Boris Johnson's U.S. visit this week will be his first transatlantic steps on the world stage since the start of the Covid pandemic. The Prime Minister will address the United Nations General Assembly in New York, meeting with President Biden at the White House and Congressional leaders on Capitol Hill.
The Biden/Johnson meeting is potentially one of the most important U.S./UK summits of the post-9/11 era. This is a pivotal moment for the world’s most important bilateral partnership, as well as the West’s leadership of the free world.
Joe Biden’s disastrous Afghanistan withdrawal has inflicted serious short-term and long-term damage on the Special Relationship and the Nato alliance. His actions have significantly harmed America’s standing across the Atlantic. It will be extremely difficult to rebuild faith and trust in U.S. leadership while Biden remains president.
This harsh reality will overshadow this week’s talks, and cannot be brushed aside for the sake of diplomatic niceties. While last week’s historic Aukus security pact is a major boost to Anglo-American cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, it will not repair the rift between London and Washington that exists over Afghanistan. Besides, much of the strategic vision and foresight for this deal was in place before Biden became president.
Johnson’s natural instinct will be to avoid any confrontation when he visits the White House. He will undoubtedly focus on the upcoming Cop26 UN climate change summit in Glasgow, where there is a great deal of common ground between the two leaders on their respective “green” agendas.
The prime minister must, however, be prepared to stand up to his U.S. counterpart on key issues of vital national interest. He should show robust British leadership, and hold the Biden presidency to account over the Afghanistan debacle. And he must not hesitate on U.S. soil to project the views of dozens of British lawmakers who have condemned the handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal, and underscore that American isolationism serves only to undermine the transatlantic partnership and NATO.
In the wake of Nancy Pelosi’s visit to London last week, the British PM should also make it clear to President Biden that the United Kingdom will not bow to American pressure over the Northern Ireland Protocol, and will not accept lectures from the Biden White House or the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Washington’s warnings and threats to the UK over the Northern Ireland issue, which frequently echo the talking points of the European Commission, are unacceptable and unworthy of Britain’s closest friend and ally.
At the White House, the prime minister should be uncompromising in outlining why Brexit will not be watered down by calls from Brussels or Washington. And he can take the opportunity to press Biden hard on the implementation of a U.S./UK free-trade deal, emphasising that a trade agreement between the largest and fifth largest economies in the world must be a priority on both sides of the Atlantic. Until now, the Biden White House has dragged its feet on a FTA, and is slow walking the negotiation process, despite multiple rounds of talks under the Trump administration.
On China, the prime minister should call for stronger joint U.S. and British leadership in confronting Beijing, and greater coordination between London and Washington over the barbaric treatment of Uighurs by China’s Communist rulers, mounting Chinese threats against Taiwan, and the suppression of democracy in Hong Kong. Britain’s role here is vital. The Biden administration has been far too weak on the China front. A tougher British stance, already championed by many leading MPs including Sir Iain Duncan Smith and Tom Tugendhat, will add much-needed backbone to the U.S. position.
For Boris Johnson, the stakes are high for this week’s U.S. visit. While his disappointing domestic agenda does not always reflect this, he is de facto the most powerful conservative leader in the world, representing a nation that should be a rising force for freedom and security. With American leadership in retreat under Joe Biden, the role of the British prime minister in the global arena is even more important.
This is a moment for British leadership, not timidity. The PM must challenge Joe Biden on several fronts, and aggressively assert British interests in his meeting with a U.S. president who has diminished America’s standing in the world, and weakened key alliances.
This piece originally appeared in The Telegraph on 9/20/21