At the breaking news that Joseph R Biden was projected to become the 46th President of the United States, old footage emerged on social media of seasoned BBC correspondent Nick Bryant shouting hopefully to the former Vice President through a media scrum. ‘Mr Biden, a quick word for the BBC?’ Biden’s retort: ‘The BBC? I’m Irish’, was simultaneously descriptive and dismissive, as he flashed his white-toothed smile and walked off to another room.
Dating back to the Iowa Democratic caucus in January 2020 (where Biden lost), the footage resurfaced after he was announced President Elect on November 8. The exchange was interpreted by some as emblematic of Biden’s wider sense of priorities once he takes office in January 2021.
However, this off-hand quip should not be exaggerated. While elements of the UK media saw it as evidence that Biden was ready to ‘weaponise Brexit’ as a snub to the UK, it came right at the beginning of his campaign, when he hoped to win the Democratic nomination, not at the end of the race to the White House, when he knew he had won.
President Biden’s administration is likely to seek out the UK as a key ally in major policy areas, including the revival of US interests in NATO and the Paris Agreement on climate change. But initially at least, it is an alliance where the soft power between the two countries may have to be chiselled out of their frosty personal relationship. Biden’s distaste for Johnson is palpable – The President Elect values the ideals of public service and the importance of personal integrity in public life, traits that are less obvious features of Boris Johnson’s political persona.
While Biden has disparaged Johnson as ‘a physical and emotional clone’ of Donald Trump, his Vice President Kamala Harris is reportedly even less enamoured. The daughter of immigrant parents, Harris is fully aware of Johnson’s racist remarks in the past directed at people of colour. Not least his attempt to disparage President Barack Obama’s removal of a statue of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office when he was President, as being emblematic of; ‘the part-Kenyan president’s ancestral dislike of the British empire.’ Clearly the Johnson government has work to do in establishing a rapport with the Biden/Harris administration. However, while their personal relationship might be more Major/Clinton, than Thatcher/Reagan, they have shared strategic interests and will no doubt be close allies over the next four years.
Brexit does remain a fly in the diplomatic ointment however. The often talked about ‘special relationship’ is mostly talked about by the United Kingdom – rather than the United States. When asked, American Presidents will make the right noises about how close the relationship is between the two countries, but it has long since ceased to be a driver of policy. Biden’s decision to call Boris Johnson before other European leaders was shrewd politics, because he knew it would stroke the egos of the British political class, while infuriating the incumbent Trump administration at home. But Britain would be unwise to confuse style with substance. In the post Brexit era, with a politically and economically diminished United Kingdom, the Biden administration is likely to look primarily to Germany and France, as well as to the European Union for its closest political allegiance.
Charles Kupchan, a close Biden adviser, suggested that Brexit had made the UK much less strategically important for the US, which would inevitably colour the future political relationship:
‘The United Kingdom alone does not cut a large figure on the international landscape … So the relationship between the US and the UK will be fine. I’m just not sure it’s going to matter that much.’
What does it mean for Ireland?
A considerable reservoir of soft power already exists between Biden and his ancestral homeland and with the UK out of the EU and with a reduced economy and diplomatic influence, Ireland may hold a key strategic advantage over its larger neighbour that could provide important political leverage in the years ahead.
Biden is proud of his Irish heritage and did not discover it during his election campaign or in an attempt to grease the political wheels at home. He has researched his ancestry thoroughly and has close family connections in Ballina Co Mayo and in Co Louth. Biden’s great great great grandfather Edward Blewitt fled Ballina during the Irish famine in 1850 and sailed to the US – settling in Scranton Pennsylvania where Joe Biden was later born. Laurita Blewitt and her brother Joe were Biden’s guests in Washington when he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in January 2017. Later that year, Biden opened the Mayo Roscommon Hospice named after his son Beau who died of brain cancer in 2015.
predominantly linked to the Northern Ireland peace process and America’s commitment to it. But the GFA was a US foreign policy success too – and moreover it was Democratic President Bill Clinton who helped broker the Belfast Agreement and he and his party have remained committed to it ever since.
Equally importantly for Ireland (and by extension Northern Ireland) a Biden Presidency will give Dublin an access to the White House that was not so evident during the pro-Brexit Trump administration. This could position the Irish government as an important matchmaker between the US and the EU, using its soft power to oil the wheels of that critical relationship. With the UK now out of the EU this may allow Ireland to punch above its diplomatic weight, not just with the White House but in terms of European Union politics as well. The Brexit negotiations provided a common cause and solidarity that bound Ireland with the rest of its EU partners. With that denouement, Ireland is likely to lose a degree of influence given its relatively small size within the EU27. Becoming a bridge to the White House to build a stronger Transatlantic relationship might mitigate that significantly over the coming years.
The UK will certainly remain a close ally of the United States – but it is unlikely to be given any special treatment and it is also unlikely that a trade deal between the two countries will be a priority for the Biden/Harris administration. The UK has fences to mend – because in the infamous words of President Obama in a speech at the Foreign Office in 2016, Britain is once again at ‘the back of the queue’ in terms of American priorities.
No amount of befuddled jibber-jabbering from Boris Johnson is likely to change that cold hard fact.
The next four years of a Biden/Harris Presidency might lack the psychodrama of the Trump tenure, – but they will arguably be more important for everyone living on the island of Ireland.