip Stephens argued in the Financial Times. But as power balances have shifted and Britain has steadily disentangled itself from the institutions of the bloc, that function has been diminished.
In the meantime the US has increasingly looked towards the likes of Paris and Berlin for its primary partnerships in Europe. And Obama, as he left office, referred to German chancellor Angela Merkel as his “closest ally.” The waning closeness of Britain and America’s relationship was set in motion long before Biden was elected.
But there is a bigger problem for Johnson to contend with. Biden has never been shy of his Irish heritage and has made his views on implementing the protocol, Northern Irish peace, and upholding the provisions of the Belfast Agreement abundantly clear over a series of interventions. He is expected to reaffirm these commitments to Johnson in their meeting today.
The ongoing tussling over the Northern Ireland protocol – and the UK’s attempts to renege on the commitments of the Withdrawal Agreement – could undermine whatever semblance of amicability exists between Biden and Johnson.
The Democrats, the political romantics they are, have a tendency to view the peace in the North as somewhat of an American legacy. Running the risk of tarnishing that is something Biden has shown he won’t take lying down.
And here is the contradiction that belies Johnson’s Brexit. The great economic prize of the whole affair was supposed to be free trade deals – the harder the Brexit the more obtainable they will be, so the argument went. But if the idealised hard Brexit that Johnson sold to voters comes at the expense of putting a border on the island of Ireland, then Johnson might never get the laurels for securing the most coveted deal of them all. Biden has said any US-UK arrangement will be contingent on keeping the peace. And his support for the protocol has been vocal.
The question for Johnson is this: Does he bow to the demands of the Biden administration and the much-maligned bureaucracy of the European Union by implementing the protocol in exchange for a trade deal? If his goal is to avoid appearing needy and weak then that doesn’t look like such a good option.
His disavowal of the language of “special relationship” then seems, at the very least, political cover in the event that he fails to emerge from this rock and hard place.
Propensity for gaffes
If the situation really is intractable, perhaps Johnson – the same man thrice married who has an unknown amount of children and a unique propensity for gaffes – is far better at optics than so many are prepared to give credit for.
And in the face of this political quagmire Johnson’s comments speak to something more foundational about the meaning of the “special relationship”. What was an appropriate term for Britain and America in 1946 of course has failed to hold over the vertiginous changes of the 20th and 21st century.
Leaning on a phrase that is no longer in keeping with reality implies that national interests and priorities are consistent and static rather than constantly mutating. As the man who may yet oversee the breakup of the union and is recasting Britain’s global standing in a new light, Johnson understands that is not the case better than anyone.