Boris Johnson won a decisive majority in Parliament. He is no longer politically tethered to a Northern Ireland political party. The two main opposition parties will be spending the next months introspecting and replacing their failed leaders, and the anti-Brexit Speaker of the House, John Bercow, is gone. Johnson has a clear run. So, on foreign policy, where is he going to go?
Obviously, the biggest piece of the puzzle is the shape and timing of Brexit. After the election, the EU was quick to say it wanted the UK to pass the deal it had agreed with Johnson during the last Parliament as soon as possible.
That deal was negotiated when Johnson was in a position of weakness—there were strong anti-Brexit elements in Parliament, including in his own party, and an obstreperous Speaker. Politically, Johnson wanted to be able to say that, regardless, he got a deal so he agreed to terms that he might not have accepted otherwise. For example, elements that might make difficult, or delay, trade deals with non-EU countries such as India and the United States.
So far, Johnson is saying he is sticking with this deal, but now he has a much stronger hand to play, including being politically able to walk away with no deal at all. And he will want the win of being able to announce trade deals relatively early in his tenure. US President Donald Trump has been open about his willingness for a “massive” trade deal with the UK. So will he favour the long disengagement from the EU favoured by Brussels, or a quicker exit favoured by Washington (and others)?
Which raises the fundamental question of how Johnson sees the UK’s role in the world. Johnson’s tenure as Foreign Secretary may give some clues.
Under his watch, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) announced the opening of nine new diplomatic posts. All are in Commonwealth countries and all have relatively small populations (Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Eswatini, Grenada, Lesotho, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu). Seven of the nine are island nations. They are countries where the UK used to have a presence, but over time, especially under former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair (1997-2007), the UK withdrew.
These are countries that are “underserved” by the global diplomatic community, while at the same time many of them are experiencing large-scale economic and political intrusion by China.
Johnson’s re-engagement seemed like an effort to try to start to quietly rebuild relationships in places where the West may be losing ground, but the UK is welcome. They are low cost posts, but they quickly position London as leaders in intelligence on the region, increasing its value to allies and partners.
It was a smart move, building on the UK’s role in the Five Eyes and unique position in the Anglosphere/Commonwealth. Given the abundance of island nations on the list, it also revalidated the UK as a country with maritime interests. Johnson is strongly pro-Navy, and has even championed recommissioning a Royal Yacht.
Those, and other, small-scale but targeted and clever moves were likely the limit of Johnson’s scope while Foreign Secretary, but they showed his interest in the Commonwealth, Anglosphere, global reengagement, the Indo-Pacific and the maritime domain. It augured well for his view of future India-UK relations.
Since becoming Prime Minister, there have been other promising signs. After meeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the G7 in September, Johnson said “the UK and India stand shoulder to shoulder in the fight against terror”, that he wanted more military cooperation and, obviously, a “big” trade deal. This is a modern acknowledgement of India as it is, rather than a dated raj-view mirror version of India.
However, while the Prime Minister and the UK’s security, defence and trade silos may understand India’s strengths and sensitivities, there are still many within the bureaucracy, in particular at the FCO, with strong tendencies to see India through the lens of various NGOs.
Johnson will have become aware of that during his time as Secretary—and likely has heard complaints on the hustings. Domestically, there has been a swing from Labour to Conservatives by Brits of Indian origin, a point not lost on Johnson.
Johnson has also appointed several Brits of Indian origin to high profile posts, including Home Secretary Priti Patel. And the mooted post-Brexit skilled-based immigration system will open the door for more Indians. The elements are in place for a vastly improved India-UK relationship, should India want it.
But for Johnson’s vision of a Global Britain to really work, it will take a range of new, and renewed respect-based, informed relationships with countries large and small. And a refocusing of the FCO.
Many a grand idea weakens on implementation. For example, reopening the UK High Commission in Tonga was a bold move. However, it was then announced the UK High Commission would be located on the grounds of the New Zealand High Commission. Influential Tongans received the impression not that Britain was Back, but that Britain was New Zealand’s house guest.
An effectively reengaged UK could be an extremely beneficial geopolitical pivot. On the security front, for example, a stronger London-Delhi relationship could amplify India’s concerns internationally, assist in counter-terror and money laundering investigations and increase maritime domain awareness.
It’s possible. For now, domestically at least, Johnson has a clear run. But he has a long road ahead of him. He’ll have to move fast, before old habits reassert themselves and the opposition regroups.
Cleo Paskal is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.