Odd couple Biden and Boris Johnson recommit to U.S.-U.K. ‘special relationship’
President Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson agreed during an allied summit in England on Thursday to a path toward reopening travel between the United States and the United Kingdom, part of a much broader effort to renew the 80-year-old partnership between their countries with a flurry of new cooperation.
During a meeting here ahead of the Group of 7 summit that starts Friday, the two leaders, despite their political and personal differences, highlighted new opportunities for collaboration on major global challenges, including climate change, to demonstrate the resilience of the world’s democracies.
Biden said the 90-minute meeting with Johnson was very productive.
“We affirmed the special relationship — and it’s not said lightly, the special relationship between our people — and renewed our commitment to defending the enduring democratic values that both of our nations share,” he added.
Besides announcing a new working group to determine how to ease pandemic-related travel restrictions, Biden and Johnson also unveiled new efforts to boost global COVID-19 vaccine supplies, including a U.S. donation of 500 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine for 100 underserved nations, and more ambitious commitments to reduce carbon emissions to slow the pace of climate change. The U.K. plans to donate 100 million more doses of the vaccine, Johnson announced later, adding that he expected the other G-7 nations to push the total number to 1 billion doses.
In a gesture heavy with symbolism, they examined the original Atlantic Charter, the declaration signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1941 that set out American and British goals for the world after the end of World War II. And they reaffirmed their countries’ partnership by agreeing to an updated version of the pact emphasizing shared democratic values.
At a time when authoritarianism and nationalism have been on the rise, the new charter outlines priorities, values and challenges that include defending democracy, reaffirming the importance of collective security, building a more fair and sustainable global trading system, combating cyberattacks, addressing the climate crisis, protecting biodiversity and bringing an end to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We intend to strengthen the institutions, laws and norms that sustain international cooperation to adapt them to meet the new challenges of the 21st century, and guard against those that would undermine them,” the revamped charter states.
According to a joint statement following their meetings, Biden and Johnson also agreed to pursue a bilateral technology agreement to reduce barriers for British tech firms in working with U.S. companies; it could be signed next year. The two leaders also agreed to open a new dialogue on energy, and they committed to holding a joint summit in the coming months on boosting efforts to find a cure for cancer.
As they convened for the first time, Johnson seemed to speak on behalf of the other leaders convening for the Group of 7 summit this weekend, telling Biden, “Everybody’s absolutely thrilled to see you.”
Following the talks, Johnson told reporters the meeting affirmed a bilateral relationship that he said was of “massive, massive strategic importance for the prosperity, the security of the world.” Biden, he continued, was “a breath of fresh air.”
Delivering his remarks from his hotel’s lawn, Biden touted his administration’s new commitment to boosting global vaccination efforts. Biden, who has raised the ire of some world leaders by not sharing surplus vaccines with other nations sooner, said that donating the 500 million Pfizer vaccines demonstrated “our responsibility to our values” and that the U.S. will continue to play a leading role in aiding other countries.
“In times of trouble, Americans reach out,” Biden said.
The first meeting between these two leaders wasn’t without a measure of awkwardness, which both leaders sought publicly to defuse. That was mostly related to Brexit and unresolved issues stemming from the U.K.’s exit from the European Union late last year — a geopolitical disruption that threatens the Good Friday Agreement, which is the enduring deal for peace in Northern Ireland that was brokered more than two decades ago largely by American politicians, including Biden.
Johnson, asked about that issue following the talks with Biden, said he’s “optimistic” that all sides will find a way to maintain the Good Friday Agreement.
Biden, who opposed Brexit, has already made it clear to Johnson, who rose to power by supporting it, that the United States expects to see the peace treaty maintained, according to national security advisor Jake Sullivan. It would be up to Biden and Johnson, Sullivan said, to work out the particulars.
“Whatever way they find to proceed must at its core fundamentally protect the gains of the Good Friday Agreement and not imperil that,” Sullivan said earlier this week when asked about the message Biden wanted to send.
Johnson, dubbed the “British Trump” including by the former U.S. president, began his rise to power when British voters, in a big surprise, narrowly approved the 2016 Brexit referendum he supported. Johnson was elected prime minister in 2019 and inherited the complex job of carrying out Brexit.
As he looks to demonstrate his country’s strength and resilience as an independent entity outside of the EU, Johnson finds his nation perhaps more reliant on the U.S. That is evidenced by the desires for a new, bilateral trade pact between the two nations, and for continued and expanded security cooperation.
“What we’re seeing in a post-Brexit U.K. is a U.K. that wants to stay as close as possible in lockstep with the United States on its military posture, particularly on technology and cyber capabilities,” said Heather A. Conley, a Europe specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
President Trump’s defeat, however, seemed to leave Johnson with a less compatible personality in the White House — one who speaks with pride about his Irish heritage, for example. During the 2020 campaign, Biden even referred to Johnson as a “physical and emotional clone” of Trump.
The two leaders appeared chummy enough when they appeared before the media at the meeting’s outset, with Biden bantering about how they both “married above their station” and Johnson responding in kind: “I’m not going to disagree with the president on that or indeed on anything else, I think, either.”
As a gesture of friendship and in recognition of their shared interest in cycling, Biden gave Johnson an American-made touring bicycle and bike helmet custom-made by a small family business in Philadelphia, according to the White House.
But it was First Lady Jill Biden who made perhaps the clearest statement — without speaking a word. Her jacket, the back embroidered with sequined letters reading “LOVE,” seemed to offer a pointed contrast from the acidic effect of the Trump presidency on the world stage and, specifically, the jacket former First Lady Melania Trump infamously wore during a visit to the U.S.-Mexico border that read, “I really don’t care, do u?”
Asked about her choice of clothing outside the building where her husband and Johnson were meeting, the first lady said the jacket’s message was intentional, although she demurred when asked whether it was meant as a rejoinder to her predecessor.
“I think that we’re bringing love from America,” she said. “This is a global conference, and we are trying to bring unity across the globe, and I think it’s needed right now, that people feel a sense of unity from all the countries and feel a sense of hope after this year of the pandemic.”
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