Bo and Joe: A Suspicious Friendship Begins

January 22, 2021 | by Field Team

On Wednesday the world breathed a sigh of relief as Biden was inaugurated. But what is his relationship with Johnson going to look like? 

We have a new ally across the pond, and the fact that he didn’t spend his first day tweeting about crowd sizes suggests he may be an improvement…?

The world breathed a sigh of relief on Wednesday, and in many ways, Boris Johnson must have felt some relief. Trying to maintain a friendship with Trump must have been an anxiety inducing experience to say the least, and while the relationship was pretty strong, it was fragile. Biden will bring some much needed calm. He is an experienced statesman, who gets diplomacy and wants to repair America’s relationships with the rest of the world.

So there are some pretty fundamental benefits to the Biden era, but those aside, we should expect a complex evolution of the dreaded ‘special relationship’. Policy and attitudes wise, our leaders will be well aligned in some respects but way off in others. Many have been quick to highlight the environment as a topic where Biden and Johnson will get on like a house on fire (or a planet on fire, perhaps.) This is great for Britain, especially as we prepare to host the COP 26 climate conference in November.

The stark differences are likely to arise on what you might call ‘culture issues’. Johnson was asked yesterday if he agrees that Joe Biden is ‘woke’. Seems like a pretty weird question, and Boris was clearly thrown, judging by his babbling response – so unlike him! But the media were tapping into something there. You cannot underestimate the impact that ‘culture wars’ have had in America in the last few years – and here too for that matter. The rise of right wing populism has brought with it debates on national identity, isolationism, racial justice, and anti-establishment hatred of things like ‘political correctness’. Biden is firmly ‘progressive’ in these areas. He wants an America that will embrace international co-operation, reject populism, and champion social justice movements including, but not limited to, Black Lives Matter. These are priorities the Biden administration are genuinely passionate about and hold dear.

On the traditional ‘left/right’ spectrum Johnson and Biden may seem pretty close together – American Democrats and British Conservatives often are. But there is a new spectrum now, running parallel, that is arguably just as important these days. Johnson became a figurehead of populism when he championed Brexit. He brought in voices of disruptors and tapped into the growing movement of anti-establishment and anti-political correctness anger. Biden is about as ‘establishment’ as it gets, and just won a campaign against the worst incarnation of all that disruptive anger.

So we should expect a relationship of strategic co-operation, but perhaps not genuine affection. Biden is suspicious of Johnson’s values. It is unclear how personal some of that is – there are question marks over how offended Biden remains about Johnson’s historic remarks on Obama’s Kenyan heritage, for example – but the suspicion is clearly there. Johnson’s mission is straightforward: to make the most of the areas where there is agreement, and to avoid letting the differences harm the relationship. If all goes well, there is no reason why the Biden and Johnson era cannot be a productive one for both nations. But whatever else, we are happy to predict this much: Thatcher and Raegan, they will never be.

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