Participating in an event with American foreign and security experts and politicians recently, former British diplomat Alexandra Hall Hall was taken aback by their views on the state of the UK
I recently attended a US forum bringing together a range of security and foreign policy experts to discuss current challenges facing the US. Attendees included several American senators and members of the House of Representatives from both sides of the aisle, well-known political analysts, and many high-ranking former diplomats, defence and national security officials who had served in US administrations going back several decades.
The main item of discussion, unsurprisingly, was the current crisis in Ukraine.
Every speaker, whether Republican or Democrat, agreed that this was a defining moment for Western democracies; similar in significance to the end of the Cold War or 9/11. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a threat, not just to the future of Ukraine, but to European security, and the entire post-Second World War international order.
Speaker after speaker was adamant that there could be no going back to normal relations with Russia. Though the final outcome of the conflict is yet to be determined, they said, we should be willing to back Ukraine with whatever it needs, for as long as it wants. In addition, while an end to the war and suffering is highly desirable, they believed that we should not try to pursue any kind of peace deal or easy “off ramp” for Vladimir Putin, on terms which are not acceptable to the Ukrainians themselves.
While regime change in Moscow is neither a stated objective or within our domain to achieve, the attendees believed that it is vital that Putin’s regime is left significantly weaker, so that it can never again mount such unprovoked aggression against another country.
The war in Ukraine was also depicted as being, at root, a struggle of values between autocracy and democracy. Countries such as China are keenly observing the outcome, for any signs of western weakness, which might encourage it to attempt a similar aggression in its neighbourhood – for example against Taiwan.
This fed into another angle which came up frequently: the strength of our own democracies.
Many commentators expressed concern at the increasingly partisan nature of US politics, the fundamental attack on the core of American democracy represented by the 6 January assault on the US Congress, and the continuing attempts in some quarters to cast doubt on the legitimacy of President Joe Biden’s election victory in 2020. Not only does this divide and distract America from important international challenges, but it is also important for US legitimacy to be seen to be upholding at home the values it espouses overseas.
Several commentators expressed concern at the rise of populism and illiberalism in other Western democracies, such as that represented by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in Hungary; or the recently defeated far-right French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen. They feared that such developments in Western democracies had encouraged Putin to think that the transatlantic alliance was so weak and divided that it would not respond either robustly, or in sustained manner, to his attack on Ukraine.
One speaker referred explicitly to Boris Johnson. “Authenticity is essential in a politician. But you can be ‘authentic’ and a liar at the same time. Trump was ‘authentic’. Your Prime Minister is another example. People get rewarded for propagating lies and that is an unhealthy development in a democracy.”
These exchanges prompted me to wonder how the UK is currently perceived more widely by American analysts. In particular, had the UK’s strong position on Ukraine bolstered its standing and reputation as America’s strongest ally and overshadowed any lingering concerns over Brexit? I also wanted to know how they viewed Boris Johnson as Prime Minister. Did they see him as a strong wartime leader, in the mould of Winston Churchill? Or did they see him, as some have suggested, as more of a divisive and populist figure – Britain’s version of Donald Trump?
I did not try to steer my interviewees with leading questions, but tried to play it as much as possible with a straight bat.
What the Experts Said
“You Brits are doing great on Ukraine.”
“Your military and special forces have been awesome [on Ukraine].”
“The UK is screwed. Boris has too much baggage. It’s scandal after scandal. Sure, UK is doing a great job in Ukraine, and we appreciate that. But that does not change our views on Boris. He’s a clown.”
“Bojo is a Bozo. The UK is declining in importance to us as an ally. China is the bigger long-term strategic threat and, on that, our alliance with Australia is far more important. The Australians are thinking far more strategically and investing more in their defence, while your defence budget has been going down for years. AUKUS was a significant deal, but not because of the UK, but because of Australia.”
“I’m not following what’s going on internally in the UK that much. What we read in the papers is about ‘Partygate’ and scandals. I had not heard about the various laws affecting the Electoral Commission, judicial review, rights of public protest, the Nationality and Borders Bill Act, but they sound worrying.”
