By Anne Gearan and Ashley Parker,
Patrick Semansky AP
ST. IVES, England — President Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson have different politics, different styles and some deep differences of opinion, including over Britain’s exit from the European Union.
Biden, when running for president, once even disparaged Johnson as a “physical and emotional clone” of President Donald Trump.
But both leaders underscored the history and durability of ties between their two nations ahead of their first in-person meeting, which took place Thursday. They were expected to focus on common goals such as ending the covid-19 pandemic and combating climate change.
In a call with reporters Thursday, senior administration officials underscored the significance behind Biden’s choice of the United Kingdom for his first foreign visit, and the meeting with Johnson as his first with a foreign leader abroad. The two countries share common security interests, an economic dimension — the United States views Britain as its largest investment partner and fourth-largest trading partner — and a commitment to democratic values, the officials said.
“Britain is blessed with alliances that keep us safe and advance our values, and we are putting all of this to work for the benefit of the British people,” Johnson tweeted Thursday atop a mission statement for the Group of Seven leaders’ meeting starting Friday.
Biden and Johnson, who is hosting the G-7 at a nearby coastal resort,agreed to an updated version of the 80-year-old Atlantic Charter originally signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1941 governing technology, travel and some trade ties between the two nations.
Biden administration officials described the updated charter as a long overdue refresher of the original, meant to reflect what the 21st century can and should look like.
“Our revitalised Atlantic Charter, building on the commitments and aspirations set out eighty years ago, affirms our ongoing commitment to sustaining our enduring values and defending them against new and old challenges,” Biden and Johnson say in the new document. “We commit to working closely with all partners who share our democratic values and to countering the efforts of those who seek to undermine our alliances and institutions.”
The new document details eight areas of agreement, expressed mostly in broad strokes with few specifics, starting with a “resolve to defend the principles, values, and institutions of democracy and open societies, which drive our own national strength and our alliances.”
The two leaders also pledge to “strengthen the institutions, laws, and norms that sustain international cooperation to adapt them to meet the new challenges of the 21st century.”
One senior administration official described the document as “a profound statement of purpose of democracy,” coming at a time when Biden has repeatedly outlined an existential struggle for the future of the globe between democracy and autocracy.
The agreement falls short of the independent U.S.-U.K. trade deal that Johnson wants now that Brexit is complete. Biden has made clear that he could withhold such a deal over concerns that Johnson’s government is undermining the 1998 Northern Ireland peace agreement that ended three decades of sectarian conflict.
“President Biden has been crystal clear about his rock-solid belief in the Good Friday Agreement as the foundation for peaceful coexistence in Northern Ireland,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force One on Wednesday. “Any steps that imperil or undermine it will not be welcomed by the United States.”
The Biden administration authorized a highly unusual warning from the highest-ranking U.S. diplomat in Britain over the issue last week. The Times newspaper reported that U.S. diplomat Yael Lempert warned Johnson’s government against further “inflaming” tensions.
“He’s not issuing threats or ultimatums — he’s going to simply convey his deep-seated belief that we need to stand behind and protect this protocol,” Sullivan said.
Biden plans to reiterate that message about the importance of the Good Friday Agreement to Johnson in person during their meeting Thursday, a senior administration official said.
Biden’s Irish Catholic heritage is a central feature of his long political career. He opposed Brexit in part on principle, since it cleaved a major economy and U.S. ally from the European Union, and partly out of concern that it would reopen wounds with Ireland, which remains part of the E.U.
Irish officials have said they welcomed the Biden administration’s focus on the dispute over the border with Northern Ireland, with prime minister Micheál Martin calling the U.S. president’s interest in the issue a significant development.
“I think he is saying to the United Kingdom, ‘Let’s do the sensible thing here,’” Martin told reporters on Thursday, broadcaster Raidió Teilifís Éireann reported.
Britain is trying to negotiate a new agreement with the E.U. over goods crossing the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. Negotiations face a June 30 deadline.
