Boris Johnson was widely seen as an ally of Donald Trump’s. The former president referred to the British prime minister as “Britain Trump,” and Johnson praised Trump’s handling of the U.S. economy. But now Johnson has made a 180-degree turn, and he’s singing President Biden’s praises. Fresh from what he viewed as a triumphant visit to the White House on Tuesday, Johnson sat down with The Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth at the British ambassador’s temporary residence in Washington to spell out with boyish enthusiasm what he had received from the Biden administration during his trip to D.C. — including the lifting of a coronavirus-driven travel ban, among other items. The prime minister wanted to minimize France’s displeasure at being cut out of the recent submarine deal negotiated over months in secret by Britain, the United States and Australia. Without missing a beat, he brushed off the words of French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who called the secret deal “a knife in the back” and a “unilateral, brutal and unpredictable decision.” Only a few weeks ago, Johnson and senior members of his government saw the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan as unwise and reportedly were annoyed at not being given advance notice by the White House. Now Johnson is talking about working with the Taliban. Edited excerpts of the interview follow:
Q: What did you get from your meeting with President Biden?
A: We had a long audience with the president, which went extremely well. It was more than an hour and a half; it was ages. It was fantastic. We covered everything. I genuinely don’t think there has been a time I can remember when I felt such a complete community of ideas and interests.
Q: With President Biden?
A: Not just with Biden but with the U.S. at the moment. We really see things from the same perspective.
Q: But you didn’t see them from the same perspective when the Biden administration withdrew from Afghanistan, right?
A: No, we went in together. We supported the United States in trying to get rid of al-Qaeda.
Q: But I’m talking about the U.S. troop withdrawal. Didn’t your own defense secretary say that the U.S. made a mistake? [British Secretary of State for Defense Ben Wallace called the U.S. decision to leave Afghanistan a “mistake” and added that the “international community will probably pay the consequences.”]
A: I don’t think he said that. What I said to Joe is how grateful I am for the amazing work of the U.S. military in helping us to extricate in two weeks 15,000 people from Kabul to whom we owe debts of honor and gratitude. The U.S. military were heroic.
Q: Can you tell me about the Australian-U.S.-British nuclear submarine deal?
A: I can tell you: It’s going to be great for the world.
Q: It has been reported that the Australians came to you, and you were the mediator in the deal.
A: I don’t think it’s any particular secret that we share technology with the United States. As the world’s focus starts to tilt toward the Indo-Pacific, and as we think about how to maintain security in that area and how to stick up for our values, I think it makes sense for us to have a tighter relationship with a like-minded friend and partner down under. I think that’s an idea that the president found compelling.
Q: You and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, or just you, brought the idea to Biden?
A: I don’t need to go into the details. I want to stress that this is not something that is exclusive or intended to crowd anybody out — far from it. This is about bringing together three partners that see things in very much the same way. We need to uphold the rule of law, we need to uphold the rights of navigation. That is an area that is going to be responsible for a huge proportion of global growth. It’s one of the biggest, most important strategic developments I can remember. I think Joe Biden deserves a lot of credit to have the imagination to pursue it.
Q: In a sense, it’s a strategic alliance against China, right?
A: No, I think it’s a strategic alliance in favor of the values that we want to uphold — democracy, human rights, equality, the rule of law. That doesn’t have to be adversarial towards anybody else.
Q: Why did all of you decide not to tell the French, and why did France’s ambassador to the U.S., Philippe Etienne, have to read about the deal in the newspaper before talking to a U.S. official?
A: I can tell you what the British view is: that we collaborate extensively with the French. We work shoulder to shoulder with the French in Estonia, and the biggest NATO deployment currently is in the Baltic region. We are there with the French. We have a great relationship with the French when it comes to nuclear testing. It’s not a zero-sum. No European friend or partner is losing out as a result of this deal. It’s just a particular relationship that already exists between the U.K. and the U.S., which doesn’t exist between the U.S. and any other European partner — which is now being extended to Australia.
Q: The foreign minister of France, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said the submarine deal was “a knife in the back.”
A: I think that our relations with the French are very important to us and will continue to be so. This has been a really great trip, and I’m very grateful to the president and to the U.S. administration. British beef is now capable of being sold in the United States. I don’t know how much British beef the readers of The Washington Post eat — not enough, I suspect.
Q: Are you saying more British beef can be exported here thanks to your conversation with the president?
A: We are now in a world where things are getting better and better between our countries. The ban on beef was lifted previously. What happened today is that it looks like the ban on lamb has been lifted. “Wham, bam, thank you lamb” is the headline. British lamb. That was a major deliverable. How have the people of Washington and the rest of the United States been able to survive without British lamb?
Q: Was any other restriction removed today?
A: The lamb, the lamb, the lamb. And the travel ban. British people, flocks of British people, will be able to come [to the United States].
Q: Did you talk to Biden about lifting the travel ban?
A: We did. We’ve been working on that with the U.S. for a long time.
Q: Aren’t you going to need the French when you want to work out Northern Ireland? [Britain and the European Union are still working out rules, post-Brexit, for how to handle trade and migration between Ireland, an E.U. member, and Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom.]
A: We love the French.
Q: They don’t love you right now, do they?
A: I wouldn’t go so far as to say that.
Q: You’ve also managed to annoy the Chinese.
A: Why are you directing . . . why me?
Q: The three of you [Australia, Britain and the United States]. When you first became prime minister you spoke about having deeper ties with China, right?
A: I think it’s very important to engage with China. One thing I learned in my time as foreign secretary — I’m a big skeptic about pushing people into corners and demonizing them and not having relations with them. Even with the Taliban now — we’ve got to engage.
Q: You’re kidding.
A: No. I think we’ve got to engage. We’ve got to recognize that you don’t ever win arguments with —
Q: You would recognize the Taliban?
A: I didn’t say that. I think in order to have any kind of influence at all, you have to engage, you have to be represented, you have to be talking to them.
Q: Are you going to open an embassy there?
A: We’re going to talk with our friends about how to make sure that we continue to engage with them.
Q: You don’t think that Afghanistan will just turn into a terror haven?
A: I hope it won’t. I hope that the Taliban government understands that that would be a disaster for Afghanistan, the worst possible thing for the security and prosperity of the people of Afghanistan. The Taliban are no particular friends of ISIS. I think that it’s going to be difficult, but we need people to understand that there are a number of futures that the new rulers of Afghanistan could choose. We want to help them to choose the right path.
I totally forgot — the single most wonderful thing that the president did today was his speech at [the United Nations General Assembly] in which he reasserted America’s leadership credentials on tackling climate change by doubling its commitment to the rest of the world to support poorer countries in moving to green technologies and tackling climate change.
Q: You had asked for that money before the climate change summit which you’re heading up in November [in Scotland], didn’t you?
A: That’s exactly right. We were looking for the Americans to step up. The whole fund is $100 billion from the world — that’s what we need. The States gave $11.2 billion. This is the trigger effect of American action. Then the Chinese announced that they’re not going to support the exporting of coal-fired power stations anymore. This is massive. What I’m saying is American leadership is crucial. We’re seeing it, and it’s great to see.
Q: Weren’t you really sick with covid last year? Did it change you in any way? I heard you were very ill.
A: Whether it transformed me morally or intellectually or in any other way, I don’t know.