With An Eye To History, Biden And Johnson Try To Rekindle The 'Special Relationship'

Jun 10, 2021
Originally published on June 10, 2021 4:00 pm

Updated June 10, 2021 at 1:01 PM ET

In their first face-to-face meeting, President Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson signed a 21st century version of the historic Atlantic Charter, an attempt to depict their countries as the chief global leaders taking on the world's biggest challenges.

The two leaders pledged to work "closely with all partners who share our democratic values" and to counter "the efforts of those who seek to undermine our alliances and institutions."

The charter encompasses a commitment to cooperate on climate change, technology and science. It also reaffirms support for NATO while underscoring opposition to election interference and disinformation campaigns.

"We must ensure that democracies – starting with our own – can deliver on solving the critical challenges of our time," the document says. By highlighting their similarities as "democracies," the two are trying to create a clear contrast with Russia and China.

The document is a symbolic nod to the original Atlantic Charter signed in 1941 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. That document was a blueprint for emerging from World War II, and included a set of common principles, such as liberalized trade, labor standards and commitments to restore self-government to countries that had been occupied.

Biden has often spoken of his presidency in grand historic terms, and he's repeatedly praised Roosevelt as a role model for his time in the White House. Likewise, Johnson sees Churchill as a personal idol and has even written a book about him.

This new charter comes not after a world war but a pandemic, and it is attempting to clarify what the coming decades can and should look like from the two leaders' shared perspectives, officials said. Signing this charter signals a renewal of the historic "special relationship," a phrase Churchill coined to describe the depth of ties between the two democracies.

Before the two men signed this new Atlantic Charter, they viewed a copy of the original document, under glass, as reporters looked on. The rest of their meeting was behind closed doors.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill aboard a ship off Newfoundland in 1941, where they signed the original Atlantic Charter.
Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

First impressions

Roosevelt and Churchill forged a deep wartime friendship that some historians now say "saved the world."

There have been plenty of questions about how "special" (or not special) the personal relationship between Biden and Johnson might be. Before Thursday's meeting in Cornwall ahead of the Group of Seven summit, the two men had never met in person.

And yet first impressions had already been made. During the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden mocked Johnson at a fundraiser, calling him as a "physical and emotional clone" of former President Donald Trump.

Biden opposed the United Kingdom leaving the European Union. Johnson championed Brexit, and eventually shepherded it through Parliament. Biden wants to rebuild America's global alliances. Johnson is seen as the embodiment of nationalist populist politics. Biden ran for president as an explicit rebuke of Trump. Johnson was known for being particularly chummy with the former president, who once admiringly called him "Britain Trump."

Trump, and some political observers, saw Brexit in a similar vein to Trump's "America First" philosophy.

Still, the first European leader Biden spoke with after his inauguration was Johnson, who was quick to acknowledge the president's victory at a time when his old friend Trump was bitterly fighting it.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters this week that Biden and Johnson have had a couple of phone calls, and he described those conversations as "warm" and "constructive."

"They've been very much down to business," he said.

Northern Ireland, trade deal in focus

Still, the two men aren't starting from a clean slate.

Last year, during the presidential campaign, Biden warned that a post-Brexit, U.S.-U.K. free trade deal could be in jeopardy if peace in Northern Ireland became a "casualty" of Brexit.

One side effect of Brexit has been renewed tension in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, which finally left the EU this year. The Republic of Ireland remains part of the EU.

As part of a deal to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland in the aftermath of a Brexit, a customs border has been created, dividing Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom. In April, that helped trigger some of the worst riots the region has witnessed in years.

Biden, who often talks about his Irish heritage, has warned he would scrap any trade deal if Britain damages the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which brought peace to the region after decades of violence. The EU hopes Biden can press Johnson to abide by his government's agreement to institute the required customs checks along the border.

Johnson is eager to cut a free trade deal with the United States. Although such a deal is not expected to be especially lucrative — trade barriers between the two countries are already low – it would boost Johnson's prestige and help him fulfill his promise to British voters that leaving the EU would free the United Kingdom to make new trade agreements with major economies.

Pandemic recovery, climate change

A U.K.-U.S. trade deal is not particularly high on Biden's agenda. There are other issues, such as pandemic recovery and climate change, that are of importance to Biden — issues where the two men are expected to find significant common ground.

Johnson welcomed Biden's decision to rejoin the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organization. Trump had abandoned both.

After Biden left his meeting with Johnson, the president announced a new donation of COVID-19 vaccines to poorer countries, and said the G7 would have more announcements to make on the issue on Friday.

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Some 80 years ago, a British prime minister and an American president met on a ship and signed a charter that would lay out the principles for how things should look after the Second World War.


WINSTON CHURCHILL: This was a meeting which marks forever in the pages of history the taking up by the English-speaking nations, amid all this peril, tumult and confusion, of the guidance of the fortunes of the broad, toiling masses in all the continents.

KELLY: That, of course, was Winston Churchill speaking after his meeting with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Some historians like to say their partnership saved the world, and there were some echoes back to that today when President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson met for the first time in a seaside town in England. NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez was there. Hey, Franco.


KELLY: All right. Tell us about this meeting.

ORDOÑEZ: Well, you know, the leaders agreed to a new version, an updated version of that famous Atlantic Charter that Churchill and FDR signed. And with this document, Biden and Johnson are sort of casting themselves in the position of being champions of democracy, you know, fighting against those who undermine it and together fighting problems like climate change and COVID-19. But this meeting today, it was actually fairly modest in scale. They looked at a copy of the original charter under glass and exchanged some brief pleasantries, but most of their meeting was behind closed doors.

KELLY: Brief pleasantries - I wonder, were you able to get any sense of their relationship? Because Boris Johnson, of course, was very friendly with Biden's rival for the presidency, with former President Donald Trump.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. Trump once called him Britain Trump, and he meant that as a compliment. Johnson, of course, was a champion of Brexit. Biden was against Brexit, and Biden is all about rebuilding global alliances, you know, not breaking them up. But they have some common ground in their political role models. Biden often talks about FDR's policies for rebuilding America, and Johnson wrote a book about Churchill. And today, they agreed on the broad principles.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We talked about the shared sacrifices our service members have made bravely serving side by side in Afghanistan for close to 20 years. The U.K. was with us from the start, as they always are, equally committed to rooting out the terrorist threat. And now we're coordinating our withdrawal together. And, of course, we talked about how our two nations can together lead the global fight against COVID-19.

KELLY: So that was Biden today. What did we hear from the prime minister?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, you know, that's the funny thing. Biden said they had a productive meeting and they discussed a range of issues, but they didn't give joint remarks afterward. Biden just gave a small update, you know, during remarks about his own plans to address the global pandemic. You know, his focus was on his new promise to give vaccines to countries that can't afford to buy them. And he said we can expect the G-7 leaders to talk more about their plans to help the world recover from the pandemic tomorrow.

KELLY: Another point of tension between these two has been Northern Ireland. Did that come up?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. It's a sensitive issue, but it was part of their written statement afterward. The leaders said they are committed to the Good Friday Agreement, that it's a deal brokered by the U.S. that helped establish peace in Northern Ireland for a couple of decades now. Now, Brexit has renewed some tensions there because Northern Ireland is part of the U.K., while the Republic of Ireland remains part of the European Union. And - but as a candidate, Joe Biden has warned that any threat to the Good Friday Agreement could ruin chances for a trade deal.

KELLY: So lots to watch there, too. NPR's Franco Ordoñez traveling with the president - thanks, Franco.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.