Will the climate summit mend Boris Johnson and Joe Biden’s tricky relationship?

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Katy Balls (Evening Standard)
Katy Balls (Evening Standard)

Boris Johnson isn’t a fan of the phrase “special relationship”. The Prime Minister takes the view that when it comes to the UK/US relationship, it suggests Britain is needy and weak. But that doesn’t mean he can’t see the importance of having America as a close ally. In fact, following a fractious few months, improving UK relations across the pond is viewed in No 10 as more important than ever.

When Joe Biden won the US election, aides in government were at pains to suggest Johnson would be able to get on well with the president-elect. In light of previous criticism from prominent Democrats of the Prime Minister over his Brexit stance, an effort was made to banish the idea that he was equivalent to a mini-Trump, with Johnson softening his tone and talking up the need for multilateralism.

Initially that charm offensive paid off. There was visible relief when Johnson held the first call of any leader in Europe with Biden. On the Cornish coast — in their first meeting at the G7 — Johnson branded the Biden administration a breath of fresh air. But since then things have started to slip.

Ahead of the summer, the pair had only spoken a handful of times. Then the crisis in Afghanistan brought things to a head. The decision of the US to act unilaterally and withdraw with little consultation with the UK suggested the special relationship had become one of irrelevance. UK politicians and officials quickly blamed America for the chaotic withdrawal and briefings followed with Biden branded “gaga” and guilty of a betrayal of the Afghan people — as well as a dereliction of duty. The comments did not go unnoticed in Washington, with one official warning the US wouldn’t forget.

Now ministers are on orders to toe the line and dial down the war of words; in front of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Dominic Raab echoed many of Biden’s criticisms of the broader Afghan mission. A meeting has been pencilled in for later this month when Johnson heads to New York for the UN general assembly. But the most important date is November in Glasgow.

Despite the differences over Afghanistan, the US will continue to exert huge influences over the UK’s foreign policy choices. Just look at how the Golden Era of relations with China has been replaced by a far more hard-headed approach, in large part because of US pressure.

When it comes to the shared policy aims of Johnson and Biden, the environment has long been viewed as the area where they have the most in common. Biden has made climate, in the wake of Trump, a key plank of his agenda. Meanwhile, Johnson has embraced the net-zero agenda, despite plenty of doubt from his own party.

So, will a dose of greenery bring the two men back in harmony? The best news for Johnson is that the US President will be attending the summit in Glasgow. While other world leaders — such as President Xi — are yet to confirm, the presence of the US means another chance for the pair to build the relationship, as well as sending a clear signal to the world that the summit has backing from some of the countries it needs to make any deal work.

The snag is that when it comes to that climate agreement, there is still much work to do — and navigating US politics could make parts of it harder. One of the UK’s key objectives for COP26 is for richer nations to bring together $100 billion a year of climate finance to help poorer nations with their targets. Only, they are currently short of that and the US is seen to be under-delivering.

What’s more, one of the issues with the summit is that the larger carbon-emitting countries need to play ball for the whole venture to work. Yet China is yet to confirm its attendance and the UK teaming up with the US could in fact make that task harder.

US climate envoy John Kerry’s suggestion to Chinese leaders that climate change was more important than politics didn’t land well. On a trip there, he was forced to hold many meetings remotely.

If there is not agreement on key issues at the summit, it doesn’t mean the UK/US relationship is off. The pair will still be able to look to each other as allies attached to the same cause. But for a Prime Minister who doesn’t want to be seen as needy, showing how the UK can help negotiate an agreement on a complex issue would go a long way to demonstrating the country’s own convening power on the world stage.

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