Britain’s prime minister has always been a political weathervane, and he knows the wind from across the Atlantic is now blowing in a different direction
Commentators and politicians around the world have frequently compared the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson with U.S. President Donald Trump, noting their shared casual relationships with the truth as well as populist and nativist proclivities. The perceived similarities between the two leaders even proved a rare point of consensus between the candidates in the recent U.S. presidential election: President-elect Joe Biden reportedly referred to Johnson as Trump's "physical and emotional clone," while Trump publicly called Johnson "Britain Trump."
The U.S. election—according to this school of thought and (quickly denied) media reports of "panic" inside Downing Street—was a disaster for Johnson, who, the idea goes, is about to lose a key ally and kindred ideological spirit on the world stage. It's certainly true that Johnson and Trump share some common traits and interests. Trump enthusiastically backed Brexit, of which Johnson was a key architect, and they sought to project a warm interpersonal relationship.
My research on Johnson's career as a journalist and politician, however, suggests that he isn't a natural Trump ally. Before Trump became president, Johnson attacked him as unfit to hold the office, and Johnson condemned him again recently for encouraging the insurrection at the Capitol. And, in his past newspaper columns and public statements, Johnson—who was himself born in the United States and held an American passport until 2016 when he relinquished it, possibly for tax reasons—has repeatedly praised, and sought to align himself with, liberal presidents who positioned the United States as a reliable, involved pillar of the global democratic order: Presidents, in other words, who are far more similar to Biden than to Trump.Before Trump became president, Johnson attacked him as unfit to hold the office.
As I've reported elsewhere, Johnson has expressed awe of U.S. power and support for a conventional, strong Anglo-American relationship so often—and while holding such a variety of roles, from right-wing hack to mayor of a liberal big city—that they would seem to be consistent beliefs. ("All my life," he said last week, while condemning the insurrection, "America has stood for some very important things, an idea of freedom and an idea of democracy.") The same conclusion may apply to Johnson's praise of internationalist presidents, who he has consistently portrayed as stewards of America's international prestige.
Alternatively, Johnson's past praise of liberal presidents and then, more recently, of Trump could be entered as evidence for another widely held view of Johnson: that he has no beliefs at all—or at least, none that he isn't prepared to cast aside at a moment's notice—and will simply say whatever he finds politically advantageous at any given moment.
Johnson found former President Bill Clinton's public persona to be grating. He criticized Clinton's "ghastly phony sincerity," referred to his presidency as an "ego-sexo-psycho-drama," and even wrote—in an extraordinary 1998 column for the Daily Telegraph, a conservative British newspaper where Johnson then worked—that "many of us would be perfectly prepared to believe that he and Lady Macbeth" (meaning Hillary Clinton) "did indeed bump off Vince Foster," the former deputy White House counsel who killed himself in 1993, and whose death has been grist for the anti-Clinton conspiracy mill ever since.
So far, so Trumpian. But Johnson generally expressed support for Clinton's policies, from his push for balanced budgets domestically to his support for NATO expansion abroad. When Clinton suggested, in 2000, that the European Union could one day admit Russia as a member, Johnson credited him with an "exciting, profound, and far-sighted" intervention, and he also praised Clinton—albeit with humanitarian reservations—for pushing military action in the Balkans in the 1990s, where European leaders had offered only "dithering and appeasement." (On a personal level, Johnson, himself a notorious philanderer, also defended Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky: Judging Clinton for "enjoying" the sexual perks of his power, as Johnson cast them, would be "sniveling and short-sighted," he wrote.)
Indeed, in their biographies of Johnson, the journalists Sonia Purnell and Andrew Gimson both note that Johnson saw Clinton as a political role model of sorts. And, in an interview with Piers Morgan for GQ magazine in 2007, Johnson pined to have Clinton back in the White House. "The world was better run under him as president, there was a greater sense of optimism, the potential for harmony between different countries and religious groups," Johnson said. "He represented America better, and that is so important. I love America."
Johnson initially admired former President George W. Bush but came to see him as a "cross-eyed Texan warmonger" responsible for trashing America's standing on the world stage. In 2008, as the mayor of multicultural liberal London, Johnson backed Barack Obama for president, because, he wrote in a column for the Telegraph, Obama "visibly incarnated change and hope," and because he had a better chance than his Republican opponent, John McCain, of restoring America's global reputation. Johnson nodded, too, to the historic symbolism of Obama's candidacy. "If Obama wins," Johnson wrote, "he will have established that being black is as relevant to your ability to do a hard job as being left-handed or ginger-haired, and he will have reestablished America's claim to be the last, best hope of Earth."
All this liberal optimism would not survive Britain's exit from the EU. In 2016, Johnson—by then a leader of a Brexit campaign that readily traded in inward-looking, xenophobic nostalgia—hit a starkly different note, dog-whistling, in a column for the right-wing tabloid The Sun, that Obama harbored an "ancestral dislike" for the British wartime leader Winston Churchill and the British Empire because he is "part-Kenyan"—a comment that, according to recent reports, has not been forgotten by senior Democratic Party operatives. (Full disclosure: I briefly worked for the campaign to keep Britain in the EU, prior to becoming a journalist.)
The realities of Brexit—and Johnson's responsibility for executing them—still complicate the relevance of his past statements about U.S. presidents to his future relationship with Biden. Johnson didn't only seek to establish a warm relationship with Trump for moral support on Brexit; he was also angling for a quick, post-Brexit trade pact with the United States, both as an economic and diplomatic boon in its own right and, prior to Britain striking a trade deal with the EU in December, as leverage to wield in negotiations with the bloc.
The Obama administration made clear that Britain would have to wait in line for a U.S. deal. Biden, too, has been strongly critical of Brexit generally, and the threat it could pose to the peace agreement on the island of Ireland in particular. (Ultimately, the deal struck in December did not change an original post-Brexit agreement to preserve an open border there between Britain and the EU; Johnson had at one point threatened to jettison that arrangement, putting the December deal in doubt.)
Still, Johnson and Trump also clashed on key issues, including Trump's trade war with China, and, as numerous commentators have pointed out, Johnson seems far more aligned with Biden on Iran and on climate change, which is emerging as a foreign-policy priority for Johnson ahead of Britain's hosting of the COP26 summit later this year. At the very least, where they disagree, Johnson will be able to count on Biden's consistency—a benefit Trump has never offered, even to supposed allies.
Biden, of course, may judge that he can't count on Johnson's consistency. At least initially, the Biden administration will be preoccupied with domestic crises, and when he looks to Europe, he may well prioritize cultivating ties with Paris, Brussels, and Berlin—the ringleaders of an influential alliance from which Britain just decided to isolate itself.
But Biden won't likely treat Johnson's Britain as a Trump-tainted pariah either. Whatever happens next, Johnson's relationship with Biden is not inevitably doomed by his recent dalliance with, or supposed similarities to, the outgoing president. At the very least, Brits and Americans can expect, based on Johnson's record, that he will pivot to whatever serves his interests, and if those interests happen to align with his long-standing, pre-Trump views on internationalist U.S. foreign policy, all the better. He and Biden are not poles apart, even if they could hardly be called each other's clone.
Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes the Columbia Journalism Review newsletter "The Media Today." His work has appeared in the Atlantic, the Nation, and Atlas Obscura, among other magazines. Twitter: @Jon_Allsop
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