Washington “Takes Control” from Boris Johnson - Brexit Britain’s Foreign Policy

The week has seen many sights. The most grotesque was, of course, Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people. It would not be correct to say that, by launching air strikes on Syria, Trump’s response was a policy u-turn. He had no policy. Worryingly, he still has no policy.

In comparison with this, much else seems small. The debate has been predictable. Many have called Trump “presidential” - and he has received some unexpected support.

The reaction to that support has been squalid and petty. It should not be too difficult to be relieved that Trump’s actions recognised that a red line - the use of chemical weapons have been prohibited by the Hague Convention for over a century - had been crossed but also worry that his unpredictable actions were without UN sanction and before any thorough investigation had taken place.

Many were in favour of such a response in 2013, when Trump was not. Trump’s strikes - whether right or wrong - do not obscure his many failings as president. So much criticism here is an attempt to polarise a debate in the face of truly horrific events. As such, they should be dismissed and no more.

One of the other sights was the unexpected, and dramatic, cancellation of the Foreign Secretary’s trip to Moscow to meet Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister.

As one would expect, Johnson admitted that he had discussed his plans with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The logic of the trip had become that the British foreign secretary would report to the G7 foreign ministers, before Tillerson’s visit later in the week.

There had been predictions that the foreign secretary’s trip would begin a shift from Britain's hawkish stance on Russian aggression. However, Trump’s action have brought him closer to the British government’s position, though the gulf is still wide and may remain so. That the trip is now not taking place suggests that not only is the US administration’s position still being shaped, but also that in a complex landscape Britain, or at least Johnson, is not a trusted intermediary.

There will be dialogue with Russia but Britain is not to be part of that dialogue.

Britain has been sidelined. And Theresa May has allowed her chief diplomat to be silenced

Downing Street has condemned those who have criticised the foreign secretary for playing politics in the face of a civil war. However, Moscow itself has mocked Britain as having “no influence” in the world. Whatever the reality, it certainly looks that way. The cancellation has given the impression of a nation subservient to the United States.

There is clearly a need for a coordinated response, especially with Russia’s language growing more bellicose. However, coordination does not mean absolute unity. Britain has interests of its own that go beyond Russian action in Syria. Johnson himself had talked about the need for UN-backing for any response and the need for investigation. No more.

Europe has formulated its own policy towards Russian aggression in Ukraine. Angela Merkel, aided by the fact that Germany had previously been a close ally, took charge of Western diplomacy that was independent of, but supportive to, American aims under Obama. Although putting troops on the ground was ruled out, Merkel began a policy of using Europe’s financial muscle to counter Moscow’s military might.

Now, Britain has been sidelined. And Theresa May has allowed her chief diplomat to be silenced. The idea that the country can act as a break, or influence, upon America - always fanciful - seems less likely with an unpredictable, unilateralist Trump administration. He may have disappointed his America First supporters, yet it is clear that Trump plays to win - and railroading supposed allies does not matter. And the reality for Britain is that - as we try to secure a rapid trade deal with America - we need them more than they need us.

Perceptions matter. Johnson and May have created the impression of Britain as a dog on a very tight lease. Or, in this case, a dog not allowed out of its kennel.

Theresa May rushed to Washington less than a week after Donald Trump’s inauguration. During that visit she put words into the president’s mouth that he supported Nato “100%”. Her influence with the new president was meant to become one of her bargaining chips with the EU in Brexit negotiations. Had the idea not already been given short shrift, the weekend’s events would have put this firmly to rest.

That it is Johnson, chief Brexiter, who has been personally diminished lends a certain schadenfreude. Brexiters are keen to pounce upon anyone talking Britain down in our strange post-referendum world. It appears that when those people are not in Britain they are not so pugnacious. Pre-referendum it would have been possible for Britain to have been part of a coordinated European position. Not any more.

Those who criticised liberals for “cheerleading” Trump are attempting to take any nuance out of political debate. By backing away from the opportunity to meet his Russian counterpart, Johnson is doing the same.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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