The report on January 15 that Donald Trump had announced there would be a trade deal between Britain and America, to be ‘done quickly and done properly,’ came as a surprise. The British media greeted the impromptu comment with predictable enthusiasm, as if it had been thought through and was ready for instant implementation. It hadn’t, and it isn’t.
There will have to be lengthy negotiations of colossal complexity, and a major player will be Britain’s Department for International Trade. The other main agency involved will be the foreign ministry, and this might present a tiny problem.
Britain’s foreign minister or, to be more formal, Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, is a very clever nincompoop called Boris Johnson. He is amusing, eclectic, physically vigorous in many ways and highly intelligent but sadly lacking in common-sense. Recently it was stated by a member of the Israeli embassy in London, self-described as a ‘senior political officer,’ that Johnson is ‘an idiot with no responsibilities,’ but although the insult may be accurate, the claim that he has no responsibilities is debatable.
Mr Johnson has considerable responsibility for transmission (perhaps less in formulation) of Britain’s foreign policy, and it is intriguing to reflect on how his personal views on foreigners and their countries have developed and are being conveyed to the world.
He visited the United States on 8-9 January and had talks that were «positive but frank» with Mr Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and Steve Bannon, the president-elect’s strategist, but no details were given, which is understandable because the word ‘frank’ decodes as ‘blunt’ and even ‘brusque.’
Last July David Speedie of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs observed that he had ‘read with interest the characterisation of a meeting between Boris Johnson and his French counterpart, Jean-Marc Ayrault, as ‘frank, but useful’,’ and that to his ‘recollection of diplomat-speak, the use of the adjectives ‘frank’ and ‘useful’ was a signal that verbal abuse had been hurled, but proceedings stopped short of fisticuffs.’
It is probable that Mr Speedie’s assessment described the atmosphere at Mr Johnson’s New York meeting, and if so, this would not be surprising because when Johnson was Mayor of London a year ago he declared that Mr Trump was ‘out of his mind.’ He elaborated on this scathing jibe by saying that Mr Trump betrayed ‘a quite stupefying ignorance that makes him unfit to hold the office of president of the United States.’ You can’t be more frank than that.
Mr Johnson objected to Mr Trump’s claim that there are ‘places in London that are so radicalised that police are afraid for their own lives’ and ‘the only reason I wouldn't go to some parts of New York is the real risk of meeting Donald Trump.’
Mr Johnson’s meeting with Mr Kushner and Mr Bannon was in Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, so it seems that the stretch of real estate between Gucci and Tiffany was excluded from his self-imposed exclusion zone in the city of Mr Johnson’s birth.
Mr Johnson has stated he would renounce his US citizenship, but there is no published evidence of this — not that it would make any difference to Mr Trump, because the main point is that the now foreign minister of the United Kingdom comprehensively insulted the new President of the United States who does not readily forgive those who have crossed him.
Mr Trump’s first press conference as president-elect, on January 11, was notable for many things, not least his unforgiving attitude to CNN whose correspondent’s attempts to ask him a question were met with the animated response that ‘you are fake news.’ Even the BBC came in for a slanging, while BuzzFeed, which had published unsubstantiated scandal concerning his alleged lecherous behaviour during a visit to Russia was called a ‘failing pile of garbage.’ From this we might imagine what Mr Trump thinks about a man who said he was ‘unfit to hold the office of president of the United States.’
A reasonable person might be able to shrug off the public pronouncement by a foreign government figure that they displayed ‘stupefying ignorance’. But Mr Trump cannot be described as a reasonable person : he is verging on the psychopathic and as concluded by the psychologist Professor Dan McAdams ‘it is a matter of principle for Donald Trump that when you are attacked, you hit back harder.’
Mr Johnson might be frank and insulting in a school playground sort of way, but Mr Trump is frank in an obnoxiously abusive and revengeful sort of way.
After the frank exchanges Mr Johnson flew back to London where next day he announced in Parliament that ‘the Putin Kremlin – is up to all sorts of very dirty tricks, such as cyberwarfare, but it would be folly for us further to demonise Russia or to push Russia into a corner, so a twin-track strategy of engagement and vigilance is what is required.’
If Mr Johnson imagines that the phrase ‘dirty tricks’ linked with ‘Putin Kremlin’ is going to encourage the President of Russia to engage gratefully with the government which Mr Johnson represents, he is mistaken. While Mr Putin does not have Mr Trump’s appetite for vindictive vituperation, and would not lower himself to indulge in meeting insult with insult, there is no doubt that he was not comfortable with Johnson’s condescending tone.
There were probably expressions of mirthful incredulity in Moscow concerning Johnson’s declaration that the United Kingdom had graciously decided to refrain from ‘pushing Russia further into a corner’ but the formal response to the ‘dirty tricks’ allegation, through the London embassy, was neither Trumpian nor Johnsonian. It was strong, of course, as had been official protests last October after Johnson advocated mob demonstrations around the Russian embassy to protest against Russia’s support of the Syrian government by conducting airstrikes, some of which resulted in civilian deaths.
There was no suggestion by Mr Johnson that demonstrations should be held outside the United States’ embassy following the revelation on January 12 that last November over thirty civilians were killed in a series of specifically targeted US airstrikes in Afghanistan. Western media reports of the atrocity were muted, to put it mildly, just as they have been about the deaths on January 12 of thirty Iraqi civilians who were killed in Mosul by yet more US airstrikes.
Mr Johnson is selective in his condemnation of some countries and their leaders, but does not appear to realise that immature abuse is counter-productive. Insulting President Putin is not going to endear him to President Trump, about whom he was also expansively impertinent. Frankness may be fun, but it will not result in success for British diplomacy.