AMAC Exclusive by Daniel Roman
Joe Biden has just concluded his first G7 summit as president, and for the future of U.S. foreign policy and American security, the news couldn’t be worse. Biden is giving every signal to his foreign policy that his decisions will be based on a resentment of what’s worked in the past.
Just as Biden’s resentment of Trump’s economic successes have led him to make sharp reversals to policies that brought prosperity and low inflation and his anger over Trump’s success with China and in the Mideast led him to policy reversals that have only brought conflict and the empowerment of U.S. enemies; his lingering anger over Trump’s support of Brexit has led him to jeopardize U.S. relations with our most important ally.
Even most international press accounts, his visit to the conclave of world leaders in Cornwall, England, was a catastrophe for the U.S.-U.K. “special relationship.” Biden’s behavior—barging into the sensitive Brexit negotiations regarding Northern Ireland in the least productive manner possible—embarrassed the United States, left behind a resentful and isolated United Kingdom, and worsened the combustible situation in Northern Ireland in a way that risks shattering 22 years of relative peace.
The drama began with a diplomatic act of provocation which preceded the summit, almost entirely ignored by the gushing American press who lack either interest or understanding of international affairs.
Two days before the meeting, the United States’ most senior diplomat in London, Yael Lempert, delivered what was widely reported to be a formal demarche to David Frost, Britain’s chief Brexit negotiator, warning Frost that his government “was inflaming tensions” in Northern Ireland, and informing him of Biden’s “great concern” regarding the issue.
This decision was significant not because Biden chose to express “great concern” to the British government but because it shows that he wanted to publicly rebuke the United Kingdom hours before his first state visit to America’s closest ally.
This was a stunning departure from America’s historically unbreakable friendship with Britain. Biden was proactively positioning the U.S. as a fellow member of the Europeans’ ideological crusade to punish the U.K. and exact vengeance for Brexit—something Europe has sought to do by weaponizing negotiations over Northern Ireland to make them as painful for Britain as possible. If anything, it is the E.U., not Britain, that should have been accused of “inflaming tensions.”
During the Trump years, America adopted an independent attitude toward the European Union and attempted to mediate between the United Kingdom and the E.U. over Brexit. Under Biden, it is now clear that the U.S. has abandoned that role in favor of throwing its full weight behind the E.U.
This is presumably why President Macron of France was so gushing in his praise of Joe Biden at the G7. “I think it’s great to have the U.S. president part of the club and very willing to cooperate,” Macron said at the summit in England, allowing Biden to add, “We’re back. The U.S. is back.” It is easy to see why Macron would be pleased. Biden’s positioning was a short-term triumph for Macron, who is facing an election next year and is making a hard line against the United Kingdom a core part of his campaign.
Biden’s betrayal of the Brits was shocking on three levels. First, on the level of relations with the United Kingdom, Biden clearly wanted to send a message that his Administration does not perceive the U.K. as a true ally. Boris Johnson, the British Prime Minister, had been bending over backward to play up the Anglo-American relationship, and by publicly reprimanding the British government in front of the world before touching down, Biden effectively ensured that no one would confuse politeness and photographs for an actual friendship. Biden, in effect, tore up the Anglo-American alliance and made clear he had no interest in restoring it before landing.
On a substantive level, Biden also positioned himself firmly on the E.U.’s side in terms of Brexit and the Northern Ireland issue, a questionable decision at best. One of the most difficult aspects of the Brexit process has related to the status of Northern Ireland, nominally part of the United Kingdom but physically attached to the nation of Ireland. With Brexit, the U.K. exited the E.U. customs union, which created a question of how to avoid a physical barrier cutting through Ireland. There was no way to give all sides exactly what they wanted, and so the ultimate compromise was a Northern Ireland protocol which was supposed to allow Northern Ireland to be in a customs union with both the U.K. and the E.U.
This necessarily involved some compromises and ambiguities that would have been acceptable to the people of Ireland and Britain, both of which desperately wanted Brexit to work in a way that did not restore violence to Northern Ireland or economic instability to the region as a whole.
The European Union, however, has shown far less concern for the interests of the locals and is far more preoccupied with using the protocol as a tool to punish the U.K. and demand concessions on other unrelated issues.
In January, the European Union threatened to close the border in Ireland to vaccine shipments, claiming that the U.K. was receiving shipments from E.U. production facilities ahead of E.U. states, only to back down when the Irish reacted with fury. Europe’s willingness to use the closing of the Irish border as a method of pressuring the U.K. government over an issue entirely unrelated to Northern Ireland was then repeated in other fights over fishing rights and financial regulation.
As a result, since March, Northern Ireland has been under a de facto European economic blockade, resulting in empty supermarket shelves and food shortages that are escalating into a crisis. The shortages have resulted in violence, especially in Unionist areas, the first serious sectarian violence in decades. The U.K. government has rebuked the E.U. for adopting an “excessively legalistic approach” to the protocol, poor wording, which allows the E.U. to claim they are acting within the technical boundaries of the agreement. But the agreement was deliberately worded to mean anything and nothing. The Europeans are emphatically not acting within the spirit of the agreement, at least in regard to peace in Northern Ireland, and the issues it is raising have nothing to do with the region.
Now, Biden has chosen to wade into this mess with his public reprimand that Britain was somehow inflaming tensions. This position is factually incorrect, in that the EU is the aggressor and one which has shown zero interest in the welfare of the local population.
Ironically, it is also Biden who is inflaming the tensions. Again, the E.U. is not interested in a Northern Irish settlement, only in using the conflict as leverage. By making clear he supports this extortion attempt, Biden has vastly strengthened the E.U.’s negotiating position and given them moral sanction on the world stage. Consequently, he is encouraging the Europeans to make ever more extreme demands against Britain.
Biden is right to be concerned about Northern Ireland. But his ideological hostility to Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, and the British People over Brexit is causing him to behave in a way that will harm, not help, the problem he claims to be concerned about.
Biden should not have rebuked Boris; he should have told Macron that Northern Ireland was not a toy, not a prop in his reelection campaign, and not a bargaining chip for French fishermen. It is Macron who should be getting a demarche.
Yet, the damage Biden did at the summit is much larger than just the issue of Northern Ireland. His stunt does grave damage to the West as a whole. The Anglo-American alliance has long been a core element of U.S. diplomacy. The U.K. backed the U.S. in Iraq and has been America’s closest ally on China and Russia when Germany and France have both flirted with Moscow and Beijing, not to mention opposed the U.S. in Iraq. A resentful and divided Britain will be too weak and angry to be an effective ally.
As for the European Union, the feud with Britain is distracting it from the threats posed by Russia and Iran, not to mention China. It is in the interests of all involved to resolve the Brexit issue quickly in a way that works for everyone – British, Irish, and European. If Biden were showing true leadership, that is what he would seek to help do.
American leadership Biden-style may be more amicable for some foreign leaders than the America-First approach of former President Trump, but that is largely because it involves dropping the concept of America leading altogether.
Daniel Roman is the pen name of a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics.
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