More than 15 years ago I had a long talk with Joe Biden, then Chair of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It was at a posh international gabfest at a ritzy Italian lakeside hotel. The long lunch break involved minimal eating and maximum swimming and sun-bathing. Writes Denis MacShane
President Biden’s meetings with the King and the Prime Minister are carrying more weight than usual in the normal routine courtesy and policy calls between two old friends and allies. Even if no-one seems to use the hackneyed phrase “special relationship” any more, there can be little doubt that Washington and London feel more in sync and are more at ease in talking with each other than the US is with many other European governments.
More than 15 years ago I had a long talk with Joe Biden, then Chair of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It was at a posh international gabfest at a ritzy Italian lakeside hotel. The long lunch break involved minimal eating and maximum swimming and sun-bathing. I was struck at how trim, fit, and healthy Biden looked in his swim shorts compared to most politicians of his age.
Presumably his aides will keep from him today’s incessant ugly London media comment pieces from much of the English Right saying he is too old, always falling down or semi-senile. In the 1980s the London Left media said much the same about Ronald Reagan, but many think that a second term Biden will be just as good as the second term Reagan.
In our conversation I was struck by Biden’s detailed knowledge of European power politics. He could not quite pronounce the then French President Jacques Chirac’s name, calling him “Shy-rack”, but he had a precise sense of what was going on in Europe, who was up, who was down, who was to be trusted, who was dodgy.
The man has been a four-star political animal for five decades. After Trump playing footsie with Putin or Macron’s surreal talks with him across a 50-foot-long table, Biden knew the Russian autocrat was not to be trusted. This President came out of the traps far faster to support democracy in Europe than Roosevelt managed in 1939-41. Biden calls the Chinese leader Xi Jinping a “dictator”, using far more robust language than has ever passed the lips of a British PM.
In the US Biden refers to himself as “Irish”. The disastrous coddling by Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and, initially, Rishi Sunak of Ulster Unionist supremacists in the DUP, around the Northern Irish Protocol of the Brexit withdrawal agreement, ensured that London was not seen as a serious partner for a US President who has an enormous Irish vote as well as family bloodlines to Ireland.
Biden and Johnson were chalk and cheese, but Sunak seems to have listened to wiser No 10 and Foreign Office officials. He has ditched the Johnson-DUP line to fall in with the interpretation most of Ireland and all of Europe places on the Protocol.
Clearly Biden is pleased with the robust line London is taking on Putin’s aggression, but he has made clear that does not extend to accepting the UK’s Defence Secretary Ben Wallace as the next Nato Secretary General. It was always unclear if Wallace really wanted the job, which would mean that every twist and turn in his interesting life story would be under the microscope.
But London in pushing Wallace showed the thickest of tin ears to the fact that a politician who gleefully joined in the Tory establishment’s Europhobia of recent years was hardly going to be desired by all the EU governments. Their contributions in money, men, and matériel to Nato far outweigh that of a UK now politically isolated from the Continent.
Unlike the Reagan-Thatcher or Blair-Clinton romances, Biden and Sunak have few things in common. The President is reinventing the New Deal, with an updated model based on public investment and managed trade, turning his back on the ultra-liberal, post-national Davos economics of the Goldman Sachs banker and Silicon Valley billionaire Rishi Sunak.
Labour’s Rachel Reeves had sought to cloak herself in Bidennomics, but the US is a continental sized market. Labour, like Sunak, repudiates any serious engagement with the continental market Britain was part of before cutting most trade links with Europe.
Joe Biden always invokes trade unions as his partners in his vision of increasing productivity and growth. Rishi Sunak has been engaged in a war of attrition to defeat and humiliate British public sector trade unions. Biden, who follows labour matters, will be aware that he is in a country where the Government takes an almost perverse pleasure in strike action. The Conservatives believe such macho posturing will re-create the Thatcher era of winning elections by attacking unions. (In the 1980s, unlike today, the unions needed to be defeated and the public backed Mrs Thatcher.)
In short, Biden will do the photo-calls especially with King Charles — who is of the same generation — to remind voters that mature, older men can still be effective heads of state. He will be polite to Sunak, but not much more. He will be flattered that Sir Keir Starmer has decided to pray Bidenomics in aid to reboot Labour’s economic policy, and pleased to note that since then Labour has risen in the polls and the Tories have faded.
It will be a successful visit. But any new enduring relationship will have to wait until after the elections in both the US and UK next year.
Denis MacShane is a former Minister for Europe.