Boris Johnson’s domestic troubles are so relentless that he finds respite on the global stage. In the past week, the prime minister has attended a meeting of Commonwealth heads of government in Rwanda, a G7 gathering in Germany and a Nato summit en España.
Britain is a major global economy and military power. That means a British prime minister must be taken seriously. Mr Johnson’s reputation for duplicity precedes him, but he is treated with the respect attributable to his office.
The prime minister has also established himself as a significant voice on the war in Ukraine, urging resistance to Vladimir Putin’s murderous aggressions. In eastern Europe, where subjugation to the Kremlin is a recent memory and a present threat, Britain’s stance is especially welcome. But Mr Johnson is also at odds with his defence secretary on the question of financing his hawkish rhetoric. A weak leader cannot escape the instability of his administration, even when playing the international statesman.
Mr Johnson is right to position the UK as a steadfast ally of Ukraine. It might prove to be the only call on which history judges him favourably. But it does not constitute a coherent foreign policy. The prime minister and his supporters also routinely demean themselves by citing the alliance with Kyiv as a reason for Tory MPs not to seek new leadership. Ukraine’s plight should not be used as a deflection technique, as if the fact of a war in Europe requires the suspension of domestic accountability.
Mr Johnson often seems more interested in the optics of his personal rapport with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy than the bigger strategic and economic issues raised by Russian actions. That is because the bigger picture requires a rational appraisal of European security policy, including the question of how Britain should manage its relationship with its continental neighbours. And that means thinking about the European Union in terms that are taboo in the Conservative party.
In the short term, Britain can imagine that Nato is the only institution through which its security interests need to be represented. Nato is also the place where Europeans sit with Americans, and Washington is often wary of EU ambitions for “strategic autonomy” – an ambition to which France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, has alluded. The reality is that Europe is still hugely dependent on US defence guarantees. That won’t change soon. But a lesson of Donald Trump’s presidency – and a threat posed by the prospect of a Trumpian Republican party recapturing the White House in 2024 – is that Europe cannot afford to be complacent in thinking the US will always be a stable, dependable ally.
As the bloc that wields the aggregate power of Europe’s democracies, the EU will become increasingly important as the forum where continental interests ranging well beyond trade are negotiated. Britain must seek inclusion in that conversation; both sides would gain. Mr Macron has said as much and Mr Johnson on Wednesday hinted that he agreed. But no one expects meaningful course correction for as long as Downing Street operates strictly in obedience to Brexit dogmas.
The prime minister might find the international stage indulgent of his posturing, but he should not mistake observance of diplomatic protocol for popularity. The lack of coherent policy and the unseemly spectacle of strategic floundering is as obvious and as damaging abroad as it is at home.