Boris Johnson is cutting a colorful job in the US, but for what purpose?


LONDON — He told the world to grow up and face the challenge of climate change. He joked about France’s neuralgic response to a submarine deal with Australia by Britain and the United States. He even cleared up the lingering confusion about how many children he has (six).

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson cut a signature colorful lane from New York City to Washington this week and managed to travel between cities on Amtrak — a nod to his Amtrak-loyal host, President Biden — before telling the aggrieved French. to “preenez un grip” and “donnez-moi un break.”

For Americans, now accustomed to a president who rarely deviates from the script, it was a throwback to a time when their own leader would appear in Britain and begin to lob cherry bombs. Except in the case of Donald J. Trump, that meant calling the mayor of London a “stone cold loser” and telling a British tabloid that Mr Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, was doing a bad job of negotiating a Brexit. deal.

Mr Johnson has always been a more jovial, cheerful figure, a journalist turned politician who uses humor, often at his own expense, to make serious points. What is less clear, after a five-day visit with signs that are both reassuring and problematic for the “special relationship” is how the Prime Minister’s light-hearted style advances Britain’s efforts to play a post-Brexit role on the global stage.

“This is both Boris Johnson’s advantage and problem,” said Jonathan Powell, former chief of staff to Prime Minister Tony Blair. “He’s very nice when you first meet him. But the problem with being a comedy act is that you aren’t taken seriously. That is why we have not been consulted about Afghanistan.”

Britain’s inclusion in a nuclear-powered submarine alliance with Australia and the United States was a remarkable victory for Mr Johnson – a victory that demonstrated Britain’s relevance and compensated for the White House’s disdain for British views. on the tactics or timing of the military withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Yet it is a bright spot in a transatlantic relationship that is otherwise a mixed bag. On his way to New York, Mr. Johnson told reporters that Mr. Biden was not directly interested in negotiating a trade deal between the United States and Britain because he “had a lot of fish to fry.” While it came as no surprise, his confession actually buried one of Brexit’s main selling points: that it would allow Britain to negotiate a lucrative trade deal with the United States on its own.

While Mr Johnson sat next to him in the Oval Office a few days later, Mr Biden also made it clear that he would object to any British actions threatening peace in Northern Ireland. Britain has vowed to review its post-Brexit trade deals with the north, a process critics say could jeopardize the Good Friday Agreement, which regulated decades of sectarian violence there.

British officials said Northern Ireland did not come up in their private conversations, which were described as “very warm” by one official. But Mr Biden’s public reference to it was a reminder that the issue has political resonance in Washington, and thus the potential for disrupting London-Washington relations remains.

The prospects for a bilateral trade agreement have now been replaced by hopes for something perhaps even more far-fetched.

British newspapers reported that the Johnson administration is now considering concluding the revised North American free trade agreement that Trump has negotiated with Canada and Mexico. Since Britain already has deals with both countries, that would amount to a back door deal with the United States.

Trade analysts were surprised, noting that this would spare neither side the political risks of trade negotiations. In addition, these experts said the language in that deal, known as the United States-Mexico-Canada agreement, would be detrimental to British automakers eager to export to the United States.

“Anything that makes a bilateral agreement difficult makes USMCA difficult,” said Sam Lowe, a trade expert at the Center for European Reform, a research institute in London. “We would still be talking about chlorinated chicken,” he added, citing disputes over access to chemically treated U.S. foods.

For Mr Johnson, the complexities of a short-term trade pact may be less important than the victories he won. On the eve of his visit, the White House lifted a ban on travelers from Britain, the European Union and other countries, who had become a nagging source of transatlantic tension.

Mr Johnson was also allowed to complain about the submarine alliance, which not only makes Britain a key US ally in the geopolitical battle with China, but also has the political advantage of annoying Britain’s neighbour, France.

Speaking outside the Capitol, Mr Johnson broke into merry Franglais to poke fun at the French for saying they overreacted to Australia’s decision to negotiate a $66 billion deal for non-nuclear submarines. break.

“Donnez-moi un break” became an instant social media classic, matched by just a moment, in an interview with NBC News, in which Mr. Johnson admitted to having six children. The exact number has long been shrouded in mystery: He has been divorced twice, has a daughter through an extramarital affair and has evaded previous attempts to pin him down on the paternity issue.

As veteran Johnson observers noted, he has used the Franglais version of “give me a break” at least eight times, going back to March 1994, when he featured it in an article on home prices. Some critics argued that it was unnecessarily provocative for France, because it brought a laugh in a country that has plenty of ways to settle scores with Britain.

“We enjoy the times when the French get hot,” said Mr. powell. “But there are costs involved in the long run.”

At the United Nations, where Mr. Johnson is not yet a well-known name as a world leader, he used a distinctive mix of charm and self-mockery. He told reporters that as a journalist, he had downplayed the threat of a warming planet. During a speech to the General Assembly hosting a United Nations climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, in November, Mr Johnson slipped into the role of an affectionate but strict parent.

“We still cling with part of our minds to the infantile belief that the world was made for our gratification and pleasure,” explained Mr Johnson, in words that could apply to his own rogue past. “And we combine this narcissism with an assumption of our own immortality.”

“We believe someone else will clean up the mess because that’s what someone else has always done,” he added. “My friends, the adolescence of humanity is coming to an end and must end.”

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