British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is coming to America this week, where he will be meeting with U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, Amazon executive chairman Jeff Bezos, and President Joe Biden, who will host him at the White House. Biden and Johnson are expected to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic (including the possibility of lifting travel restrictions), China, and climate change. The unhappy French response to the messy rollout of the new AUKUS arrangement will likely also come up. This will be the two men’s second face-to-face meeting since Biden became president; they spent time together during the G7 meeting that Johnson hosted in Cornwall in June.
The Biden-Johnson dynamic is a strange one. Johnson ascended to the premiership in 2019 in the aftermath of the tortuous Brexit debate. As the winds of Western populism seemed to blow stronger, he portrayed himself as a Trumpian, right-wing populist figure—which helped him to cozy up with the American president. It was a field day for editorial cartoonists, as the two men—and especially their trademark hairstyles, Trump’s elaborately ridiculous and Johnson’s affectedly unkempt—were caricatured together in all manner of memorable poses.
But as soon as Trump was out, Johnson pulled a political maneuver that we might call the Blair Twist, in honor of Tony Blair, the former prime minister. The 1980s and early 1990s were tough for the Anglo-American left, as the Democrats and the U.K.’s Labour Party faced upset after upset. In 1992, a young and charismatic Bill Clinton won the White House by running a “third way” campaign that moved his party closer to the center. Five years later, Blair, another young and charismatic center-left politician, entered 10 Downing Street. It was difficult to tell their politics apart, and they seemed to be best friends. Their bond was close, even during the complications of the sordid Clinton sex scandal and impeachment. (The Clinton-Blair partnership was the subject of the 2010 movie The Special Relationship.)
In 2000, George W. Bush ran a campaign highly critical of Clinton’s personal conduct—promising to “restore honor and dignity to the White House.” The conservative, evangelical governor of Texas had very little in common with the left-leaning Briton. Yet within months, Bush and Blair looked inseparable. The 9/11 attacks were the major turning point. George W. Bush called for a Global War on Terror and went to war in Afghanistan and then Iraq. Across the Atlantic, Blair was asking how he could be most useful. It was as though Blair had never met Bill Clinton.
Such a pivot in personal relations is not inevitable, mind you. Sure, Winston Churchill got along famously with Franklin Roosevelt, and Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were kindred spirits (despite disagreeing over the Falklands). But Harold Wilson and Lyndon Johnson did not particularly get along. Neither did John Major and Bill Clinton. And Boris Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, did not click with either Barack Obama or Donald Trump.
Now Johnson, after getting along well with Trump, has done the Blair Twist. A month after Trump left office, at the virtual Munich Security Conference, Biden’s message was America Is Back, as he unsuccessfully tried to cozy up with his German and French counterparts. But it was Johnson who was a receptive audience, saying, “America is unreservedly back as the leader of the free world and that is a fantastic thing!” That’s not a subtle statement—it’s a clear indication that America was failing to lead the world under Johnson’s former friend, Trump.
In March, Johnson’s government published a major strategy paper, Integrated Review—the U.K. equivalent of the quadrennial U.S. National Defense Strategy—and the bumper sticker for it might as well be, “Let’s Be Useful to America.”
The Blair Twist is a sign of the special relationship the United States and the United Kingdom boast about. The key to it, however, is that the U.K. understands American politics better than anybody else and has always found ways to make itself useful.
Of course, Afghanistan looms large in the picture, and the British rightly remain upset about the Biden administration’s botched withdrawal, but it is unclear whether it will come up during the summit between the two heads of government, or whether the important lingering issues related to Afghanistan will be left to the U.S. and U.K. intelligence and diplomatic services, where they will certainly be discussed.
It is also unclear whether a U.S.-U.K. free trade deal will make it into any of Johnson’s conversations on this trip. Such deals with several countries are vitally important to the post-Brexit U.K. economy, and the Johnson government spent months of 2020 negotiating with the usually protectionist Trump administration but couldn’t close a deal. The discussions have become tangled up in questions about Northern Ireland’s status post-Brexit, and it doesn’t help that Biden’s national security advisor is somewhat skeptical of free trade. Johnson last week promoted his trade minister to the position of foreign minister, then bumped his business minister up to the trade job; it’s unknown how the shuffle could affect any of the deals the U.K. has under discussion.
One of the side effects of Brexit is that America’s most reliable advocate is no longer part of Europe’s collective decision-making. When you factor in the unreliability of the United States—as indicated by the chaotic Trump years, the bungled Biden pullout from Afghanistan, and the possibility of a Trump comeback despite his disgrace—the outlook for the U.S. relationship with Europe is complicated. But the fundamentals of the U.S.-U.K. partnership remain very strong, and Boris Johnson’s limber performance of the Blair Twist has helped keep them that way.