Boris Johnson has a range of political skills, but international diplomacy is not among them. His greatest asset is a campaigning charisma with limited cultural range. The dishevelled look and irreverent bombast are an act aimed at a domestic audience. It translates poorly abroad. In the global arena, reluctance to look serious forfeits respect sooner than it wins affection.
That is one reason why Mr Johnson did not acquit himself well as foreign secretary in Theresa May’s government. Another was that he hates serving anyone but himself. As prime minister, he has not sharpened up his act, but he is at least free to pursue his own agenda. What does that mean in foreign policy terms? There is Brexit, of course. But that has been a parochial matter in UK politics – perversely so, given that the country’s orientation in the world is at stake. The domestic debate has consistently lacked global perspective. The remain side failed to communicate the cost of surrendering a seat at European summits. The view that EU membership amplified British power was drowned out by the rhetoric of regaining mythic sovereignty.
Former prime ministers, foreign leaders and veteran diplomats all testified to the loss, but their voices went unheard in reporting that more commonly treated the issues as a Westminster soap opera or a culture war between different regions and demographic tribes. The coronavirus has further accelerated the trend towards insularity. The pandemic is global in scale but hyperlocal in most people’s direct experience. Borders have closed. Movement between parts of the UK has been curtailed. Abroad has felt very distant.
A narrow national discourse suits Mr Johnson’s political idiom. He talks a good game about “global Britain” and “world-beating” industries, but the globe he refers to is a rhetorical device; the world he expects to be beating is an imagined realm populated by caricatures of foreign inadequacy. The coming year will force the prime minister to confront the consequences of games he has been playing since 2016. The UK takes over the annual presidency of the G7 group of leading industrial economies. It is also due to host the Cop26 international climate conference in autumn.
Chairing global summits provides an opportunity for the UK to rehabilitate its reputation as a responsible player on the world stage, although that first requires recognition that the reputation was damaged in the first place. It is only in Britain that Brexit is seen in heroic terms. From the outside, it always looked like a monumental folly and an act of geopolitical self-harm. It was cheered by authoritarians such as Vladimir Putin, who revel in disunity within the club of liberal democracies. It was admired by Donald Trump, who holds the European project in contempt and welcomed anything that sabotaged the architecture of multilateral cooperation.
That is why Mr Johnson’s legal threat to repudiate the Brexit withdrawal agreement in the internal market bill was such a diplomatic blunder. It reinforced the impression, already held in Brussels and by many US liberals, that Britain was in thrall to a version of Trumpism – that the prime minister shared the outgoing US president’s contempt for the rule of law. It cast the UK as a maverick nation that does not feel bound by international treaties. A rogue White House can get away with that approach because other countries have little choice but to bend to the will of a superpower. Britain does not exert that kind of gravity. Conservative displays of disregard for international opinion are reckless and impotent. Inevitably, the UK government backed down on the repudiating clauses, in large part because the election of Joe Biden as the next US president made the Trumpian mode feel suddenly outdated. Johnson’s tribute act looked lonely on the world stage.
The arrival of a Biden administration in Washington will demand significant recalibration in Downing Street. The new president wants to repair relations with Europe. That would once have meant working closely with London – Washington’s traditional bridge to the continent. But Brexit has burned the bridge, so much more of the transatlantic dialogue will be routed via Berlin and Paris.
Mr Johnson will not be cut out of the loop entirely. The UK will continue to be an essential partner for the US, especially in matters of security and defence. Brexit does not reduce the size of the nuclear arsenal, remove the seat at the United Nations security council or make the Five Eyes signals intelligence partnership redundant. The cultural and historical affinity will remain, although US politics is less sentimental about that. The “special relationship” is something that British politicians are always impatient to hear mentioned. It is not an institution.
In terms of raw power, the coming decade will be defined by the continuing rise of China as an anti-democratic superpower and the questions that poses to Europe and the US of how to balance strategic engagement, containment and confrontation. India will also play an increasingly significant role as the global centre of economic gravity shifts further towards Asia. Mr Johnson’s first big trip since taking office will be to New Delhi – underlining a belief, which borders on the delusional with many Tories, that there is specialness in the India-UK relationship too.
In economic terms, on matters of trade preference and standards, the UK will face a binary choice of alignment with Washington or Brussels. There will be no realistic third way. That dynamic will also feed into climate policy, since the coordination of actions to reduce carbon emissions is inseparable from the question of harmonised regulation. Mr Johnson can hog the microphone as chair of the Cop26 summit, but many the big decisions will be made with Britain as a bystander.
Whether measured in hard or soft power, economics or security, the UK has less agency as a lone actor than was promised in Brexit mythology. The task ahead is to reintegrate with allies who have been gratuitously snubbed and to rebuild institutional ties that were neglected while the government was seduced by a creed of vandalistic nationalism. The question for Mr Johnson is whether he can shake off that legacy and return to the path of credible statesmanship. He is not a natural diplomat, but he is capable of pragmatism when it serves his interests. Bringing some strategic realism back to foreign policy would also serve the national interest.
The UK can be an effective and influential force in Europe and the world. It can thrive through global trade. It can, in other words, achieve many of the things that were promised by Brexit ideologues, but only by rejecting their rhetoric, reversing their agenda and repudiating their methods.