OWhen Boris Johnson became Prime Minister, the conventional wisdom was that he was a populist and therefore would act as one. Johnson was seen as a British equivalent of Donald Trump – and all the other figures, movements and parties around the world who have been identified as “populists”.
However, the concept of populism has always obscured as much as it has enlightened – especially when it comes to Brexit and Boris Johnson. In terms of the UK’s wider foreign policy – as opposed to its approach of withdrawing and negotiating a new relationship with the European Union itself – it does not help us to understand what, if anything, made Johnson’s approach different from his predecessors as prime minister. minister or what, if anything, might remain of his approach after he leaves office.
It’s hard to separate Johnson’s approach from when he became prime minister. After the British people’s vote to leave the EU in 2016, Johnson probably did more than anyone to shape the shape it took – and he played a particularly important role in shaping post-EU foreign policy. Brexit.
It all started with a slogan: “Global Britain”. Many have dismissed it as signifying either some sort of neo-colonial approach to the world – as if the UK was about to try to reclaim its lost empire – or as absurd hubris that was completely out of touch with the importance of Britain in international politics in the 21st century, or even with geography. However, over the past three years it has started to take shape and feel more real and realistic than it initially did.
A key moment in this emergence of a post-Brexit foreign policy was the publication of the Integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy last March. When it was published, much attention was paid to the idea of a ‘swing’ to the Indo-Pacific region and some in Europe feared the UK would abandon them – even though the review itself has repeated that the Euro-Atlantic area remained the UK’s priority. . In fact, in its clear identification of Russia as an acute threat, it now seems prescient.
However, as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, the UK has also sought to make a contribution to security in the Indo-Pacific region. This aspiration was also rejected as prideful. But when the aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth II led a multinational strike group in the Indo-Pacific last year, it demonstrated the role the UK could play as part of a coalition of nations seeking to dissuade China from acquiring territory by force.
The UK has also applied to join the CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership), the trade deal involving 11 Pacific nations that had been the centerpiece of Barack Obama’s “pivot” to Asia but was dropped by Trump when he became President of the United States. This again illustrated the differences between Trump and Johnson – while Trump took a mercantilist approach to trade, Johnson insisted that the UK was a champion of free trade, even as it erected trade barriers with the UK. EU, its largest trading partner.
Perhaps the most important, and most overlooked, aspect of the integrated review was the shift in approach it signaled from the mantra of a “rules-based international order”. In a more competitive world, according to the review, it is no longer enough to defend the status quo. Instead, the UK needed to take a much more proactive and dynamic approach to shaping the world – with its partners, of course, but also take the lead where it might.
The war in Ukraine has changed Johnson’s perception, especially in countries like Poland, where the first reaction to the announcement of his resignation was to wonder if his successor would be as committed to defending Ukraine as he the summer. In reality, however, another British Prime Minister would probably have taken a rather similar approach to war – although, for example, they might not have been as quick to show up in Kyiv with Volodymyr Zelenskiy as Johnson.
Ultimately, where Johnson may have made a difference — and who might outlast him — is in regaining a sense of agency. For several decades since the end of the Cold War, British foreign policy had been on autopilot, largely driven by outdated liberal assumptions and City interests. Johnson showed that we have choices and we can do things. His successors may make different choices than his, but they will do so in a context created during the three years he was prime minister.
Hans Kundnani is Head of the Europe Program at Chatham House