Boris Johnson and the Threat to British Soft Power
The likely successor to British Prime Minister Theresa May, Boris Johnson, has plans to subsume the government department overseeing development aid into the foreign office, effectively eliminating it. That will destroy a post-Brexit United Kingdom's last chance to maintain any influence or relevance on the world stage.
EDINBURGH – Since the United Kingdom’s Department of International Development (DFID) was created 22 years ago, it has lifted millions out of poverty, sent millions of children to school, and saved millions of lives through vaccination programs and other innovative initiatives. Most recently, it has been a world leader in delivering development aid to poor countries facing the ravages of climate change.
Yet under a proposal now being explored by the transition team of the UK’ s likely next prime minister, Boris Johnson, DFID would be absorbed into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). The new PM would be solving one problem – the unacceptable neglect of the British diplomatic service – by creating an even bigger one: the loss of perhaps Britain’s greatest global asset today: the soft power it exercises on every continent because of its pathbreaking commitment to ending world poverty.
As other countries have discovered, incorporating their international aid efforts into their external affairs offices harms both diplomatic and development efforts. No one gains when development, which thrives on transparency and external scrutiny, is subsumed by diplomacy, which requires confidentiality and is often marked by poor audit trails.
Of course, the Johnson team thinks it is appealing to a public that, for reasons for which I and others must take at least some responsibility, is not fully acquainted with the facts about what UK development aid can achieve. When asked, British voters seem to think that around 20% of the national budget is spent on overseas aid, when the true figure is closer to 1%. British parents are usually shocked to learn that their government’s total annual aid budget comes to around 50 pence ($0.63) per African schoolchild, which is not even enough for a pen, let alone a teacher or classroom.
Saving DFID is not a partisan issue, for there is remarkable consensus in support of the UK-based Coalition for Global Prosperity, which has shown that diplomacy and development are distinct tasks of equal importance. The FCO, notes Tom Tugendhat, a Conservative MP and Chair of the UK Foreign Affairs Select Committee, is the country’s “principle diplomat,” and one should “no more expect diplomats to know how to steer the Queen Elizabeth than how to lead on international trade and development.”
But there is an even stronger and more urgent argument for supporting an independent DFID. Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill used to describe the United States, Europe, and the Commonwealth as the three concentric circles of British influence. The more influence Britain had in one circle, he argued, the more it would have in the others: when the British have a strong voice in Europe, they are taken more seriously by the Americans.
Yet, in the seven decades since World War II, Britain has too often neglected a fourth circle comprising multilateral institutions such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization. These institutions’ role in global governance is now being challenged by US President Donald Trump’s administration, just when international cooperation is most needed to solve common problems. But, because post-1945 Britain feared that stronger multilateral institutions would put even more anti-colonialist pressure on the country as it retreated from empire, we often remained at arm’s length. In contrast, France has established significant influence at the IMF, and the Scandinavians have become indispensable in UN peacemaking and development efforts.
The Labour Government of 1997-2010 tried to reassert British influence in this domain. Britain assisted in the creation of two important new institutions: the G20 and the global Financial Stability Board. And if a post-Brexit UK is going to enjoy international influence and be a “global Britain,” DFID is vital, as it has established a strong track record of leading multilateral initiatives in areas ranging from health and education to the environment. In each case, it has managed to punch far above its weight by working with fellow donors and leveraging the capacities of other stakeholders.
Among other things, DFID had a hand in creating the International Finance Facility for Immunization (which has provided vaccines for more than 700 million children since 2000), Global Partners for Health, and a $1.5 billion Advanced Market Commitment fund that has financed the development of new drugs in poor countries. Through DFID, the UK is also a leading member of the Global Fund and a top supporter of the new International Finance Facility for Education that I and others have developed.
It should go without saying that in the absence of a strong DFID, Britain will lack the status to lead in important global multilateral development efforts.
The FCO cannot easily replicate DFID’s unique role in bringing countries and the development community together. Without an independent budget, cabinet-level minister, and internationally-respected leaders, the UK’s development program would lack the capacity to mobilize resources as quickly and effectively in response to future crises. Nor will it have pride of place internationally as a source of soft power.
Even nationalists must confront the security threats posed by fragile states, the explosion of refugee numbers, and the continuing scourge of poverty and injustice. When today’s most pressing global challenges – from climate change to inequality and violent conflict – do not admit of unilateral solutions, the case for multilateral action is unanswerable. A robust, institutionally independent, and well-financed DFID is needed now more than ever.
So, while Johnson is anticipating that a post-Brexit UK will need a much stronger FCO to maintain the country’s influence abroad, the relegation of DFID would undermine an even more important post-Brexit imperative – maintaining our global leadership, not least in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals agreed by all UN member states.
