How Boris Johnson’s confused handling of the Iran crisis highlights Britain’s absent foreign policy

The PM's approach has been “scattered, reactive and random”

January 21, 2020
Johnson cited council funding to support services. But that won't be enough. Photo: WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto/PA Images
Johnson cited council funding to support services. But that won't be enough. Photo: WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto/PA Images

The problem with Boris Johnson, one senior official who worked closely with him at the foreign office once told me, is that he is “very enthusiastic about what’s in front of him at the moment.” Diplomats who worked with him were endlessly frustrated that he would, as another official put it, “jump from one thing to another.” He reacted to events, but showed little interest in developing a strategy.

It is perhaps not surprising then that a man who left no legacy at the foreign office has shown a similar lack of interest in foreign policy now he has moved across Whitehall to No 10. In his first big foreign policy test as prime minister—the assassination of Iran’s military leader, Qassem Soleimani, and its global fallout—Johnson has been “leading from behind,” Peter Ricketts, a former head of the foreign office, told me. “I’m not sure it works so well,” he added with diplomatic understatement. John Casson, who spent several years as David Cameron’s foreign policy adviser, is similarly unconvinced. “What is his approach to the Middle East? His positioning has been scattered, reactive and random.”

*** Johnson was on holiday in Mustique when the attack was carried out and refused to come home. In his absence, the foreign office stalled—no one knew the right line to take. “Because we don’t have an agreed strategy with the Americans,” said Ricketts, “nobody had a plan for it.” Would the UK follow the path set out by Theresa May and stick with its European allies? Or would the combination of the lure of a potential trade deal with the US and the fear of what the 45th president of the United States might tweet in anger, draw the UK back across the Atlantic?

Johnson, once he returned, tried to find a middle way. He signed on to a statement by the so-called E3 (UK, France and Germany) that called for de-escalation, but he also tickled the tummy of Trump, using an interview with the BBC to criticise the Iran nuclear deal in terms he would appreciate (“it was negotiated by Obama”) and appealing to the president’s narcissism by praising his dubious deal-making abilities and calling for a “Trump deal.” (The US president, naturally, was happy, later tweeting his thanks.)

We should get used to this “tricky and uncomfortable straddling,” as Ricketts describes it. For several decades—at least since the end of the Cold War—the UK’s foreign policy has relied on three pillars: its alliance with the US, its membership of the European Union and its own hard and soft power. The US alliance has been fraying since Iraq and torn apart since Trump, while the UK is leaving the EU in a matter of days; meanwhile the UK’s military power has been eroded by its failures in Iraq, a series of spending misadventures and departmental cuts, and a lack of an overarching strategy. Its soft power, for what it’s worth, is still all right.

The lack of a diplomatic and defence strategy has, unsurprisingly, had major consequences. As one former foreign minister described it to me, “we have no way of piecing together different threats. We’re bouncing from issue to issue without having a coherent strategic view.”

The moment things changed, argues Casson, was the vote in the House of Commons on whether to back air strikes against the Assad regime in Syria following a chemical weapons attack. Since then, he claims, Britain “hasn’t played the cards we hold. Who’s bossing events in Libya or Syria or Yemen? Lots of countries lower ranked as nations of power than us—but they are using their power to influence events. We vacated the field for the past six years.”

Ricketts also laments the lack of involvement in international issues. “Britain hasn’t had a leading role in the Ukraine crisis, the Syria crisis, on North Korea, or even Iran. People have got used to the Brits not being around.”

This has been noticed in Washington too. “Long gone are the days of the United Kingdom acting as a bridge between the United States and the rest of Europe,” points out Carisa Nietsche from the Washington foreign policy think tank, the Center for New American Security.

The sense of drift may come to an end soon. The government is planning a wide-ranging review of foreign, defence and security policy that will at least attempt to answer some of the bigger questions about Britain’s role in the world that diplomats and defence officials have been facing over the past few years without much input from their political masters.

Those politicians are not necessarily united though. The government is only a month-old but interesting splits between the big three foreign policy ministers are already beginning to appear. Johnson, as discussed, is reacting to events. Dominic Raab has so far taken a pro-American line on everything of note that has crossed his desk. But more interestingly, Johnson’s new defence secretary Ben Wallace told the Sunday Times that the possibility of America not standing by its allies “keeps [him] awake at night.” Wallace, a former security minister who took his brief seriously, is clearly trying to grapple with the world as it is. Ministry of Defence officials who had little time for Gavin Williamson (and had little time to get to know Penny Mordaunt) speak highly of Wallace so far.

Many of those who work on foreign policy, both in government and outside, welcome the idea of the review—Britain has been without a strategy for too long. But as the government’s response to the latest Iran crisis shows, there is no guarantee it will lead to clarity if the prime minister himself doesn’t know what he wants.