While in Britain, Biden and first lady Jill Biden are also set to meet Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle on Sunday.
During a meeting between Johnson and his new wife, Carrie, and the Bidens, Jill Biden sported a black blazer with the word “LOVE” emblazoned across the back — a fashion choice that could be interpreted as a dig at former first lady Melania Trump, who infamously traveled to a migrant children detention center in Texas wearing a $39 Zara jacket with “I really don’t care. Do U?” printed across the back.
U.S. first lady Jill Biden wearing a jacket with the phrase “Love” stands next to Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson at Carbis Bay, Cornwall, Britain on Thursday.
Jill Biden’s message, too, offered a stark contrast to the sentiment Trump routinely brought to such gatherings.
“I think that we’re bringing love from America,” the first lady said. “This is a global conference, and we are trying to bring unity across the globe and I think it’s needed right now, that people feel a sense of unity from all the countries and feel a sense hope after this year of the pandemic.”
Johnson shares a populist worldview with Trump, who cheered Johnson’s rise as a champion of a divorce with the European Union. That relationship hangs over Johnson’s meeting with Biden, whose first foreign trip is otherwise dominated by meetings with European leaders who are relieved to be rid of Trump. Another exception comes at the end of Biden’s tour, when he meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin next week in Geneva.
The series of international gatherings that Biden is attending — the G-7, a NATO summit and a summit with European Union leaders — come as the United States and Europe emerge from the pandemic much faster than most of the rest of the world, prompting some criticism of “vaccine apartheid.”
On Thursday, administration officials announced that the United States is in the process of purchasing 500 million Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine doses to donate to the rest of the world, confirming plans that The Washington Post first reported Wednesday.
In the phone call with reporters, senior administration officials described the vaccine diplomacy as both “the right thing to do” and in U.S. national security interests to help stem a deadly pandemic that does not respect geographical boundaries.
The officials stressed that the United States will not ask for favors or impose preconditions in exchange for the vaccines, but they noted that the robust effort to distribute vaccines to some of the hardest-hit countries around the world is “tangible proof” that democratic countries are leading the effort to beat the deadly pandemic.
Part of Biden’s unofficial mission on his first foreign sojourn is to help improve America’s standing abroad, an impression that has improved since he took office, according to a Pew Research Center global survey released Thursday.
In a dozen countries surveyed over the past two years, 62 percent of the respondents now have a favorable view of the United States, compared to 34 percent at the end of Trump’s four years, Pew found. Pew also found that 75 percent of those surveyed expressed confidence in Biden to “do the right thing regarding world affairs,” compared to 17 percent for the final year of Trump.
The White House has also stressed the symbolic importance of Biden’s meetings with a string of democratic leaders — at the G-7 summit in Cornwall this week, as well as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and European Union summits in Brussels next week — before he sees the authoritarian Putin.
“These bonds of history and shared sacrifice run deep and are strong, based on values, and they endure,” Biden said Wednesday night as he addressed U.S. troops stationed at an air base in Britain.
“You are the essential part of what makes up this ‘special relationship’ between Great Britain and the United States,” Biden continued, using an affectionate term for the U.S.-U.K. bond. The term is often credited to Churchill.
Johnson is known to dislike the term “special relationship,” considering it slightly demeaning and making the United Kingdom seem needy and weak.
“The prime minister is on the record previously saying he prefers not to use the phrase, but that in no way detracts from the importance with which we regard our relationship with the U.S., our closest ally,” a spokesperson for Johnson said earlier this week.
Johnson may have also disliked what Biden went on to say to the U.S. troops and families gathered at RAF Mildenhall, a British air base in Suffolk. The president quoted Irish poet William Butler Yeats, although he did not identify either the poet or the work by name.
“‘The world’s changed, changed utterly,’” Biden said, quoting Yeats. “‘A terrible beauty has been born.’”
The line is from “Easter 1916,” which is about the Irish rebellion against English rule.
Adam Taylor and John Wagner contributed to this report.