In British politics, everyone now loves President Joe Biden. That the UK opposition parties are foundation members of the Biden appreciation club is not surprising. Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens all identify most naturally with the Democrats and thus with the new administration in Washington. But the changing of the guard at the White House this week has won strikingly broad support across the entire political spectrum too.
Many Conservatives now take an enthusiastic view of Mr Biden as well. In some cases this is hard to believe – or forgive. Not long ago, many of the same Tory politicians who now enthuse about Mr Biden tried to bet the house on Donald Trump. Theresa May rushed to Washington to court him. Michael Gove conducted a gushing interview. Boris Johnson said he should get the Nobel peace prize. A US trade deal was obsessively talked up. Today, these same politicians are all friends of Joe and behave as if they barely knew Mr Trump.
Even so, the resetting of the dial with America is welcome. But if it is not to be merely opportunistic, it must be accompanied by more honesty, humility and clarity. Mr Trump was never the ally that the last two prime ministers imagined. He was never going to agree a good trade deal. He was always an embarrassment. And he was always a threat to the democratic and liberal values that Britain and the United States once stood for and which went absent without leave after 2016.
Over decades, British leaders have often tended to exaggerate Britain’s importance to the US. Mr Johnson, an inveterate truth stretcher, is the same. The necessary modesty about what is realistically possible in the post-Trump era will not come naturally to him. The security relationship undoubtedly remains strong and important. But the new starting point should be the recognition that, in different ways, Britain and America are emerging from unprecedentedly difficult eras internally and in their international relations, for which they themselves bear responsibility.
In any event, there can and should be no instant return to some of the US-UK relationships of the recent past. The two countries are not cold war allies, because there is no cold war. They are not military interventionist allies either, because there is no appetite in either country for such projects after Afghanistan and Iraq. Neither Mr Biden nor Mr Johnson is proposing some new grand strategic project.
This ought to be a phase of rebuilding in US-UK relations. After the past four years, neither country is in a position to preach to others about democratic institutions and values. The US has just survived a potential coup, supported by a significant proportion of its citizens, to overthrow an election result. Britain has just backed down from a threat to get its way in relations with Europe by breaking international law. It has needlessly damaged relations with Ireland, our nearest neighbour, from which Mr Biden proudly traces his origins. It has now started a petulant row over the EU’s diplomatic status.
This is not the way to win friends and influence people. Britain needs allies in the wake of Brexit and amid the rise of Asia and the waning of American global hegemony. Values and interests such as democracy and the rule of law matter in those alliances. To that end, Britain must make more and better use of soft power assets like the BBC, its universities and the aid budget. Mr Biden’s arrival in office opens up new international possibilities on issues like Covid, climate and internet freedom. But we need to be realistic. Britain must treat partnership seriously, not pick fights we do not deserve to win or make claims we can never hope to fulfil without allies.