Never the diplomat? Britain’s new foreign policy chief Boris Johnson

In his superb analysis of the evolution of diplomacy in his book "Naked Diplomacy", Tom Fletcher, the former British Ambassador to Lebanon, outlines four public stereotypes of the British diplomat: the Ferrero Rocher Ambassador, the aristocratic amateur, Perfidious Machiaval and the hopeless chump.

Britain’s new Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, has been portrayed as something of all four. Few will be surprised if Boris does not enjoy the social elements of the diplomatic circuit, shmoozing and trying to charm all before him. Boris is also caste as a public school buffoon acting totally independently with a freelance approach to policy, often making it up on the hoof. During the Brexit campaign he was accused of only supporting getting out for his own ambitions, a ‘Remainer’ in ‘Leave’s’ clothing. The result was neither camp ever quite trusted him. As for hopeless chump, Johnson is laden with an encyclopaedic litany of gaffes and diplomatic disasters. After all, has there ever been a Foreign Secretary coming into office having insulted the US president (“the part-Kenyan president’s ancestral dislike of the British empire”), as well as the two rival nominees to replace him (Hilary Clinton was like a “sadistic nurse in a mental hospital”, while Donald Trump was “clearly out of his mind”)? Some may not be too upset that he compared Russian President Vladimir Putin to Dobby the house elf from Harry Potter.

So when the new Prime Minister, Theresa May offered her erstwhile rival the keys to the Foreign Office and one of the world’s most extensive and professional diplomatic services, there was a collective gasp of amazement. No British politician has offended so many countries with such great effect, both allies and enemies. He has smeared entire continents as he did with Europe and Africa, when he claimed it would be better off if the colonial powers were invited back, and likened Africans to “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”.

A crazy appointment? Perhaps, if you buy solely into this thumbnail sketch. Despite the clownish image, Boris Johnson is a highly educated man, brilliant at times if rash. He will rock the diplomatic boat, guilty of all manner of political and diplomatic incorrectness but he may also evolve an energetic brand for the UK, and cut through that other diplomatic stereotype of the dull plodding, bureaucratic mandarin.

Johnson’s time to shine?

Johnson knows this is his opportunity, maybe the last, to prove his detractors wrong. Being underestimated maybe an advantage. For the time being he knows that May is untouchable so putting his leadership ambitions aside, he has to concentrate on maximising the opportunity given him. He will no longer be distracted by his weekly newspaper column, the scene of most of his more colourful language.

On the plus side, Johnson does possess many skills required. In Brussels, he impressed his counterparts by speaking in French, not something every Foreign Secretary is able to do. He is an internationalist trumpeting in an outward-facing Britain, who, as Mayor of London, did travel to many major British allies. He is creative and not just with words, persuasive and armed with a capacious memory. Should Britain need to amplify certain key messages, he is tailor-made for loudspeaker diplomacy, guaranteed an audience and plenty of attention. The flip side is that he is no diplomatic stealth weapon.

Despite the clownish image, Boris Johnson is a highly educated man, brilliant at times if rash.

Chris Doyle

In terms of the Middle East, he is not intrinsically hostile to any party but will need likewise to hurdle his past statements. It may surprise some but he has a more than passing knowledge of the history of Islamic science. He is proud of his part-Turkish ancestry even if that will count for little with President Erdogan who may not forgive Boris’s poetic reference to his love of goats. Palestinians will not quickly forget his dismissive abuse of those who support Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel. Syrians will be suspicious of a man who wrote “Bravo for Assad” though he has been quick to restate the UK’s position that Assad must go, however unlikely a scenario that is. Like his predecessor he will prioritise trade over human rights not least after Brexit.

It will be a vertiginous learning curve for Johnson, as indeed it is for nearly every incoming foreign minister of most states. In this first two weeks, he has visited Brussels, the United States and hosted a conference on Syria and Yemen as well as coping with the failed coup in Turkey and the Nice attacks. Aside from the awkward face-palm moments in a press conference with US Secretary of State John Kerry, he has emerged largely unscathed even if he was too hasty in his assessment of the Munich killings as being due to terrorism from the Middle East. For the time being, the likelihood is that it will a Boris that is carefully restrained and reined in. The global scene is too delicate and crisis-ridden.

But for those engaging Boris for the first time – expect copious Latin citations (with John Kerry, it was obiter dicta or incidental remarks) and language redolent of P.G Woodhouse mixed with the latest from the urban dictionary so he will be railing against gabbling foam-flecked malingerers and raffish boffins and their balderdash, while celebrating the derring-do of a multitude of young thrusting diplomats.

Nothing will be predictable with Boris, except for knowing that the road ahead will not be dull.
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Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. He tweets @Doylech.

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 13:58 - GMT 10:58
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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