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With An Eye To History, Biden And Johnson Try To Rekindle The 'Special Relationship'

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and President Biden talk Thursday during a meeting in Carbis Bay, England, as they look over copies of the original Atlantic Charter from 1941.
Patrick Semansky
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and President Biden talk Thursday during a meeting in Carbis Bay, England, as they look over copies of the original Atlantic Charter from 1941.

Updated June 10, 2021 at 1:01 PM ET

In their first face-to-face meeting, President Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson signed a 21st century version of the historic Atlantic Charter, an attempt to depict their countries as the chief global leaders taking on the world's biggest challenges.

The two leaders pledged to work "closely with all partners who share our democratic values" and to counter "the efforts of those who seek to undermine our alliances and institutions."

The charter encompasses a commitment to cooperate on climate change, technology and science. It also reaffirms support for NATO while underscoring opposition to election interference and disinformation campaigns.

"We must ensure that democracies – starting with our own – can deliver on solving the critical challenges of our time," the document says. By highlighting their similarities as "democracies," the two are trying to create a clear contrast with Russia and China.

The document is a symbolic nod to the original Atlantic Charter signed in 1941 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. That document was a blueprint for emerging from World War II, and included a set of common principles, such as liberalized trade, labor standards and commitments to restore self-government to countries that had been occupied.

Biden has often spoken of his presidency in grand historic terms, and he's repeatedly praised Roosevelt as a role model for his time in the White House. Likewise, Johnson sees Churchill as a personal idol and has even written a book about him.

This new charter comes not after a world war but a pandemic, and it is attempting to clarify what the coming decades can and should look like from the two leaders' shared perspectives, officials said. Signing this charter signals a renewal of the historic "special relationship," a phrase Churchill coined to describe the depth of ties between the two democracies.

Before the two men signed this new Atlantic Charter, they viewed a copy of the original document, under glass, as reporters looked on. The rest of their meeting was behind closed doors.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill aboard a ship off Newfoundland in 1941, where they signed the original Atlantic Charter.
/ Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill aboard a ship off Newfoundland in 1941, where they signed the original Atlantic Charter.

First impressions

Roosevelt and Churchill forged a deep wartime friendship that some historians now say "saved the world."

There have been plenty of questions about how "special" (or not special) the personal relationship between Biden and Johnson might be. Before Thursday's meeting in Cornwall ahead of the Group of Seven summit, the two men had never met in person.

And yet first impressions had already been made. During the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden mocked Johnson at a fundraiser, calling him as a "physical and emotional clone" of former President Donald Trump.

Biden opposed the United Kingdom leaving the European Union. Johnson championed Brexit, and eventually shepherded it through Parliament. Biden wants to rebuild America's global alliances. Johnson is seen as the embodiment of nationalist populist politics. Biden ran for president as an explicit rebuke of Trump. Johnson was known for being particularly chummy with the former president, who once admiringly called him "Britain Trump."

Trump, and some political observers, saw Brexit in a similar vein to Trump's "America First" philosophy.

Still, the first European leader Biden spoke with after his inauguration was Johnson, who was quick to acknowledge the president's victory at a time when his old friend Trump was bitterly fighting it.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters this week that Biden and Johnson have had a couple of phone calls, and he described those conversations as "warm" and "constructive."

"They've been very much down to business," he said.

Northern Ireland, trade deal in focus

Still, the two men aren't starting from a clean slate.

Last year, during the presidential campaign, Biden warned that a post-Brexit, U.S.-U.K. free trade deal could be in jeopardy if peace in Northern Ireland became a "casualty" of Brexit.

One side effect of Brexit has been renewed tension in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, which finally left the EU this year. The Republic of Ireland remains part of the EU.

As part of a deal to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland in the aftermath of a Brexit, a customs border has been created, dividing Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom. In April, that helped trigger some of the worst riots the region has witnessed in years.

Biden, who often talks about his Irish heritage, has warned he would scrap any trade deal if Britain damages the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which brought peace to the region after decades of violence. The EU hopes Biden can press Johnson to abide by his government's agreement to institute the required customs checks along the border.

Johnson is eager to cut a free trade deal with the United States. Although such a deal is not expected to be especially lucrative — trade barriers between the two countries are already low – it would boost Johnson's prestige and help him fulfill his promise to British voters that leaving the EU would free the United Kingdom to make new trade agreements with major economies.

Pandemic recovery, climate change

A U.K.-U.S. trade deal is not particularly high on Biden's agenda. There are other issues, such as pandemic recovery and climate change, that are of importance to Biden — issues where the two men are expected to find significant common ground.

Johnson welcomed Biden's decision to rejoin the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organization. Trump had abandoned both.

After Biden left his meeting with Johnson, the president announced a new donation of COVID-19 vaccines to poorer countries, and said the G7 would have more announcements to makeon the issue on Friday.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
Frank Langfitt
Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.
Franco Ordoñez
Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.