You can hardly blame him. For better or worse, every British leader is judged on his or her ability to form a bond with the U.S. president. And though always the junior partner in the relationship, it is the British leader who faces scrutiny if it goes awry.
Biden landed in England on Wednesday at the start of his first foreign trip as president. He is scheduled to meet with Johnson in person for the first time on Thursday before a Group of Seven summit hosted by the British prime minister in Cornwall.
Observers are already sizing up the personal and professional pairing of a president who casts himself as a simple guy who avoids “malarkey” and a prime minister whose colorful personality is embedded in his politics.
“When the two sit down together on Thursday, they will begin to see whether the term ‘special relationship’ defines not just their countries but the two of them as well,” The Washington Post’s Dan Balz wrote this week.
The pressure is mostly on Johnson. Even before Biden was elected, there were worries that the United Kingdom’s brash, pro-Brexit leader might find little common ground with a pragmatic, multilateralist U.S. leader who emphasized — as many in the British media noted — his Irish Catholic roots.
It didn’t help that Johnson was one of the few leaders in Europe to find a working rapport, or something like it, with Biden’s predecessor. Last year, Kim Darroch, a former British ambassador to the United States, told Today’s WorldView that the government had been “very confident, pre-pandemic, that Trump would win.”
Certainly, despite some of their shared vision on big issues like climate change and the coronavirus, there is still a gulf between Johnson and Biden — and it’s one that even a “special relationship” may find hard to bridge.
There’s a phrase that Johnson does like that may be relevant. “My policy on cake is pro having it and pro eating it,” Johnson famously said once, turning a phrase about impossible desires into a motto for ambitious policy.
The term was widely used to describe Johnson’s view of negotiations with the European Union during Britain’s exit from the bloc. Johnson’s backing of Brexit helped supercharge his route from disgraced journalist and backbench parliamentarian to world leader.
The prime minister’s critics say his fondness for the cake phrase points to a habit of duplicity, leading his government to do things like propose to break international law during Brexit negotiations. But Johnson’s tactic of betting on both sides has brought him some success.
These mixed messages are a reflection of Johnson’s own contradictions. Once famous as a bumbling bore on a TV quiz show, he was known for his intellectualism, charm and seduction in his personal life.
And despite championing a locally focused, working-class cause like Brexit, he is perhaps the most international, and arguably elite, British leader in a generation. (He was born in the United States and is reported to speak Latin, French and Italian fluently.)
Now, Johnson is keen to distance himself from Trump, telling the Atlantic that it was a “category error” that he was ever lumped in with the erstwhile U.S. leader.
On foreign policy, analysts have sought to sketch out a “Biden doctrine” that could explain the longtime Senate Foreign Relations Committee member’s view of the world. “The Biden section of the Wikipedia entry on ‘United States presidential doctrines’ remains empty,” Politico’s Nahal Toosi observed wryly this week.
But if the British leader attempts to play both sides out of opportunism, the U.S. president’s search for middle ground is born of pragmatism. And if their interests often overlap, they do not always align.
As my colleague Ishaan Tharoor and others have noted, the Biden doctrine has been read as a support of so-called Western values shared by liberal democratic states. Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution argued this week that it rests on the premise not only that “China and other autocracies” are in competition with America, but that they “might win.”
A Johnson doctrine, if there is one, appears much narrower in scope: As he told the Atlantic, his mission is to “restore Britain’s faith in itself, to battle the ‘effete and desiccated and hopeless’ defeatism that defined the Britain of his childhood.”
This idea of a new “Global Britain” has spurred Johnson’s government to take bold actions, including levying human rights sanctions against Russia and offering a path to U.K. citizenship for millions of Hong Kongers.
But it’s also rife with contradictions caused by Johnson’s beloved Brexit, The Post’s William Booth, Karla Adam and Michael Birnbaum write. There have been “wars” with Europe over scallops and sausages, while the Times of London reported on Wednesday that Biden had pushed Johnson to resolve the problems over the Irish border.
Even on points of overlap, the two sides are not always going in the same direction: The Financial Times reports that Britain has tried to carve out an exemption for London in a G-7 corporate tax pledge, while critics lambasted Johnson’s decision to fly from London to Cornwall on a private jet to host what he has billed as a carbon-neutral event.
None of this means the “special relationship” is over, of course, and it may be easier than under the mercurial Trump administration. But there’s one thing Johnson should not expect: a piece of cake.