President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson met for the first time Thursday, looking to highlight their nations' famed “special relationship” but doing so against a backdrop of differences both political and personal.
Biden hopes to use his first overseas trip as president to reassure European allies that the United States had shed the transactional tendencies of Donald Trump’s term and is a reliable partner again. Tensions could simmer beneath the surface, but the leaders immediately struck a tone of conviviality.
“I told the prime minister we have something in common. We both married way above our station,” Biden joked after a highly choreographed walk with their spouses.
Johnson laughed and said he was “not going to dissent from that one” but then seemed to hint that he would be looking to only improve relations with his American counterpart.
“I’m not going to disagree with you on that,” said Johnson, "or indeed on anything else.”
But there are areas of disagreement. The president staunchly opposed the Brexit movement, the British exodus from the European Union that Johnson championed, and has expressed great concern with the future of Northern Ireland. And Biden once called the British leader a “physical and emotional clone” of Trump.
The British government has worked hard to overcome that impression, stressing Johnson’s common ground with Biden on issues such as climate change and his support for international institutions. But Johnson, the host for the Group of Seven summit that will follow his sit-down with Biden, has been frustrated by the lack of a new trade deal with the United States.
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Before their formal discussions, the two men looked back on illustrious wartime predecessors, inspecting documents related to the Atlantic Charter. The declaration signed by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt in August 1941 set out common goals for the post-World War II world, including freer trade, disarmament and the right to self-determination of all people.
Reaffirming their nations' longstanding ties, the two men authorized an updated version of the charter, one that looks to the challenge posed by countries like China and Russia with its promises to promote free trade, human rights and a rules-based international order, and to counter “those who seek to undermine our alliances and institutions.”
The new charter also took aim at “interference through disinformation” in elections and murky economic practices, charges that the West has levelled at Beijing and Moscow. The leaders also promised to build stronger global defenses against health threats on the eve of a summit where discussion of the coronavirus pandemic is expected to take center stage.
Johnson noted that the original charter laid the foundation for the United Nations and NATO.
“Yeah, I know,” said Biden, who later pumped his fist when he — incorrectly — suggested that Neville Chamberlain slipped a reference to labor unions into the document, an unlikely salute for the disgraced appeaser on the eve of the war.
The leaders had planned to visit the spectacular island of St. Michael's Mount but the trip was scrapped because of bad weather. Instead, they met above the beach at the G-7 site in Carbis Bay, staring out at the ocean while trading pleasantries.
Both couples — Johnson is newly married — held hands as they walked. First lady Jill Biden's black jacket had “LOVE” embroidered on the upper back — a fashion move that recalled her predecessor Melania Trump's decision to wear a jacket with “I really don't care, do u?” on the back during a 2018 trip to a Texas border town.
The first lady told reporters that the president was “over prepared” for his meetings during his week in Europe, including a trip-ending summit with Russia's Vladimir Putin.
“He’s been studying for weeks, working up to today,” she said. “Joe loves foreign policy.”
The leaders were expected to announce a new U.S.-U.K. task force to work on resuming travel between the two nations, according to a White House official. Most travel has been banned between the two nations since March 2020.
Both sides have stressed publicly that the meeting would be about reaffirming ties between longtime allies in a week in which Biden will look to rally the West to rebuff Russian meddling and publicly demonstrate it can compete economically with China.
National security adviser Jake Sullivan described Biden’s initial calls with Johnson as “warm” and “constructive” and played down any differences between the two nations’ goals.
“They’ve been very much down to business,” Sullivan said earlier this week. “And I expect that their meeting together will just cover the waterfront. I mean, really, a wide range of issues where the two of them and the U.S and United Kingdom do see eye to eye.”
Biden, who is fiercely proud of his Irish roots, has warned that nothing should undermine Northern Ireland’s 1998 Good Friday peace accord. Some on the British side have viewed Biden warily because of his heritage. White House officials have said the United States does not plan to be involved in the negotiations and that Biden would not lecture Johnson but would urge that a resolution be reached expeditiously.
After Brexit, a new arrangement was needed for the border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and Ireland, because the European Union requires certain goods to be inspected and others not to be admitted at all. Ahead of a June 30 deadline, ongoing negotiations over goods — including sausages — have been contentious and have attracted the attention of the White House.
The two leaders also were expected to discuss climate change, the coronavirus pandemic, creating an infrastructure financing program for developing countries, Afghanistan and a refresher of the 80-year-old charter between the two nations, Sullivan said. There were also plans to launch a bilateral commission to research and defeat cancer. White House officials suggested that it not be read as another Cold War-era document but a pathway for an increasingly complex, interconnected globe.
But Trump’s presence was still likely to be felt on Thursday. Johnson and Trump, for a time, appeared to be kindred spirits, both riding a wave of populism that in 2016 delivered Brexit and upended the American political landscape.
Biden, for his part, has expressed a mistrust of Johnson, who once unspooled a Trump-like insult of President Barack Obama, saying that Biden’s former boss was “half-Kenyan” and had an ancestral dislike of Britain.
Since World War II, the trans-Atlantic “special relationship” has been sustained by a common language, shared interests, military cooperation and cultural affection. Sometimes that has been bolstered by close personal bonds, such as the friendship between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, or between Tony Blair and Bill Clinton in the 1990s.
Brexit may test those bonds. The U.S. still values Britain’s role as a European economic and military power and a member of the intelligence-sharing “Five Eyes” alliance. But Biden has made clear that he intends to rebuild bridges with the EU, a frequent target of Trump’s ire. That suggests Berlin, Brussels and Paris, rather than London, will be uppermost in his thoughts.
Britain had been hoping to secure a quick trade agreement with the U.S. after its official departure from the EU in January. The change in administration in Washington leaves prospects of a deal uncertain.
And there may be one more, though admittedly small, obstacle to nurturing the “special relationship” — the very phrase itself.
Johnson has said he did not appreciate “special relationship,” used by the U.S. president, because to the prime minister it seemed needy and weak. Johnson's spokesperson said this week: “The prime minister is on the record previously saying he prefers not to use the phrase, but that in no way detracts from the importance with which we regard our relationship with the U.S., our closest ally.”
Lawless reported from London. Madhani reported from Mildenhall, England. Associated Press writer Josh Boak in Baltimore contributed to this report.