Joe Biden Election Win Places Boris Johnson on Unsure Footing

LONDON — After news broke last Saturday that Joe Biden had won the U.S. presidential election, Britain’s Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson joined many other world leaders in sending a congratulatory tweet to the Democratic president-elect. In response, former President Barack Obama’s ex-national security spokesman Tommy Vietor tweeted back, calling Johnson a “shapeshifting creep,” and adding, “We will never forget your racist comments about Obama and slavish devotion to (Donald) Trump …”

As anecdotes go, that Twitter exchange encapsulates the likelihood that the decadeslong “special relationship” that’s long bonded the two countries could well be in for a bout of social distancing once Biden assumes power.

Vietor’s tweet referenced a column Johnson wrote in the Sun, a right-leaning British tabloid, during the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign that led to Britain’s exit from the European Union. Obama opposed Brexit and made his feelings known at the behest of former, anti-Brexit Prime Minister David Cameron. Johnson wrote that Obama harbored an antipathy toward the United Kingdom because of “the part- Kenyan president’s ancestral dislike of the British Empire.” The column struck Obama and his top aides — many of whom are expected to join the former vice president’s team in January — as racist, and their memories are long. Since then, Johnson’s and President Trump’s shared enthusiasm for populist nationalism has also made Democrats wary of a prime minister they view as a Trump stooge.

David Dunn, a professor of international politics at the University of Birmingham, cautions against reading too much into that episode. “It’s easy to over-emphasize personal differences,” he says, noting other examples, such as how former Republican President George W. Bush and Tony Blair, the former Labour premier, weren’t expected to get along, either, but ended up having a warm relationship.

“That said,” he adds, “it doesn’t help,” referring to the frosty history between Johnson and the Obama administration.

Nevertheless, issues related to Brexit — which Trump supported, in part because of his disdain of the EU, which he views as a competitor rather than an ally — could very easily lead to a downgrading of relations between the United Kingdom and the United States.

[MORE: U.S. Foreign Policy Whiplash]

The structural parts of the U.S.-U.K. relationship — in areas ranging from intelligence-sharing to mutual defense — remain strong, Dunn explains. “What’s different is Brexit, and Brexit makes a huge difference in a number of ways,” he says. None of them is positive, in the U.S. view, Dunn says.

First and foremost, Johnson continues to say that a no-deal Brexit is a live option, which means he’s willing to leave the bloc without negotiating a trade agreement with Brussels. The U.K. and EU last January signed a withdrawal agreement and although Britain officially left the coalition on Jan. 31, the country remains a member during a transition period that ends Dec. 31.

Johnson’s government has since proposed legislation allowing it, in the wake of a no-deal divorce, to break the legally binding withdrawal accord and erect a customs border between the U.K.’s Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to the south, which is also an EU member. That move would also abrogate the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended decades of sectarian violence in the province and eliminated the hard border between the north and the south.

Biden in September tweeted that he wouldn’t allow the peace agreement to “become a casualty of Brexit.” At a minimum, that means a Biden administration wouldn’t continue negotiations to fashion a U.S.-U.K. trade pact if Britain opts to crash out of Europe without a deal.

“It’s definitely the case that if Johnson goes for a no-deal Brexit, there’s little likelihood he’ll be rewarded with a U.S. trade deal,” says John Springford, deputy director of the think tank Centre for European Reform and an expert on global trade.

However, both he and Dunn now say Johnson will quickly negotiate a deal with Brussels in the 11th hour, now that Trump’s been defeated. “There was speculation all along that Boris was waiting to see which way Americans would jump; he’ll now go into overdrive to conclude a deal with the EU,” Dunn says.

Additionally, a no-deal Brexit would cause a great deal of economic pain to Britain, at least in the short term. “To add another economic crisis on top of the pandemic is a step too far even for Johnson — it’s a really bad idea,” Springford says.

[MORE: Brexit Talks May Rattle the Stability Along the Irish Border]

But even with a no-deal Brexit off the table, Dunn says, a bilateral trade deal with Britain still isn’t likely to be a high priority for the incoming Biden administration. Instead, it would probably seek to rekindle trade talks with the EU. “It won’t be falling over itself to do a trade deal with Britain first. The U.K. won’t be seen as a constituency that needs to be tended to compared to the EU.”

Trump’s nationalistic “America First” doctrine was a good fit for Brexit, which “is about pushing national self-interests and protectionism,” Dunn says. But Biden is old-school, and will seek to re-pivot the United States to the liberal, rules-based international order it largely created after World War II. “Brexit is antithetical to that project,” he says, which is why neither Obama nor Biden approves of it.

Finally, Brexit will remove the U.K. from the heart of the EU, which makes it a much less useful partner to Washington. Britain’s value to the U.S. within Europe was to play the role of interlocutor, to voice America’s concerns to European leaders.

“Britain could articulate from the inside the U.S. position” on any given issue, Dunn explains. Moreover, the U.K. was in a position to explain the nuances of European opinions to Washington. “Britain could smooth relations on both ends. Now it is effectively cut off from that role, and that’s a big loss.”

Meanwhile, Springford says, “Johnson is already getting plenty of flack (in Britain) for his mishandling of the pandemic.” And, Dunn adds, there’s been plenty of media speculation that Johnson is planning to resign the premiership next spring because the office’s £150,000 ($199,500) annual salary doesn’t cover his expensive lifestyle.

After Biden assumes the presidency on Jan. 20, Johnson will be feeling even more “vulnerable and isolated,” globally and at home, Dunn says. So if he’s planning on quitting anyway, the looming changing of the guard in Washington may spur him to speed up his schedule.

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