Beyond Special? UK-US relations at the G7 Summit

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“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.”

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Joe Biden’s first foray abroad as President is intended to be a reset for America’s place in the world. In a multi meeting trip Biden is seeking to draw a line under the Trump years and demonstrate the value of American leadership and a collective approach to the word’s problems. “America is back” is the theme of the trip. His decision to participate in the G7, US-EU and NATO Summits ahead of his meeting in Geneva with President Putin is an orchestrated attempt to align America’s allies in defence of Western values in the face of mounting challenges from Russia and China. In this context the signing of a new Atlantic Charter between the US and UK is intended to show the continuity and strength of relations between London and Washington and to hark back to the days of their closest cooperation 80 years ago. The Charter outlines their joint commitment to defending democracy, free and fair trade and the need to work together to bolster collective security in the face of challenges such as cyber-attacks and climate change. As the host of the G7 meeting in Cornwall and of the upcoming COP 27 summit on climate change later this year the UK is in a key positon to drive these agendas and shape their results and Washington has sought to mark that role by this diplomatic gesture.

Despite the efforts to demonstrate the continuities in transatlantic relations, however, Biden’s visit is also the first to take place since the UK left the EU at the end of last year and the fallout from Brexit is a major undercurrent in these meetings. Most obviously the UK’s demand that the arrangements for trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain be renegotiated has promoted pressure from Washington to fall into line with the letter of the law agreed with the EU.  The US has made it clear to the UK in a diplomatic demarche that as far as it is concerned the preservation of peace in Northern Ireland is a higher priority than the trade in sausages, and that the UK should act accordingly. The wider point here is also important to recognise. Biden is trying to shore up the rules based international order and the value of multilateralism in the wake of the Trump Presidency 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.  And that international law matters more than historical ties of history and language.

While London used to be America’s main ally in Europe this was primarily because of the influence than London had in Brussels. The UK could previously be relied upon in order to sway EU opinion in the direction favoured by Washington. By contrast it is telling that when Biden meets EU leaders in a summit next week the UK will not be at the table. Its influence in Brussels has gone and correspondingly the role of other states has increased in relative importance to the Biden administration. Biden has previously indicated that he thinks Brexit was a mistake for the UK. It also marks a loss for Washington’s previous way of conducting alliance relations in Europe. While still in the EU Britain could be relied upon to ensure a more robust stance from Europe particularly towards both Moscow and Beijing. This suited Britain which could simultaneously guide European policy and blame the need for a unitary position when Washington’s demands were at odds with British interest. Outside the EU London UK may find itself pressured to take a more hard line position towards China that its trade needs might welcome. Such are the consequences and foreign policy dilemmas of the new “global Britain” position.

The new Atlantic Charter is an attempt to reinvent UK-US relations for the post Brexit age. In embracing the need for action on climate change and the global distribution of Covid vaccines the UK is keen to demonstrate its common agenda and continuing relevance to Washington. The Biden administration has also used it to nudge the UK closer to its more hawkish approach to China. The pivotal role that Britain has played for last 80 years between Europe and America has now changed. The new Atlantic Charter is both a recognition of that and an attempt to substitute a new agenda. For his part Mr Johnson is reportedly keen to find new language to replace the phrase “special relationship” in describing US-UK relations. For Johnson the phase was “needy and weak”. What replaces this phrase will require new language and a new policy. Finding a role that appears less needy and weak is the task that Johnson has set himself this week. Time will tell if he succeeds.

Homepage image credit: Ben Shread, Cabinet Office, via Wikimedia Commons

Homepage image credit: The White House, CC BY 3.0 US, via Wikimedia Commons

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