Of the crimes for which British politicians are most often put in the stocks, “poodleism” – the act of being perceived to sit obediently at the feet of the United States, with not so much as a whimper of dissent – ranks particularly high.
This was the image with which Britain’s political cartoonists had the most fun during the premiership of Tony Blair – though the fashion for depicting British Prime Ministers as different species of canine sycophants really took off with Margaret Thatcher. She was frequently denounced as subservient to Ronald Reagan, no matter how hard she swung her handbag in European capitals.
And although Theresa May is generally more focused on the home front than the international stage, she was not spared the same ritual condemnation following her visit to the White House shortly after President’s Trump inauguration, charged with accepting a steadying hand while navigating a treacherous step.
Now Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, has experienced a full blast of the same treatment, churned up in one of those familiar angst-ridden national post-mortems of Britain’s place in the world.
The two-part saga began with the Foreign Secretary’s decision, taken in the wake of the Syrian regime’s latest chemical weapons attack on civilians, to cancel his own visit to Moscow to meet his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov.
Just hours before his flight departed, he stepped aside to allow Rex Tillerson, the US Secretary of State, who has not been a hyperactive holder of the office so far, to lead the charge. This was so that the West could present a united front to Russia, in expressing condemnation of Putin’s continued support of the Assad regime.
Then followed the G7 meeting in Italy two days later, when Mr. Johnson attempted to put some meat on the bones of this new approach. He led calls for new sanctions on Russia, on the grounds of its support of Assad, but was not able to achieve the necessary consensus. In the view of Italy’s foreign minister, Angelino Alfano, who vetoed the move, Russia “must not be pushed into a corner”. The united front was not so united after all.
Within the space of a few days, Boris found himself chided for stepping out of the spotlight for Tillerson, and chided for stepping back in, with his attempt to lead on new sanctions. It also meant that another favourite canard of the commentariat – that Britain should give upon on its delusional attempts to “punch above its weight” – was regurgitated and repeated ad nauseam in the dissection of the G7 meeting that followed.
On BBC’s Newsnight, Evan Davis rolled out an old favourite: that it would be better if the UK stopped pretending to be anything other than a medium-sized power like Norway. Poor Norway: it rarely escapes these periodic lashes of British self-flagellation unscathed.
It was left to Emily Thornberry, the Shadow Foreign Secretary – not famed for her nostalgia for Empire – to demur, listing the long line of British international assets from a seat on the UN Security Council to, of course, deep reserves of “soft power”.
The second part of Boris’s manoeuvre – the attempt to nudge the G7 towards new sanctions – was certainly a gamble. But it is hard to see that it did any lasting damage to British foreign policy. The role of diplomatic lieutenant to the US is one which the UK has played many times before, in much more controversial circumstances. Tony Blair’s attempts to add multilateral legitimacy to the Iraq War, by seeking a second Security Council resolution at the UN, is just one example of just how vexatious such efforts can be.
By contrast, it is a vast exaggeration – and one which is not unconnected to the fact that feelings over Brexit still run so high – to suggest that the G7 summit is the moment at which the wheels fell off British diplomacy, or the final nail was hammered into the coffin of national decline. After all, the UK was taking a lead on a matter of principle rather than playing a dastardly game.
Nor, it should be noted, was the Foreign Secretary going off piste, as he has been accused of doing in the past. In this case, he had the full encouragement (£) of the Foreign Office, who thought agreement could be reached.
It is worth considering this in a wider context. In the first instance, the willingness of the United States to do something – even something more symbolic than substantive, in the form of a limited airstrike on the Assad regime – was so welcome that Britain had no problem stepping aside.
Let us be honest about the sequence of events. The UK was not as closely involved as it has been with past American military actions in the Middle East. In fact, the Foreign Secretary had suggested taking the matter to the UN Security Council before Trump launched the strike, and had no thought of pursuing that route. The Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, was reportedly “consulted” by his counterpart, General James Mattis, but the UK was not asked for its opinion, or to play any part in the operation.
Nonetheless, paving the way for American leadership is rarely a problem for a British Foreign Secretary. It is the absence of American leadership that causes sleepless nights – and has been the greatest concern about the likely course taken by the Trump administration.
After all, the British experiment of “leading from the front” in the Middle Easter and North Africa has not been a happy one. It was trailed in Libya in 2011 – a direct product of President Obama’s desire to “lead from behind” – and again with Syria in 2013, the last time the “red line” on chemical weapons was crossed.
In both cases, David Cameron was far more eager to take action than Barack Obama. In both cases, due to the force of circumstances, the choreography was botched and the results were deeply damaging.
Contrary to the lazy assumption that Trump is a narrow isolationist, it is quite clear that he takes a certain enjoyment from setting the international agenda. The nature of his foreign policy worldview is not yet fully formed, but there is – at the very least – greater elasticity to his understanding of “America first” than has previously been assumed. It is more expansive, for example, than that of his adviser Steve Bannon, who is said to have opposed the strike and therefore been further sidelined.
There are many reasons why Trump decided to carry out the missile strike against the airbase from which the chemical weapons were launched. Most have to do with perceptions of power and prestige. Undoubtedly, one consideration was the opportunity to distinguish himself from Obama and to demonstrate the continued virility of America power.
In this respect, the timing was better still for the fact that he was enjoying chocolate cake with President Xi when his generals informed him that the attack had been carried out successfully. Most important, arguably, is his willingness to give those generals greater latitude of action than they have had for decades.
Still, very few observers expected Trump to emphasise such a clearly stated humanitarian rationale in his first serious foreign policy act as president. And it is unlikely that this is the dawn of a new era of liberal benevolence from the United States, with Britain once again faithfully by its side.
Of course, those that are most allergic to perceived poodleism will continue to make their case for an alternative course. Thus Emily Thornberry, in a chapter for a newly published Fabian Society pamphlet, The Age of Trump, urges the UK to distance itself from America and stand up for “human rights” by working more closely with European powers.
But what better humanitarian outcome would this have entailed? At the G7, it was those European powers who were swiftest to fall back into a version of “realpolitik” when it came to sanctions on Russia.
There is still potential for an unsettling swing in Trump’s foreign policy – back towards Russia, for example – in a way that leaves the UK unprepared and exposed. Trump has already sent out a tweet keeping the door open to such a rapprochement.
Things will work out fine between the U.S.A. and Russia. At the right time everyone will come to their senses & there will be lasting peace!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 13, 2017
The certainties of previous eras are not so entrenched as before, and we would be foolhardy to presume that the world will go back to type after a succession of political earthquakes.
Nonetheless, the British government’s decision to embrace the Trump administration looks prescient. While there was undoubted discomfort about Trump’s tone, it was calculated that America was not quite ready to give up on leading on issues such as Syria, that it remained the best guarantor of some of sort of international order, and that the denunciation of Nato as “obsolete” would soon simmer down once its members showed some mettle.
Added to this was a conviction that cooler heads in the national security establishment, such as General Mattis, would make their voices held.
In the short term, too, the elevation of H.R. McMaster as National Security Advisor has proved even more stabilising than the most optimistic commentators suggested.
When the bigger picture is considered, the situation does not look as bad as so many feared. Certainly, it hardly encourages the latest efforts – now advocated by Emily Thornberry, but a periodic obsession for many in the British foreign policy debate – to bet on a post-American world.