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Boris Johnson Is the Personification of Britain's Hypocritical Foreign Policy

Having a clown-diplomat unfortunately makes perfect sense.

(Photo by Victoria Jones/PA Wire/PA Images)

It turns out that when it comes to international diplomacy, being a scheming buffoon will only get you to the top job. A man set up by his social class and education to thrive in the heart of the British establishment, Boris Johnson has long combined a talent for personable jocularity with a ruthlessly ambitious desire to say and do whatever it is that brings him more power and attention. Now, as foreign secretary, Johnson is having to trot around on his hind legs, hair just about combed, tie done up, serious look on his face as he plays the part Englishmen like him have played for centuries: duplicitous international salesman and moralising hypocrite masquerading as important globetrotting diplomat.


This week it's all looked a bit beyond him. Having cancelled his long-planned trip to Moscow – US secretary of state Rex Tillerson went instead – Johnson's team talked up their boss's plans to convince the G7 to agree to new sanctions against Russia, as a response to their backing of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Johnson hit the phones like a real life statesman, but completely failed to get a consensus, with Italian foreign minister Angelino Alfano saying the G7 was unwilling to back Russia into a corner.

The media and opposition politicians jumped on him. "The idea of going along to the G7 to try and put together a coalition around sanctions was never going to succeed. It was a bad policy decision by Mr Johnson. It should never have happened," said shadow chancellor John McDonnell.

Johnson has long been criticised for being someone who combines doing a terrible job with an incorrigible love of attention, but as London's mayor – and as a once genuinely popular politician – he could generally brush it aside with the help of a friendly media. Now, with the stakes raised, it's beginning to look as though Boris's big boy pants have come off.

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In this sense, as in many others, Britain's foreign secretary is much like America's new president. With their celebrity statuses, much talked about hair and buffoonish ways and nicknames, Boris and The Donald started at the top and now they're here, playing the part of the serious person. The polling site YouGov even shows a strong correlation between Trump and Johnson. Of course, Trump is much more gauche and had no experience of politics before he ran for president, but both men provoke outrage and exasperation (as well as LOLs and cheers) wherever they go.


More importantly, both men reveal something about the sickness eating away at the constituencies they represent. The United States was already a divided country before Trump was elected, and it was already a country riven with deep inequalities and partisan hatreds, a country crumbling and abandoned. Trump is just a potent symbol and potent exploiter of that. The desire to castigate him for his crassness and his idiocy – particularly when it is going to make many people's lives worse – is understandable, but the liberal establishment's obsession with Trump so often focuses on him being unseemly, rather than him being a president whose ideas and policies will make some of the problems he identified during his campaign worse.

Under the cool, PR-friendly Obama, America's political and media class could pretend everything was going swimmingly. Under Trump, they can't, until of course he sends some missiles into Syria, at which point they all gush about him being presidential.

In some sort of parallel, we have Boris, the British Trump. The US president sends in the tomahawk missiles and Washington DC explodes in joy. Boris tries to talk tough on Assad and Russia, and it doesn't quite work. He waddles around on the world stage and we think, 'Fucking hell, is this what we've come to?'

"Britain could play a serious role, but is not serious enough to do so"

Of course, foreign diplomacy has a lot of PR in it, so being seen to be an idiot actively hinders your chances of success on the job. But Boris Johnson, in all his gaffe-prone glory, is merely revealing the problems that were already there. Britain's foreign policy was already muddled, mercantile, hypocritical and lacking in seriousness. It was, and remains, more than ever now, one based on moral grandstanding that has no foundation in history both ancient and modern. Britain condemns Assad but cosies up to Saudi Arabia, which continues to bomb Yemen. Britain talks about its mighty soft power, but refuses to acknowledge the shame of colonialism.


Johnson's recent embarrassment reminded me of a conversation I had last year with a Syrian negotiator who works with rebel groups, as well as foreign powers – one of the many people trying to find some way forward in a complicated and dreadful war. I asked him if Britain could play a positive role in the war and was it serious enough to do so. Yes, Britain could play a serious role, he said, but no: it was absolutely not serious enough to do so. In other words, it had the potential clout, but not the nous, commitment or focus to use it.

I recalled, too, that in years of sporadically reporting on Britain's adventures abroad, representatives of foreign governments and humanitarian groups had often told me a version of the same story – that you could go and have what you thought was a really productive meeting at the foreign office, only to hear the magic words at the end of that meeting, delivered by a British official: "Well, we'll run this by the Americans and get back to you."

Across the world, Britain's subservience to the United States, its adoption of a high moral tone and its various other hypocrisies doesn't go unnoticed, nor does Britain's tendency to put its own craven economic needs first. Boris Johnson can talk about the crimes of Bashar al-Assad – and there are many crimes – but from Saudi Arabia to Egypt, Angola to Ethiopia, Britain puts moral concerns at the bottom of a long list of diplomatic desires – a list headed up by loads and loads of pound signs. At the beginning of the year, Boris Johnson was even sounding vaguely positive about Assad, saying that he could stay on and citing an Iraqi guide who'd told Boris that sometimes its better to have a dictator than no ruler at all. That has so often proved true for Western governments and companies, who find it much easier to exploit the natural resources of countries ruled by strongmen.

On the international stage, Boris Johnson is struggling. This may well be what his boss and political rival, Theresa May, was hoping would happen. Either way, he is merely highlighting what has been there for a long time: a country still clinging to delusions of grandeur, unable to form consistent policies, addicted to cash, profoundly unserious, deeply hypocritical. A country that doesn't know what to do, but can't stop performing.