나는t is a stroke of good luck for Boris Johnson that Britain is hosting this year’s G7 summit. As chair of the club for rich democracies, the prime minister’s centrality to the proceedings is guaranteed. He is first in line to meet Joe Biden, who flies in to Cornwall on Wednesday for his first official foreign trip as US president.
The choreography flatters Mr Johnson, casting him as America’s point man in Europe. That is the role that the UK traditionally sees for itself in transatlantic relations. The truth is more complicated. Leaving the EU removes Britain’s influence in Brussels, which diminishes its utility to Washington as a bridge to the rest of the continent. President Biden sees Brexit as strategic ineptitude, sowing gratuitous division among countries that the US would rather see united.
It does not help that Mr Johnson also exudes contempt for Britain’s nearest neighbours. He has prioritised nationalistic bravado over compromise. That has been noticed in Washington, especially as regards Ireland – the country from which the current US president’s ancestors originated and to which he has a strong cultural attachment.
Mr Biden is well aware that Britain has behaved cynically in its dispute with Brussels over the Northern Ireland protocol in the Brexit withdrawal agreement. Talks in London on Wednesday ended without resolving problems that look technical on the surface but have, at their core, a question of trust. Mr Johnson signed an agreement that required border checks at Irish seaports. He then denied that there would be disruptive consequences and tried to evade responsibility for implementation. From Brussels, it looks as if the prime minister is cynically reneging on a treaty that he may never have intended to honour.
Mr Biden does not want to issue public rebukes and expose divisions when the purpose of his trip is to orchestrate a show of solidarity among democratic governments. In private, he has already urged Mr Johnson to make the Northern Ireland protocol work and is likely to repeat that message in Cornwall. For his part, Mr Johnson has to dispel the idea, common among US democrats, that he is a character in the mould of Donald Trump, and that Brexit was conceived in lawless sabotage of the international order.
Mr Johnson is a protean character and able to tailor his style to the Biden agenda. (One former aide to Barack Obama put it less charitably when he called the Conservative leader “a shapeshifting creep”.) The US president is a diplomat and a bridge-builder. The two men will downplay any differences and amplify issues that bring their countries into strategic alignment – such as the Cop26 climate talks later this year in Glasgow.
Mr Johnson sees these summits as a platform from which to fulfil his rhetoric of “global Britain” – an international player, unencumbered by continental ties. The reality of the UK’s post-Brexit status is less appetising to the Eurosceptic palate. When President Biden talks about strengthening transatlantic relations, he sees Britain for what it is in terms of geography and history – a European country. When the G7 caravan moves on from Cornwall and Mr Biden moves on to Brussels, Mr Johnson faces the same urgent diplomatic task that he has been shirking all year. He must restore functional relations with the EU. It is a project that begins by honouring the treaty he signed when he left.