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Boris and Biden: A diplomatic odd couple faces pressure to define the US-UK

Biden rode into the White House last year on a record that spanned nearly 50 years in public service. And while the President ran as an antidote to then-President Donald Trump, Johnson has often been compared to the 45th President for his populist message and often brash comments. The similarities between Trump and Johnson aren’t lost on Biden, who on the 2020 campaign trail once called Johnson a “physical and emotional clone” of Trump.

Given the tight ties between the US and UK, observers expect the public portions of the meeting to be cordial and warm. But both men enter this weekend’s diplomatic gathering under pressure to define their respective roles in the world and amongst other global powers.

The official previews of their meeting have been straightforward. The White House has indicated Biden will touch on a number of issues during his engagements with Johnson, including the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, financing global infrastructure in the developing world, maintaining a diplomatic presence in Afghanistan and other issues related to the Indo-Pacific and the Middle East. The UK government has relayed that Johnson, the host of the G7 summit, will focus on ways for the world to “build back better from coronavirus” and tackling climate change.

But their meeting on Thursday also comes at a time of tension over Northern Ireland’s role in the UK’s Brexit agreement with the European Union, which is a key issue for Biden. The meeting will set the tone for both US-UK relations over the next four years and Biden’s diplomatic agenda as they confer in southwest England. It also kicks off Biden’s swing across Europe for meetings with America’s G7 partners, NATO allies, the European Union and, finally, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Biden plans to press Johnson on Northern Ireland during their first face-to-face meeting on Thursday, according to senior administration officials. It’s an issue he feels very strongly about, officials said. He has watched with trepidation as Brexit has caused new questions about the durability of the Good Friday Agreement, which ended the violent conflict in Northern Ireland by bringing unionists and Irish republicans into a power-sharing government, and peace in the region.

But the President isn’t planning to adopt a confrontational tone with Johnson on the Northern Ireland issue during their meeting later Thursday, a senior administration official said, instead raising it as a topic of deep personal interest that he wants to see resolved.

“The United States is not in those negotiations and not seeking to be in those negotiations,” the official said.

“It will not be confrontational or adversarial,” the official said of Biden’s plans to raise the matter in his talks with Johnson. “He didn’t come here to give a lecture. He came merely to communicate what he believes, very, very deeply about peace in Northern Ireland.”

Biden has raised the issue with Johnson in telephone calls ahead of the summit, and diplomats have discussed the matter with British counterparts in the lead-up to the two leaders’ bilateral talks. But officials denied a report in British newspaper The Times that American diplomats held heated conversations with UK officials on the matter ahead of the summit, including issuing a formal reprimand, saying the discussions on the matter have not been “heightened.”

Questions still remain about what the long-term future of the US-UK relationship will look like and whether it will be superseded by America’s relationships with other allies in the west. European allies — reeling from Trump’s America First-style diplomacy — are also still not clear if Biden’s effort to bring American diplomacy back will result in a return to the status quo or result in something new. They’re also not sure how long Biden’s style of diplomacy will last, given that Trump might run for reelection.

“I think to me the defining question is how both sides use the next three and a half years, and if it’s sort of…

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