For the second time in a month, Britain has given the Washington foreign policy establishment a surprise, and not a wholly pleasant one. First there was the startling news of Brexit. Now there is Boris Johnson as foreign secretary.
“In the same way Brexit undermined the British relationship with the EU, Boris Johnson will undermine the British relationship with the rest of the world,” said Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, a political consulting firm headquartered in New York. “So you’ve got the map covered at this point.”
Johnson arrives in his new post under new British prime minister Theresa May with unusually heavy baggage. On Thursday the Washington Post, ever influential among US policymakers, published a digest of his past gaffes under a headline that drew attention to a 2007 Daily Telegraph column in which he backed Hillary Clinton for president and wrote of her: “She’s got dyed blonde hair and pouty lips, and a steely blue stare, like a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital.”
In the column, Johnson suggested that Americans should vote for Clinton to put her husband, former president Bill Clinton, back in the White House. “If Bill can deal with Hillary, he can surely deal with any global crisis,” Johnson wrote.
The Post also highlighted his recent opinion column in the Sun which, responding to Barack Obama’s opposition to Brexit, claimed that the “part-Kenyan president” harboured an “ancestral dislike of the British empire – of which Churchill had been such a fervent defender”.
On Thursday Obama’s press secretary, Josh Earnest, was asked if he would now seek an apology. “I did not come out here prepared to demand an apology,” Earnest said in the White House press briefing room. “I came out here to express our firm commitment to moving forward with the new leadership of the UK to further strengthen and deepen the special relationship that exists between the UK and the United States.”
Earnest insisted: “That relationship transcends any single personality and choices that are made by the British government about who will represent them on the international stage are, rightly, choices that should be made by British leaders and British leaders alone. But whomever they choose is up to to them. The decision that we will make is to seek to deepen and strengthen our special relationship with the UK regardless of who serves in a position as prominent as foreign minister.”
It has been widely noted that Britain’s vote to leave the EU was championed by Johnson and lauded by Clinton’s election rival Donald Trump, another flamboyant figure known for his outlandish statements and hair. The Clinton campaign did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday.
New York-born Johnson’s reputation is likely to draw more attention than usual when he makes his first visit to Washington, analysts said, but he remains a relatively unknown quantity in the US and has the chance to make a fresh start. It was also pointed out that Liam Fox, the new international trade secretary who has longstanding US ties, and David Davis, new secretary for leaving the EU, could be equally important in handling the UK’s newly complicated trade relations with both the EU and the US.
John Kerry, the US secretary of state, called his new counterpart on Thursday and agreed that the US-UK special relationship was “as essential as ever”, spokesman John Kirby said. Kerry also “stressed US support for a sensible and measured approach to the Brexit process and offered to stay engaged as the UK government develops its plans”.
The two ministers also spoke briefly about the situation in Syria and the broader Middle East and agreed to meet at next week’s Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels, Kirby added.
Obama had warned that a Brexit vote would send Britain to the back of the queue for trade talks. But senior Republicans welcomed the outcome and called for a new US-UK bilateral trade deal. Some experts at Washington thinktanks warned of scepticism, not necessarily because of Johnson’s reputation for gaffes and buffoonery but rather over his ability to handle the forthcoming Brexit negotiations.
Thomas Wright, director of the Project on International Order and Strategy at the Brookings Institution, said: “There is concern but it’s less to do with him and his personality and more that this is the most complicated negotiation Britain has faced since the war and there’s some concern over whether this team are up to it. Are Johnson and Davis capable of pulling off? It’s very difficult and complex and the signs are not encouraging.”
Wright added: “I don’t think his past comments on Obama and Clinton really matter. People will acknowledge those as quips. There will be determination to avoid the mistake the French made by calling Johnson a liar on his first day. You’ll see determination by officials to show there’s a good, strong working relationship and no concern about his bluster.”
Johnson is not known by most Americans and was even unknown among senior politicians until recently, Wright said. “But he could become very famous very quickly.”
Frances Burwell, vice-president of EU and special initiatives at the Atlantic Council, noted Johnson’s success as London mayor and agreed that his past comments would be politely forgotten. “What is said in campaigns is one thing, but when they sit down in a meeting and work together, I find it just happens. The priority has to be what the US-UK relationship is going to look like in the future.
“The first question John Kerry will ask is how fast is the process going to go and what can we do to make it run smoothly without further ruptures, rather than what did you say about the president’s Kenyan heritage?”
Luke Coffey, director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation, said: “The special relationship has got through Suez so I think it can get through some flippant comments made by someone who was not in the job he is in now.”
Coffey, a former special adviser to Fox when he was defence secretary, added: “Overall, what Theresa May has done with the Brexit wing sends the right message to the world that Britain really is open for business. No one can accuse these people of being Little Englanders.”
Bremmer, however, vehemently disagreed, describing Johnson as the “antithesis of diplomacy” and suggesting the decision to give him the Foreign Office was all about strategy within the Conservative party. “The message we are getting from the UK consistently is you don’t care about your international standing. It is not a priority at all for the government or the nation.”
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