Boris Johnson’s foreign policy agenda foreshadowed by Brexit

Fears are running high in some quarters that Johnson would peel away from the European position and lead Britain into closer alignment with the US.
Saturday 27/07/2019
Boris Johnson speaks at the Conservative Party in London, July 23. (AP)
Brexit year? Boris Johnson speaks at the Conservative Party in London, July 23. (AP)

Until tensions between the United Kingdom and Iran escalated, observers could be forgiven for attempting to map the key foreign policy issues the United Kingdom’s new Prime Minister Boris Johnson would face. They included:

Repairing UK-US relations, which have been badly bruised because the White House is smarting from being described as inept and dysfunctional by former British Ambassador Sir Kim Darroch in leaked diplomatic cables and the fury of British officials at US President Donald Trump’s reaction, which declared Darroch all but persona non grata, leaving him little choice to resign after Johnson chose not to support him in a campaign debate.

Johnson will have to repair diplomatic relations in Europe and address the damage done to the United Kingdom’s reputation, however Brexit pans out. Allies are not just bemused by the loss of British pragmatism, in some capitals there is outright hostility. Johnson once compared the European Union to Nazi Germany, which hardly suggests any real appreciation of the values most Europeans hold dear. How it wishes to cooperate with the European Union after Brexit will require time and diplomatic effort.

The diplomatic dispute over the Hong Kong democracy movement damaged UK-China relations. The Chinese used robust language at British ministers, who pushed back, a response shaped by the leadership contest. Johnson will have to address the questions: Is China a security risk or an economic opportunity? What should Britain do about Huawei, the telecom giant the United States and others fear is too close to the Chinese state?

Will Johnson place himself at the head of a campaign to push back against the culture of strongman politics being promoted by populist power politics of leaders such as Trump and is undermining the international rules-based order and the post-war institutions and values that placed multilateral cooperation between countries and groups of nations ahead of the crude nationalism that wrought so much damage to the 20th century?

The United Kingdom’s foreign policy structure needs to be reformed. Does it make sense to divide the United Kingdom’s international diplomatic effort between the Foreign Office, the Department for International Development, the Department for International Trade and the Department for Exiting the European Union and the National Security Council in the Cabinet Office? Might it not make sense for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to be given oversight over all foreign facing parts of Whitehall in the same way the Treasury has a grip on all domestic spending departments? That assumes Johnson can find time when he is not trying to sort out Brexit.

Iran. The moment British commandos seized an Iranian tanker off Gibraltar in a bold night-time raid, British officials knew — one assumes — they were entering sensitive territory. For more than a year, Britain had been cooperating with France and Germany to save the Iran nuclear deal that Trump abandoned and come up with measures to offset the crushing effects of sanctions on Tehran.

By impounding the Grace I the United Kingdom mounted an operation that Tehran has deemed a hostile act and interpreted as a sign that Britain was aligning itself with the Trump administration’s “economic war” against Tehran.

Michael Burleigh, who holds the Engelsberg Chair of History and International Affairs at London School of Economics, pointed out to the Daily Mail that the United Kingdom justified its boarding of the Iranian-flagged ship by claiming it was transporting crude oil to be refined in Syria. The delivery of oil was said to be in breach of EU sanctions. The problem is that Iran is not an EU member and so no EU sanctions apply to it. Former British Ambassador to the United States Sir Peter Westmacott has questioned the wisdom of seizing the ship.

The United Kingdom was aware of the risks as it raised its threat warning for British vessels passing through Iranian waters to Level 3 — the highest. Unfortunately, a depleted Royal Navy lacks the capacity to mount adequate patrols.

Many British politicians and senior military and members of the diplomatic corps fear the United Kingdom is being sucked ever closer to the hawkish stance on Iran of the United States and, in a worst-case scenario, dragged into a conflict.

Alistair Burt, a Conservative MP and former Middle East minister, has publicly expressed fears that “elements in the United States seeking to draw us into actions about which we might have reservations… keeping Iran in the (nuclear) deal and working with European partners is all in our interests.”

UK officials insist the Grace I seizure had nothing to do with US hawkish attitudes towards Iran but it is worth noting that Spain’s ambassador to Tehran told the Iranian Foreign Ministry that the Iranian tanker had been seized “following a request from the United States to the United Kingdom.”

Even though Britain was supposedly upholding EU regulations, the EU External Action Service, the European Union’s foreign policy arm, has remained silent. Britain has only the lukewarm support of Europe, not over the capture of the British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero, for which there is solidarity, but for the United Kingdom’s decision to seize the Grace I, which led directly to the second incident.

Sir John Sawers, a former head of Britain’s MI6 intelligence service, has spoken of the “underestimation about the consequences” of the seizing of the Grace I and the former British National Security Adviser Peter Rickets has insisted that “preventing an inadvertent escalation into a shooting war is… the immediate priority.”

More strategically, Ricketts argues that recent events are “pulling away from the [nuclear agreement]. That is why, in a way, the initial decision in Gibraltar to stop the tanker was not consistent with our wider strategy with Iran.”

As Burt pointed out regarding a possible “miscalculation” that could lead to war: “We have been here before (Iraq in 2003) when suddenly the United States started to pick out somebody as the demon… Look where that led to.”

It is worth noting that critics of UK policy and calls for de-escalation come from a broad political spectrum, which is unusual. This crisis drops into the lap of the new prime minister whose record of dealing with Iran as foreign secretary went no further than ill-judged remarks about jailed mother Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe that have helped keep her behind bars in Tehran.

As British influence has steadily declined in the broader Middle East — a senior Tunisian official said recently that Britain had simply “vanished into thin air” where Libya was concerned — the manner in which the new prime minister handles the crisis of UK relations with Iran might well define his foreign policy, as much as Brexit, of which he has been an ardent advocate, at least since 2016 if not before.

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