Is the US-UK relationship really so ‘special’?

Joe Biden isn’t playing ball with Boris Johnson over post-Brexit trade plans

Joe Biden Boris Johnson speak over video call
Boris Johnson and Joe Biden speak via video call
(Image credit: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images)

As Joe Biden and Boris Johnson prepare to meet in person for the first time ahead of this week’s G7 summit in Cornwall, the question preoccupying many political pundits is whether the duo will become friends.

The White House says the meeting on Thursday will “affirm the enduring strength of the special relationship” between the two countries, which may have been feeling less special to Johnson since Biden spoke out against Brexit before his presidential election victory last year.

Indeed, Johnson’s spokesperson emphasised yesterday that the prime minister “prefers not to use” the S-word, The Guardian reports. “But that in no way detracts from the importance with which we regard our relationship with the US, our closest ally,” the spokesperson added.

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Post-pandemic recovery plans will be top of the agenda at the meeting of the two leaders, who will also be trying to agree decisions over the US and UK travel corridor, trade agreements and climate targets.

Whether they succeed in those goals should provide an insight into just how special the US-UK relationship really is today, following many decades of close ties between the two nations.

Postwar alliance

The close political ties between the two countries were forged by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill during the Second World War. In 1941, the pair wrote the Atlantic Charter, a joint statement outlining eight principles for a postwar world. The declaration provided the foundations for the Charter of the United Nations, which came into effect in 1945.

As international powers consolidated postwar alliances, Churchill’s 1946 Sinews of Peace Address gave a name to the Anglo-American alliance developed over the previous six years: the “special relationship”. The foundation of the US and UK’s “fraternal association” was not only a “growing friendship and mutual understanding” of one another but also, crucially, “the continuance of the intimate relationship between our military advisers”, said Churchill, then leader of the opposition.

Since the 1940s, the US and UK have continued to work closely together on military operations, as well as intelligence sharing and nuclear arms technology. On the global stage, the relationship has shaped geopolitical events too.

Margaret Thatcher “was an important bridge” between the US and the USSR in the 1980s, playing a key role in helping to end the Cold War, says the Financial Times’ Europe editor Tony Barber. The UK also supported the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, with damaging repercussions for Tony Blair’s political career.

How special is it really?

The “special relationship” has been characterised by highs and lows, and the ideological alignment and personal connection between Thatcher and Reagan is a unique case that was “never quite replicated again”, says The Guardian’s US editor Simon Tisdall.

Reports that Barack Obama had a bust of Winston Churchill removed from the Oval Office during his presidency fuelled speculation that the “special” nature of the relationship was losing its shine. In 2016, the former president clarified that, as the first African-American president, he “thought it was appropriate” to replace the bust with one of Martin Luther King Jr.

Margaret Thatcher sits with Ronald Reagan

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan’s relationship was one of the closest
(Image credit: Mike Sargent / AFP / Getty Images)

Yet while leaders on both sides of the Atlantic have continued to emphasise the ties between their nations, “in the modern era, the relationship has been shaped by two mutually reinforcing trends: the steady expansion of US global power, and the decline and fall of the British Empire”, writes Tisdall.

He argues that the story of the post-1945 special relationship “is really the story of how successive British politicians and diplomats have tried, with mixed success, to guide, cajole and manipulate US leaders from a position of ever-increasing weakness”.

Johnson is clearly aware of this disbalance of power. His spokesperson yesterday confirmed the PM’s dislike of the S-word after an insider told The Atlantic’s Tom McTague that Johnson deemed the description “needy and weak”.

Voters in both the UK and the US also appear to believe that political alliances are declining in importance when it comes to this transatlantic relationship. A 2018 British Council survey of more than 1,000 18-34 year-olds in the two countries found that respondents ranked culture and history above politics when it came to what factors most influenced public perception of Britain.

“The research suggests the relationship between the two countries is at root a cultural as much as a political phenomenon,” the survey report concluded. “Viewed in those terms it is indeed special.”

Match made in post-pandemic politics

Shortly after Biden’s inauguration, a close friend told The Telegraph that the president would “want to overcome any political differences” between himself and Johnson, as together they would carry “the destiny of the world on their shoulders”.

Relations between the two leaders had previously been rocky, with Biden repeatedly speaking out against Brexit. And if Johnson was hoping for the “quick win” of a US-UK trade deal after exiting the EU, Biden appears in no hurry to help.

The president’s power to fast-track trade agreements through Congress expires in July, and with government officials “downplaying the chances of imminent progress” in the UK, “the slowdown will be disappointing to Johnson”, says Bloomberg.

Johnson may have more luck in strengthening ties with Biden by moving the focus from UK trade to geopolitical matters. The issues that should be top of the US-UK’s shared agenda are “global regulatory reform, carbon pricing, and defending the rules-based system against China”, Tom Tugendhat, chair of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, told Politico.

But whatever the issues on the table at their upcoming talks, whether Johnson can forge close ties with his US counterpart remains a topic of much debate.

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