On his first visit to the White House as Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been keen to lavish praise on his American host and the enduring nature of the “Special Relationship”. Yet their matching black face coverings mask the changing nature of this relationship. Despite the jovial atmosphere, Biden was again at pains to stress publically American concerns about the effects of Brexit on the Good Friday agreement. “I feel very strongly” Biden remarked “And I would not at all like to see… a change in the Irish accords, the end result having a closed border in Ireland.” These words encapsulate how both the agenda and the relationship between London and Washington have changed over recent years.
For Johnson, delivering his much-promised trade deal with the US is a political priority but one that remains as elusive as it was back in 2016 when it formed the centrepiece of his Brexit campaign. For Washington, the preservation of peace in Northern Ireland and having the UK stick to its internationally agreed commitments matter more than a minor trade deal where the areas of common interest seem far from apparent.
The significance fact that Washington issued a diplomatic demarche to London in the summer over the issue of the Northern Ireland Protocol should not be understated. Post Trump, President Biden is trying to shore up the rules based international order and the value of multilateralism and cannot be seen to condone an ally who seems keen to unilaterally interpret international law for its own national purposes.
Having set itself in opposition to the EU on this and other issues the UK is now finding that collectively America’s European allies matter more to the US than London does on this issue. Domestically focused as the Biden administration is, it also show the relative importance of the Irish lobby versus London’s influence in Congress.
Northern Ireland is not the only indicator of change, however. Arriving in Washington just three weeks after the withdrawal from Afghanistan Johnson was keen to play down the differences between the allies on this issue. The fact that Britain was neither consulted nor kept informed about the American evacuation, however, left many to question both Washington’s commitments to its international allies and the real wold substance of the “Global Britain” slogan.
For many observers the American withdrawal demonstrates how Washington’s focus has now shifted firmly towards containing China and how in that context every other commitment and relationship is subordinate. Britain’s involvement in the AUKUS (Australia, UK and US) deal with Australia and the US on submarines and cyber capabilities is an acknowledgement of this new reality. London was invited to join this anti-Chinese initiative or to watch it go ahead bilaterally. Its willingness to join on these terms, even though it provoked a schism in transatlantic security relations, demonstrates London’s continued willingness to follow the American agenda even as that changes to the detriment of a wider western strategic consensus.
How to deal with Covid, Climate change and China are the overriding priorities of our age. America is hindered in its ability to respond to each of these challenges by a fractured domestic polity and a desire to see the world through an “America first” lens. Britain’s willingness to slavishly follow this lead makes the construction of a truly international response to these changes more difficult. Boris Johnson’s pleas at the United Nations in New York to follow London’s lead on climate change ahead of the COP 26 Summit in November are likely to fall on deaf ears if the UK is seen to follow an agenda increasingly set in Washington, and reflecting American rather than global priorities.