Boris Johnson’s Big Lie
While Boris Johnson, the likely successor to British Prime Minister Theresa May, takes his country down a path of diminished trade, the European Union is negotiating one of the largest free-trade agreements in the world. One really has to wonder what the "buccaneering" Brexiteers have to complain about.
BRUSSELS – Three years after the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum, the UK is no closer to figuring out how to leave the European Union, and what comes next, than it was when the result was announced. And now a Conservative Party leadership election to replace outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May is in full swing. To those of us watching from the outside, the debate between the candidates confirms that they have learned nothing whatsoever from the past two years of negotiations with the EU.
Sadly, this comes as no surprise, given that the lead candidate is Boris Johnson, the Leave campaign’s most prominent architect and a man who continues to dissemble, exaggerate, and disinform the public about Brexit. In 2016, Johnson and his fellow Brexiteers duped a narrow majority of UK voters into thinking that leaving the EU would somehow furnish the British National Health Service with an additional £350 million ($445 million) per week. He also drummed up fears that Britain’s EU membership would somehow lead to mass immigration from Turkey (which happens to be the homeland of his paternal grandfather, Ali Kemal).
Though Johnson will most likely soon find himself in a position where he must make good on his promises, he continues to spread untruths. Chief among them is the myth that Britain can tear up the withdrawal agreement that May negotiated with the EU, withhold its financial commitments to the bloc, and simultaneously start negotiating free-trade deals. To Johnson’s followers, however, he is more prophet than politician: only he can deliver a mythical “true Brexit” that will deliver the prosperity promised during the referendum campaign.
As is often the case with populists, reality does not square with Johnson’s ensorceling combination of false promises, pseudo-patriotism, and foreigner bashing. He and his fellow Brexiteers speak of a “Global Britain” that will trade freely with the rest of the world, even as they drag their country down a path strewn with uprooted trade ties and substantial new barriers to commerce.
The real global trading power, of course, is the EU, which has recently concluded trade deals with Japan, South Korea, and Canada. As an EU member state, the UK automatically benefits from the 40 trade agreements the bloc has in place with more than 70 countries. If the UK opts for a “hard” Brexit and leaves without a deal, as Johnson has indicated he is willing to do, it would immediately lose preferential access to markets that account for around 11% of its total trade. (Though May’s government has signed continuity deals with some countries, they do not cover nearly as much trade as the UK’s existing arrangement within the EU.)
Moreover, the EU is finalizing negotiations for a new free-trade agreement with the Mercosur bloc – Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay – as part of a broader Association Agreement between the two regions. That will cement the EU’s position as the global leader of open trade. Though European companies already export a great deal to Mercosur – €42 billion in goods in 2016; €22 billion in services in 2015– tariff barriers are currently high. European exporters face levies of 35% on cars, 20-35% on machinery and related components, and 14% on pharmaceuticals.
The proposed trade deal doesn’t lack opponents, including some non-governmental organizations and EU member states with substantial beef industries. EU negotiators will have to strike a careful balance to protect the rights of all Europeans across economic sectors. They will also need to address deteriorating human-rights and environmental conditions in Brazil, and push for provisions to encourage companies to act responsibly, uphold food-safety standards, and police against imitations of European food and drink products.
All told, an EU-Mercosur trade agreement – which would be one of the largest trade deals in the world, comprising 750 million people – represents a win-win, creating opportunities for growth and jobs on both sides. At a time when the US and China are locked in a trade and technology war with no end in sight, the EU and the Mercosur countries have a chance to lead the world in a more promising direction.
Indeed, there is a strong strategic case for finalizing the agreement. As Martin Sandbu of the Financial Times recently argued, “The EU does not have many military divisions … but it has something nearly as awesome. Authority over the world’s largest market.” The EU must use its collective purchasing power to raise standards globally, particularly with respect to environmental protection.
A successful conclusion to the EU-Mercosur talks would send a message to the rest of the world about the value and importance of open trade. With Johnson likely taking power in late July, Europe will have offered still more proof that Brexit is not only unnecessary but also detrimental to Britain’s economic interests. The “buccaneering” Brexiteers might then finally have to explain what it is they’re still complaining about.
Political betting markets now put the chance of a no-deal Brexit at roughly one-third. But, regardless of the reckless promises to Conservative Europhobes that made Boris Johnson prime minister, an orderly, negotiated Brexit will be the favored option for a political libertine whose only consistent principle has been inconsistency.
LONDON – Now that Boris Johnson has achieved his lifetime ambition to become the United Kingdom’s prime minister, the tragicomedy of Brexit is approaching its climax. While the rest of the European Union has viewed this with barely disguised horror, there is good news and bad news in Johnson’s apotheosis.
