Bust up over Churchill is history
By Ricky Browne
Joe Biden has been in office since January 20 and the race for who would be the first foreign head of government to get a call from him is now over.
The first foreign leader that Biden spoke to in his position as US President was Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada. Much to the relief of the British government his first call to a European leader appears to have been to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson who he called on Saturday night.
“Great to speak to President Joe Biden this evening. I look forward to deepening the long-standing alliance between our two countries as we drive a green and sustainable recovery from COVID-19,” Johnson tweeted at 8:42 pm on Saturday.
The tweet was on its way to getting 50,000 likes and had received 7,700 comments by Monday. In it he included a photo of him speaking on the phone to the President.
Other European heads of government appeared to come afterwards, including Ireland, Germany and France.
The call to Johnson comes as a bit of a relief because there was a fear that Britain would be side-lined a bit under the Biden administration. That is because of a few reasons. First, Johnson, a Conservative, had appeared to have a good relationship with Donald Trump, a Republican. Second, Joe Biden had come out against Brexit. Third, Biden had previously warned Britain about not messing with the Good Friday agreement in its negotiations with the EU over Northern Ireland. And last but not least was the fact that Biden, a Roman Catholic of Irish descent, was seen as being potentially, by his nature, not all that warm towards the British.
It didn’t help that the bust of Winston Churchill, which sat in Trump’s Oval Office, was removed by Biden on the day of his inauguration.
The bust is seen by some as a barometer of the state of Britain’s “special relationship” with the US – and had sparked worry 12 years previously, when Barack Obama had removed it, replacing it with a bust of Martin Luther King, or possibly Abraham Lincoln. But the bust wasn’t completely out of the picture, as Obama moved the bust to his private quarters instead.
Nor did it help that Boris Johnson had previously said back in 2016 that Barack Obama was “part-Kenyan” which helped to make him anti-British. The statement had been related to Obama’s removal of the Churchill bust and Obama saying that the UK would have to get to the back of the queue if it left the EU, with Johnson saying in The Sun, “Some said it was a snub to Britain. Some said it was a symbol of the part-Kenyan president’s ancestral dislike of the British empire – of which Churchill had been such a fervent defender.”
Later, Johnson tried to calm the controversy over the comments by saying: “The crucial point is that I’m a big fan of Barack Obama – I was one of the first people to come out in favour of him ages ago.”
But in 2017 many were relieved to see Churchill’s bust return to the Oval Office when Trump became president, only to feel crestfallen when Biden removed it four years later.
The worry was so great this time around, that the US Embassy came out with a statement to explain that the special relationship between the UK and the US was based on much more than Churchill’s bust.
So, even though Britain does not yet have a trade agreement with the US, and even though Janet Yellen, the new Treasury Secretary has suggested that such a deal will not be a main priority, it now appears that the special relationship is not in jeopardy.
READOUT OF THE CALL
Although the media in the UK said that the Prime Minister brought up the subject of the trade deal, the White House made no reference to that in its statement on the call.
In its statement on the call, the White House said:
“President Joseph R. Biden spoke today with Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom. The President conveyed his intention to strengthen the special relationship between our countries and revitalize transatlantic ties, underscoring the critical role of NATO to our collective defense and shared values. President Biden also noted the importance of cooperation, including through multilateral organizations, on shared challenges such as combatting climate change, containing COVID-19, and ensuring global health security. He noted his readiness to work closely with Prime Minister Johnson as the United Kingdom hosts the G7 and United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) this year. The leaders also discussed the need for coordination on shared foreign policy priorities, including China, Iran, and Russia.
Other heads of government that Biden spoke to include Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada and President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of Mexico – both prior to Johnson.
Biden didn’t speak to Emmanuel Macron until Sunday according to the White House. This is what the White house had to say about it:
“President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. spoke today with President Emmanuel Macron of France to express his desire to strengthen bilateral ties with our oldest ally. President Biden also stressed his commitment to bolstering the transatlantic relationship, including through NATO and the United States’ partnership with the European Union. The leaders agreed on the need for close coordination, including through multilateral organizations, in tackling common challenges such as climate change, COVID-19, and the global economic recovery. They also agreed to work together on shared foreign policy priorities, including China, the Middle East, Russia, and the Sahel.”
The White House has not yet released any readouts of conversations with any other foreign leaders.
But before his inauguration it was reported that Biden had spoken to Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin. The Irish government said the two leaders had a “warm conversation” and that Biden “recalled his strong Irish roots and his visit to Ireland with his family in 2016.”
On Monday German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman said she had “expressed the wish for close and trusting future cooperation” during her call with Biden. From the President’s end, it was reported that Biden had praised Merkel’s leadership, and that he “welcomed the opportunity to cooperate on a shared agenda with the EU.”
A NEW RACE
With the race to see who would be the first to talk to the President now over, the new race is to see who will be the first to meet with him in person.
There is some hope from the UK end that Biden’s first port of call outside the United States will be to the United Kingdom to participate in a G7 conference in June.
But it is likely that Biden will be visited by a head of government before that.
REAGAN FIRST MET WITH JAMAICA’S PRIME MINISTER
It shouldn’t really matter too much who is the first leader to talk to the new President of the US, and it makes sense that he would speak to his two neighbours first.
Nor should it really matter who is the first leader to meet with Biden personally.
Back on January 28, 1981 the first foreign leader that Ronald Reagan met with at the White House was Jamaica’s Prime Minister Edward Seaga — just eight days after being sworn in. Seaga had just won an election that pitted his free enterprise supporting Jamaica Labour Party against the ‘democratic socialist’ leaning of the ruling party.
The election was seen as important by the US, especially during the height of the Cold War, as the previous Jamaican Prime Minister had been cozy with Cuba and the Soviet Union.
Reagan spoke warmly to Seaga during the three day official visit, and said:
“Mr. Prime Minister, you are the first head of state to be our guest since I have taken office, and this tells me a great deal, because it speaks to the bond between our two countries. We share the commitment of free people around the world. We also share a personal bond, because we have come to office at nearly the same moment in history. We are both faced with problems, and we both perceive great opportunities for our countries,” Reagan was reported as saying.
Reagan then visited Jamaica on an official visit two years later in April 1982.
But a great deal or not, it didn’t mean that Reagan’s relationship with Seaga would be more special than his relationship with the UK’s Margaret Thatcher. And in fact, it wasn’t.
Later, Britain’s next woman Prime Minister Theresa May became the first foreign leader to visit new US President Donald Trump at the White House in January 2017. That meeting didn’t mean that the special relationship was rock solid though — even with the return of Churchill’s bust.
So while the UK is still a little anxious about its relationship with the new President, particularly as it is now out of the European Union, it needn’t worry too much if Biden should meet with Trudeau or Macron or Martin, — or even Jamaica’s Prime Minister Andrew Holness — before meeting with Johnson in June.