Expert View

Boris Johnson makes pig’s ear of Syria response

by David Hannay | 15.04.2017

David Hannay is a member of the House of Lords and former UK ambassador to the EU and UN.

Practising British diplomacy following last year’s referendum outcome and the election of Donald Trump was never going to be easy. But that still does not justify the pig’s ear which the foreign secretary made of the response to Assad’s poison gas attack on civilians in Idlib province. A bit more caution and humility might have brought a bit less humiliation.

The hard fact is that those two electoral events in 2016 have shaken the twin foundations on which Britain’s foreign policy has been based for the last 45 years, our ability to influence policy formulation in Washington and our role as a leading shaper of EU policy in Brussels. It is no good behaving as if those two shocks had not happened, and as if Britain could simply sail into the G7 meeting at Lucca and lay down the law without any serious advance preparation. The Foreign Secretary may believe his own propaganda about “global Britain”, outside the EU, having a major independent role in responding to international developments, but the others round the G7 table do not. And an advance blast of megaphone diplomacy did nothing to change that.

Pulling out of his official visit to Moscow may indeed have been the lesser of two evils, but Boris Johnson was at first unusually coy about his reasons for doing so. The rationale of leaving the US secretary of state to deliver a unified message from the G7 meeting could have made sense if the foreign secretary had not then, without any help from anyone else, ensured that Rex Tillerson did not arrive in Moscow with a unified message.

And how much effect could those proposed sanctions on a list of Syrian and Russian individuals have been expected to have if they had not received such a frosty welcome in Lucca? The track record of such sanctions on individuals, as opposed to wider economic sanctions, is not an impressive one in terms of bringing about a change of policy or of genuinely producing adverse effects on the aggressor. They were certainly unlikely to have produced any progress towards the only worthwhile objective to pursue, convincing Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers that they could not hope to achieve victory on the battlefield and that they needed to come back to the negotiating table in Geneva and work seriously for a negotiated outcome to the Syrian civil war.

And how too does this fiasco fit in with the objective set out so boldly, and wisely, in the prime minister’s recent letter to the president of the European Council of “continuing to work together to advance and protect our shared European values … to ensure that Europe remains strong and prosperous in the world, projecting its values and defending itself from security threats”? Not at all, is the short answer. You cannot hope to achieve those objectives if you are not prepared to listen to and take into account the views of the other main European players. And you do need to stop cutting their meetings and insulting their leaders publicly if you want to make real progress.

Let us hope that Boris Johnson will have learned from the mistakes he has made. So far there is little sign of his doing so.

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    Edited by Hugo Dixon