Thursday, June 17

Johnson wants to be Biden’s friend. But thanks to Brexit he can never be a true ally | Jonathan Freedland

ORptics, know the reality. The images emanating from Cornwall are just what Boris Johnson wanted: a warm meeting with the new president of the United States, followed by a summit of world leaders with himself in the chair. The “special relationship” renewed, “global Britain” in action, him at the center: job done. The problem is that the photographs and the reality do not match.

I am not referring to the gulf that separates the personal styles of Joe Biden and the British Prime Minister. A former diplomat with experience in both men notes that while Biden “asks for briefing folders and does his homework, Boris’s instinct is to improvise and clown.”

They are chalk and cheese, but that doesn’t have to matter. Opposites can connect, especially when it suits their mutual interests. Witness the renewed Atlantic Charter the couple signed on Thursday, a repeat of the wartime commitment of the United States and the United Kingdom to make a common cause that saw Biden present himself as the Franklin Roosevelt of the last days, and Johnson equally happy to be an act of tribute to Churchill.

Nor do I mean the gap between the G7 promises to vaccinate the world’s poorest countries and what is really needed. Of course, it is welcome for the United States to give away 500 million surplus doses and for Britain to contribute 100 million more, so that the G7 collectively hand over 1 billion. But even that seemingly generous gesture is less than a tenth of the required number. If Biden and the others really want to deliver on their speech of vaccinating the world, they must pay for the manufacture and distribution of another 10 billion doses, an effort that would cost up to $ 66 billion (£ 47 billion).

No, the gulf I have in mind is between the worldview that Biden is urging his Western allies and the spirit embodied by Johnson. The president of the United States is not an ideological figure, but he has a firm creed, and international cooperation is fundamental for him. He believes in multilateralism, in the alliance system built at the end of the Second World War. Could you show him Gordon Brown’s new book, which argues that the gravest problems facing our world, from the pandemic to poverty to the climate crisis, can only be solved through global cooperation, and he would hardly disagree with a word. about. It’s one of the reasons Biden backed off from Donald Trump’s revival of the historically bleak “America First” slogan. The same sentiment animates the rest of the G7 leaders now in Carbis Bay, with one exception.

Johnson can speak the multilateralist talk, but his record points in the opposite direction. Like it or not, it is defined, especially abroad, by Brexit (and one suspects that it does not like it, telling Atlantic magazine that the issue is a lemon that has been sucked dry). Johnson’s signature deed, which will be his enduring legacy, is addressed to reducing cooperation between nations, about doing more alone. It is a mission to put “Britain first”.

Sure, he and the other Brexiters have always shied away from that reality, telling themselves that leaving the EU would make Britain a leader not just in Europe but around the world. But the fantasy of Global Britain forgets something basic about geopolitics. “If you want to be a global actor, start by being an actor in your neighborhood,” says former Downing Street chief of staff Jonathan Powell. “That is difficult when you have retired.”

Or as the former British ambassador to Washington, Peter Westmacott, says: “We are no longer in the room where it happens; we’re listening in the hallway outside. “

Perhaps there was a way out of the European Union while minimizing the damage to the world of alliances and Britain’s place in it, displaying what Westmacott calls “the right combination of experience, strategic thinking, effectiveness and humility.” But that’s not the path Johnson chose.

The drastic cut in Britain’s aid budget, breaking the manifesto’s promise to continue spending 0.7% of gross national income to help the world’s poorest, mocks Johnson’s expressed desire to play an international role. Role “convener”– You can’t wait to sit in the chair if you’re not pulling your weight. Nor, say those in the know, has Johnson shown much interest in the painstaking and diligent work of investing in bilateral ties, hoping that a flash of Etonian charm will serve in his place.

The result is that there is a disconnect between the block that Johnson wants to be in and the one to which, thanks to his decisions, he belongs. The new Atlantic Charter requires, for example, that the United States and Great Britain adhere to the “rules-based international order.” But nine months ago, the Johnson government gleefully announced that it intended to violate international law on the Brexit deals for Northern Ireland.

Johnson might want to sit with the healthy kids at the multilateralist table, but his actions constantly send him to the back of the bike shed to smoke with rule breakers like Hungarian Viktor Orbán, who was given the red carpet. . treatment in n. 10 last month.

This is the logic of Brexit. It’s the same logic responsible for the most acute tension between Johnson and Biden, and several others in Cornwall: the current showdown over that Northern Ireland protocol. The government signed it, but now demands that the EU be “less purist“In your application. Johnson is effectively telling Brussels what he has undoubtedly told many others before: “Sure, I made a promise. But you weren’t meant to take that literally. “

Now Johnson faces a choice. Or he surrenders, as he did in late 2019 by agreeing to put a border in the Irish Sea, and betrays a new already restless unionist population. Or he refuses to give in, thus risking an all-out trade war with the EU, the chances of which are serious, according to the Eurasia Group.

It is not the first time that Boris Johnson wants to have his cake and eat it. He wants to stand alongside a president of the United States who utters the catechism of cooperation among nations, even as he is forever associated with turning Britain away from cooperation among the nations of Europe, in the process endangering the union that enshrines cooperation between the four nations of the UK. He wants to pose with Biden and the G7, although he remains a model of the populist unilateralism of his old friend Trump. A photo shoot can hide that contradiction for a time, but it can’t hide it forever.

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