“To me, it looks like the British Government is ‘over-compensating’ in Ukraine – trying to go overboard to prove its continuing relevance post-Brexit, and distract from scandals at home. The UK is rudderless and looking for a new role. It’s nonsense for the UK to claim it’s ‘leading’ in Ukraine.
“I ask you to consider a counter-factual. If the US did not step up to the plate on Ukraine, would it have made a difference to the international response? Of course. But if the UK had not stepped up, would the international response have been any different? No. The UK has been a loyal ally and helpful, but not the necessary condition for this stuff to happen. The US, Poland, Germany and of course the Ukrainians themselves, are the essential players.”
“The UK role in Ukraine is about crisis management. What is the UK role in Europe longer-term? What is the UK’s influence? What are its economic relationships? The UK has an identity crisis. AUKUS is good. Ukraine is good. But it doesn’t add up to a post Brexit role.”
“No one cares about Brexit. We couldn’t give a ****. If you choose to do such a monumental act of self-harm to yourselves, that’s your problem. We don’t want to hear about it. We don’t want to know about it. We don’t care about UK politics. Boris’s shift on China and Russia got him a lot of credit. We don’t care why he’s doing it – whether his motives are good or bad. All we care about is whether you are with us or against us, on foreign policy matters.”
“We’re just not that into you. We haven’t got the bandwidth to care about Brexit and its details. But if the UK creates a row with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol, we will certainly be annoyed with you. It would be a monumental act of self-indulgence at a moment of real crisis. We don’t have time for this crap right now.”
“The role of people like Daniel Hannan, Nigel Farage and Steve Bannon has been destructive on foreign policy in ways we still can’t fathom.”
“I don’t think anyone sees the UK as the leader on Ukraine. If there is a nomination for Churchill, it doesn’t go to Boris but to Zelensky.”
“There’s been a concern about the British military trajectory for a while. The trauma of Iraq and Afghanistan seems to have run deeper in the UK than in the US. The 2014 Syria vote was a turning point – the UK was not there. The French were. And the French are more capable.
“The UK remains an important ally, but our old instinct that the UK was the most important ally to us is no longer self-evident. Brexit plays a role in that it creates questions about whether UK politics is still functional.”
“Boris is a buffoon. I don’t know how he gets away with it. He just seems to flip his hair, and make a joke. He is also like Trump, in just saying whatever he wants, whether it’s true or not.”
“Often when Boris is reported in the US media, it is as an allegory on our experience with Trump. We had Trump. You have Boris. So sometimes the commentary is just to reassure us that it’s not just the US which has a problem.”
“Up until 2003, the UK exerted a special influence on US foreign policy. Before taking any decision, we would ask ourselves what the Brits were thinking. You were almost like an agency of the US government. Tony Blair was the last. Now, the UK is still an ally, but just another ally, and does not have the same importance as France, Germany or Japan. The UK military and intelligence relationship is different – that is in a unique realm.”
“We don’t view Boris as malevolent, but as fairly entertaining, a punchline, a joke. The stuff that’s going on in your domestic politics is not resonating. He’s a clown, but he’s our clown. Keir Starmer is a decent guy.”
“Because of Ukraine, yes, all is forgiven for Boris. UK has done a great job in Ukraine. It took real courage for him to go to Kyiv, and jolted our system into arranging visits by (US Secretary of State) Blinken and (US Secretary of Defence) Austin.”
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I have to confess I was surprised by so much negative commentary.
I had expected that, given the attendees’ overwhelmingly focus on Ukraine, the UK’s strong role there would overshadow everything else. This group also included many people who have been critical in the past about the EU’s lack of strategic capability and impact, or who have had positive experience of the UK-US defence and intelligence relationship. But none of this outweighed the overriding perception of the UK as a country declining in importance both as a US ally and as a significant player internationally.
As for Boris Johnson, while many expressed appreciation for his stance on Ukraine, this did not translate into regard for him as a serious Prime Minister.
My takeaway impression was, in fact, that for many in the US – as in the UK – Ukraine has bought Boris more time. But it has not bought him more credibility.
Alexandra Hall Hall is a former British diplomat with more than 30 years experience, with postings in Bangkok, Washington, Delhi, Bogota and Tbilisi. She resigned from the Foreign Office in December 2019 because she felt unable to represent the Government’s position on Brexit with integrity
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