Today Boris Johnson, our actual foreign secretary, opened his mouth. His ill-considered comparison of François Hollande to a Nazi prison guard was not his first gaffe, nor will it be his last. With Trump in the White House – a man so unpresidential even his name is unfit for office – British foreign policy will be more important than ever. We must do better than Boris.
Foreign policy is not the Prime Minister’s area. The very fact of her appointing Johnson in the first place speaks of the regard she has for international affairs. In doing so, she effectively changed the remit of Foreign Secretary from “Chief Diplomat” to “National Mascot”. She needs a good Foreign Secretary that can make smart decisions and offer informed advice. Instead, she has BoJo (or BawJaws as he’s known in Scotland).
In these turbulent times, there are a number of looming challenges that Britain must confront. Neither Johnson nor May are apt to them. The first major diplomatic task we face in the next few years is to maintain good relations with our European allies during and after the acrimony of Brexit. This is not a difficult task – mutual interest makes sure of that – but it would help if we didn’t have a Foreign Secretary making arrogant protestations about Prosecco.
Britain’s long-term relevance as a top-tier world power largely depends on us being able to build a strong relationship with China whilst maintaining our ties with America. With the Donald stoking tensions across the Pacific, and China-sceptic Nick Timothy in the Prime Minister’s ear, this will require deft and intelligence. Britain must build a relationship with China that goes further than mere trade. In response to Trump, China has two options. It could attempt to partially supplant America as a responsible world power, in areas such as climate change – or trade, as Xi Jinping’s Davos speech suggests he’s eyeing up. Alternatively, it could decide to view Trump’s election as justification for the idea that big countries, “great” countries, are allowed to throw their weight around – an ideology that China has thus far espoused. A Britain with a warm relationship with China could nudge it towards the former. A cold Britain could enrage China into the latter.
Another looming challenge comes from the Middle East. If Donald Trump moves the US embassy from Tel Aviv, Israel’s capital, to Jerusalem, a regional crisis could ensue. Israel is a useful ally, but ultimately a disposable one. The Arab states are vital allies. In addition, the Iran nuclear deal offers a real chance to not only reset a historically hostile relationship, but exploit a massive trade opportunity – from oil, to aeroplanes, to arms (as unpopular as these industries are), there is potential for billions in trade. We should be allies with Israel, if Israel makes that easy. Should Israel and Trump cause a regional crisis, with an embassy move, the smart option is for Britain to (cautiously) back our vital Arab allies over our token Israeli ones. May’s response to John Kerry’s speech suggests that, on her own, she would take the daft decision and bow to pressure from Conservative Friends of Israel. A proper Foreign Secretary could guide her towards the smart one. Boris Johnson, in the words of an Israeli embassy official, is “an idiot”.
Boris Johnson, to give him his due, is not a moron. He is certainly cleverer than he seems. This however, is irrelevant. The mere fact that he seems a buffoon is enough to render him unqualified for the post of Britain’s Foreign Secretary. Boris’ primary problem is not speaking before he thinks – though the Nazi analogy was certainly ill-considered, such a colourful simile requires prior thought. His problem is trying too hard to be liked. The character he plays, the lovable buffoon, worked well for him as a well-paid columnist trying to grow a readership. Being a “character” worked well for him as a minimally-powered Mayor of London, where he contributed to winning the London Olympics (though more as a mascot than as a diplomat). But the British people want a Foreign Secretary who evinces competence, even if boring. Boris is not without his charm, but if Britain is to do well in the next four years (assuming Trump doesn’t get impeached), we have to do better than this pretender.