The World

Not-So-Special Friends

Under the Biden administration, the U.K. will still be a close U.S. ally, but a less important one.

Joe Biden and Boris Johnson.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images and Tolga Akmen - WPA pool/Getty Images.

For the British, the U.S. presidential election cycle is, as Alex Massie pointed out recently in the right-leaning Spectator, an opportunity to worry over the “specialness of the special relationship” in a way that is, for Britain, “exhausting and infantile and at a certain level demeaning.” The exercise is a hardy quadrennial and begins, each time, with the dance of the first phone call.

“Ahead of the leaders of other major European countries,” as the BBC took pains to note, the president-elect called British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Nov. 10. According to the readout provided by the former’s office, Joe Biden “expressed his desire to strengthen the special relationship and re-double cooperation on issues of mutual concern.” That Biden used those two magic words both in their phone call and in the press release thereafter will no doubt have begat sighs of relief throughout the Westminster Village.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

A Biden victory was the outcome favored by a majority of the British public: 76 percent of Britons would have voted for him had they had the opportunity to participate in the presidential election, while only 24 percent would have plumped for Donald Trump. As to whether a Biden presidency will change the special relationship, the British public is more skeptical. A YouGov poll taken Nov. 9 found that 29 percent of Britons think the U.K. will have a stronger relationship with the United States under Biden’s watch, 27 percent a weaker one, and another 27 percent believe things will remain largely unchanged.

Those who took the minority pro-Trump view would argue, as the conservative writer Douglas Murray did in the Mail, working himself into a lather in the process, that “Joe Biden and his party are no friends of this country” and that Britain will “rue the day” Trump leaves the White House. Trump, Murray argues, was “a great friend of the UK,” gung-ho for an Anglo-American trade deal, seen as the crowning glory of Britain’s Brexit project. Biden and his allies, meanwhile, “loathe Brexit Britain,” with Murray implying that the Irish American president-elect’s sympathies lie with the IRA as opposed to the United States’ closest ally.

Advertisement
Advertisement

The ludicrousness of Biden as a limey-hating terrorist sympathizer aside, Trump as president was an ally to Britain in the way that he was a supporter of all his pet causes: all style and no substance. His image as pro-British seemed to be based entirely on the fact that his mother was born in Scotland and he owned golf courses there, much to the chagrin of the Scottish government and those who had to live near them. Trump spoke boastfully of Brexit, often comparing the surprise referendum result in 2016 to his own election victory, but of course there remains no U.S.-U.K. trade deal, the British government reportedly having abandoned hope of reaching one with the Trump administration prior to the election back in July. This is to say nothing of Trump’s reportedly “humiliating and bullying” phone calls with former Prime Minister Theresa May or his promotion of his campaign surrogate Nigel Farage as a potential British ambassador to the United States. 

Advertisement

If anything, as Britain’s leader of the opposition Keir Starmer has recognized, a Biden administration “presents a chance to reset” the special relationship “and to tackle the new challenges the world faces today.” During their phone conversation, Biden told Johnson he looked forward to working closely with him as the two countries faced up to a number of challenges: global health, a sustainable economy recovery post-COVID, climate change, and the stability of the Western Balkans and Ukraine. Whatever differences of opinion there may be, including how both parties choose to interpret the Good Friday Agreement governing peace in Northern Ireland, Johnson will still benefit politically and diplomatically from something the Biden administration can provide that the Trump White House could not: stability and dependability.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

As easy as it is to make fun of Britain’s neurotic obsession with the special relationship, it is true that Anglo-American ties have been a cornerstone of both nations’ diplomatic and security strategies since the Second World War, when the United States assumed the place in the world that the retreating British had left vacant. This bond has survived both warmer and cooler personal ties between leaders. While it was likely helpful that Ronald Reagan shared an ideological outlook with Margaret Thatcher and enjoyed riding horses with the Queen, Barack Obama’s absence of gift-giving skills and the saga of the wandering Churchill bust were immaterial when it came to the relationship’s fundaments during his years in office.

Advertisement

Thus, fears from the right about Biden’s loyalties or from the left about whether Johnson’s outreach to the Democrats will be spoiled by his time as a columnist (during which he wrote, of Obama, that the “part-Kenyan president” had an “ancestral dislike of the British empire”) are unfounded. It’s true that whether or not there will be a trade deal between Britain and the U.S. before 2024 depends on whether the former holds to the tenets of the Good Friday Agreement, which U.S. leaders in Congress and now the White House are committed to supporting. But as much if not more so, the outcome hangs on Britain’s current negotiations with the European Union. Other forms of vital cooperation like intelligence sharing within the Five Eyes alliance continue regardless of personnel changes in the White House or Downing Street.

Advertisement

Deep breaths, then. The state of the Anglo-American relationship remains in decent health. The outcome of the presidential election does not change that one way or the other. In fact, if any one vote altered the course of U.S.-U.K. relations slightly, it was not the 2020 presidential election but the 2016 Brexit referendum. To read the tea leaves and return to the dance of the phone call, on the same day Biden spoke to Johnson, the president-elect also dialed French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Ireland’s Taoiseach Micheál Martin. The president-elect looks forward, he told Macron and Merkel, to revitalizing and reinvigorating “the trans-Atlantic relationship, including through NATO and the EU.” Biden “welcomed the opportunity to cooperate on a shared agenda with the EU,” he told the German chancellor.

Britain was once seen as the anglophonic messenger, bridging the divide between Washington and Brussels. Now, having made an ungracious move toward the door marked exit, it can no longer work with America to shape European policy. It is this that may make the Anglo-American relationship feel a little different. Though it remains a steadfast and indeed special ally for the United States, a post-Brexit Britain is, in the European arena, a less useful one.

Advertisement