At his daily briefing on 13 July, US State Department spokesman Mark Toner learned about the appointment of Boris Johnson as foreign secretary – on camera. When the reporter who had informed him continued, asking “how do you think this will affect, if it will affect at all, the US/British relationship in the diplomatic area..?” Toner struggled to contain an uncomfortable grin, before very noticeably having to force a poker face to answer the question.
More telling than Toner’s seemingly stifled laugh, though, was the phrasing he used to describe their duty to work together, no matter whether the appointment was fitting or not. Toner continued:
We’re always going to be able to work with the British, no matter who is occupying the role of Foreign Secretary […] We congratulate Foreign Secretary Hammond in his new role, and we look forward to, uh, engaging with Boris Johnson.
Subtly acknowledging the significance of Boris as a ‘character’, he admitted:
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This is something, frankly, that goes beyond a relationship, that goes beyond personalities.
That Johnson’s sensationalist personality is the first thing anyone thinks of when he is discussed doesn’t bode well for his new role. First and foremost the foreign secretary is a diplomat, not only creating and sustaining healthy relationships, but also managing incredibly sensitive situations which require exquisite precision, judgement and tact.
But more important is the strategy and security role of the foreign secretary, and their influential position as a policy maker. Johnson is tasked with a job that is pivotal, and highly volatile.
That much of Boris’ sensationalism has centered around his various incompetences, racist comments and cosmopolitan gaffes is, then, not only generally troubling. It’s very specifically dangerous in his new position; the harrumphing, chummy performance is a blindside for far more important issues. It’s bad enough to write a column advocating the return of British colonialism in Africa – it’s worse when you bring that ignorance and carefree tyrannical attitude into a situation where you might be discussing military action and complex, long-held, culturally specific crises.
Other reactions around the world have been similar.
The Washington Post noted that Boris has previously praised Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, currently continuing the campaign of violence on his citizens that has killed so many, and forced even more to flee to Europe. The former Prime Minister of Sweden tweeted that he feared it was not a joke.
In the UK, the reaction of Angela Eagle was also caught on camera, as she learned of Boris’ appointment.
How telling that while everyone in the room laughs at her reaction, she returns to face the audience looking terrified. There’s not a trace of amusement at the thought of ‘bumbling Boris’ being accountable for diplomatic and military decisions from the MP.
There is a real, and necessary, desire to get away from personality politics – especially in the current, draining leadership vacuum. But this is one instance in which the politican’s personality is at the forefront of their ability to enhance or destroy lives.
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