The UK’s “Novice” Foreign Secretary: Boris Johnson’s Big Challenge:

“The magic has gone. It’s no longer one of the great offices of state”. For the columnist Jonathan Friedland in The Guardian on July 16th, the new job allotted to the former London mayor is “merely symbolic” – mainly because “on any topic which counts, prime ministers make their own foreign policy”. He also expressed concern as to whether -with Boris now officially in charge of the country’s diplomacy – “the world will continue to take the UK seriously”.

According to Jonathan Powell (former chief of staff to ex-PM Tony Blair) in an interview  with BBC News, “due to modern communications, the proliferation of foreign policy advisors to heads of government and Britain’s diminishing global role”, the position of Foreign Secretary is not quite as prestigious as it once was. Similarly, Lord William Hague (Conservative Foreign Secretary 2010 – 2014), has pointed out that relations between states are no longer “monopolised” by the top Government Ministers, but are also heavily influenced by “the mass of connections between individuals, civil society, businesses, pressure groups and charitable organisations in an increasingly networked world”.

Despite this, the position of Foreign Secretary is still ranked at number four in the UK Cabinet, preceded only by Prime Minister Theresa May, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Home Secretary. The Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) website states its priorities as being “protecting our people, projecting our global influence , promoting our prosperity, safeguarding both global & UK security and supporting British nationals around the world though modern and efficient consular services”.

To achieve these objectives, the FCO works with a range of international organizations, “including NATO, the United Nations, the UN Security Council, the Commonwealth and (for the moment) the EU”.

Boris Johnson’s remit extends to “oversight of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and the Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) based in Cheltenham.

The FCO’s website lists 22 current “key policies”, among them: Climate change impact in developing countries, conflict in “fragile states”, cyber security, human rights, the UK’s overseas territories and piracy off the coast of Somalia. It also notes that – despite reduced income from the Treasury – it continues to employ over 14,000 staff in nearly 270 embassies, consulates and diplomatic offices around the world.

On 19th July, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee published a report detailing the impact that “Brexit” will have on the FCO’s budget and resources. It was adamant that the new Government should commit to “a substantial increase in the funding available to the FCO commensurate with the enormity of the task it now faces” and furthermore that the FCO should be free to use the additional amount “wherever in the world it deems necessary, on the programmes or personnel it considers essential to support the country’s reputation, security, values and prosperity throughout this period of transition”.

The Committee described as “gross negligence” the decision of the Cameron Government not to instruct key Departments such as the FCO to plan for the possibility that the electorate would vote to leave the EU – a failure which “has exacerbated post-Referendum uncertainty both within the UK and amongst its principal international partners”.

The Report also reiterated the alarm expressed by the same Committee four years previously regarding the continuing cuts in the FCO’s operating budget – which have resulted in British embassies being “very thinly stretched” and consequently their operational capacity being undermined. In 2012, the Committee had emphasized that a central necessity for the FCO is that it should “command deep geographic understanding of countries and regions, including knowledge of foreign languages”.

This latter criteria is one that Boris Johnson – notwithstanding all the criticism recently directed at him – certainly fulfils. He speaks fluent French, German and Russian and is a fierce advocate of the study of ancient Greek and Latin, which he has described in the “Daily Telegraph” as “great intellectual disciplines” and “a giant universal spanner for other languages”.

Boris was born in New York City on 19th June 1964. His full name is “Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson” and his great-grandfather, Ali Kemal” was a Turkish journalist and briefly interior minister in the government of Ahmed Tevfik Pasha, Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire.

Is Boris the right person, though, for the Foreign Secretary post? Opinion is divided. The American magazine,“The Atlantic”, concedes that Boris is “one of the more cosmopolitan figures on the world stage” – but also that he’s one of the “least diplomatic”. Richard Morgan, a writer for the Washington Post, considers that his appointment constitutes “cunning punishment” as he will now have to “tidy a stain (Brexit) of his own making”. A Guardian editorial on 15th July sighed that the designation of Boris was “no joke at all” and that “comparing Hillary Clinton with a psychiatric nurse is unlikely to be forgotten, either here or in the US, if she’s elected President”.

The “Economist” journalist .Anne McIlvoy, insisted in the London Evening Standard on 14th July that “Foreign Secretary Boris is not as mad or unthinkable as it sounds” and suggested that he could prove quite adept at listening to reports from ambassadors and shaking hands with his counterparts from other countries”.

In the Sunday Times on 17th July, Adam Boulton of Sky News declared that this could be Boris’s moment “to prove himself and his Department” and in the same newspaper, Bojan Pancevski reported that, “after all the sniggering, the Eurocrats of Brussels are now queuing up to meet him on his first official trip to the EU capital this week”.

Thomas Ryan in “the National Student” believes that – because Boris won’t have direct responsibility for the Brexit negotiations or for “urging states to trade more with Britain and reduce commercial barriers” – he will be able to focus on the “mammoth task of repairing Britain’s reputation as an outgoing, ambitious world power”. Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for President Putin, has expressed confidence that the “burden” of Boris’s current position “will lead him to use a rather different rhetoric of a more diplomatic nature”.

Jonathan Powell has portrayed the job of Foreign Secretary as “unique in the British Cabinet”: The occupant has to “Look out at the wider world, spend a lot of time in airport departure lounges and in foreign capitals, yet still somehow manage to stay connected to UK politics”. Whether Boris Johnson can find a balance between these conflicting requirements could determine his prospects of eventually succeeding Theresa May as Prime Minister

Filed under: Politics | Posted on July 24th, 2016 by Colin D Gordon

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