The bad news is that the “no-deal” withdrawal from the European Union that Johnson advocated to win the leadership of the Europhobic Conservative Party could cause a sudden stop in economic activity comparable to the disaster that followed the failure of Lehman Brothers in 2008. Although this business breakdown might initially affect only trade-related businesses in Britain, and produce some kind of UK-EU compromise within a few weeks or months, we learned in the 2008 financial crisis that even a brief interruption of normal commercial relations in one part of the economy can reverberate for many years.
The good news is that Johnson is a far cleverer and more adroit politician than his predecessor, Theresa May. And pessimism about Britain’s prospects has become so widespread that any Brexit outcome other than a no-deal rupture would now be a positive surprise, causing an economic resurgence not just in Britain but across Europe. Yes, Britain is bound to suffer in the long run from any version of Brexit. But in any version of Brexit other than “no deal,” the short-term damage would be offset by a rebound in business and consumer sentiment as the risks of total breakdown were suddenly replaced by the certainty of a lengthy transition period in which Britain’s economic relations with Europe would remain almost unchanged.
In this scenario, policy changes on both sides of the Channel could outweigh even the structural damage of Brexit to Britain and its trading partners. The UK would benefit from a cyclical stimulus promised by Johnson in the form of higher public spending and tax cuts. The rest of Europe, especially Germany and France, would gain from the commercial opportunities from new EU policies likely to squeeze British competitors out of the single market in lucrative industries such as finance, media, pharmaceuticals, defense, and autos.
What, then, is the probability of an orderly outcome and long transition period, as opposed to a potentially catastrophic sudden rupture?
Political betting markets now put the odds of no deal at 33%, and some financial analysts rate it as high as 50%. This is no surprise, given that Johnson devoted most of his leadership campaign to normalizing the idea of no deal. There are, however, at least three reasons why a no-deal Brexit remains very unlikely, despite Johnson – or perhaps because of him.
First, parliamentary numbers are stacked higher than ever against a no-deal outcome. All opposition parties are more united against Johnson than they were against May, while his effective parliamentary majority has been reduced to only two or three MPs. So, in principle, it would take only two Tory defectors to vote down Johnson’s government and trigger a general election. With 40 Tory MPs having voted this month to weaken Johnson’s negotiating tactics, there are clearly enough potential dissidents to topple his government should that be necessary to avert “no deal”. And if an election were triggered before Johnson could re-unite his party by delivering some version of Brexit, he would probably lose, becoming the shortest-serving prime minister in British history. Provoking a rebellion among opponents of a no-deal Brexit is therefore a much greater risk to Johnson than upsetting the Europhobes who sabotaged May.
Second, Johnson has a means of avoiding a rupture that was not available to May. If he could persuade EU leaders to offer some minor cosmetic changes to May’s withdrawal agreement, Johnson could almost certainly get Parliament to pass his “new” deal. This is because the hard-line Euroskeptics determined to replace May with a “genuine” Brexiteer would now have no choice but to vote for Johnson’s deal or risk an election in which they might lose Brexit altogether. Meanwhile, many pro-Europeans in both major parties who had previously hoped to prevent Brexit will now support almost any negotiated agreement, just to avoid the no-deal nightmare.
The main threat therefore comes from the EU side. Will European leaders give Johnson enough cosmetic concessions to turn “May’s pig of a deal” into “Boris brings home the bacon”? The answer is probably yes. EU leaders are almost as desperate as Johnson to end the Brexit saga – and Johnson really needs only one small concession: a change to the “Irish backstop” designed to guarantee an open border in Northern Ireland.
Because the border issue really matters only to Ireland, the EU will be guided by the Irish government’s interests. And it is hard to see why the Irish government would prefer the certainty of immediate damage to Ireland’s economic and security interests in a no-deal Brexit to a slight softening of the “Irish backstop” that would guarantee a long transition period in which nothing would change. As Pat Leahy, a prominent Irish Times commentator, recently noted: “Isn’t the possibility of Border checks in a few years’ time better than the certainty of checks on October 31st?” Better still from the Irish standpoint, during the transition period following an orderly Brexit, Britain would be eager to negotiate a permanent EU trade agreement, which would put Ireland in an even stronger position to insist on open-border conditions.
This leads to a third reason for betting against a no-deal outcome: Johnson’s own statements and political style. While Johnson has repeatedly promised to leave the EU in October “with or without a deal,” he has also put the chance of no deal actually happening at “a million to one against,” because he is confident of a successful EU negotiation.
Why has the world accepted Johnson’s promise of “with or without a deal” as gospel truth, while dismissing his prediction of an agreed Brexit as irrelevant wishful thinking? Focusing on personal ambitions and downplaying promises, which has usually been the best way to predict Johnson’s actions, suggests the opposite conclusion.
If Johnson goes for a no-deal Brexit, he risks disaster whatever happens: an economic meltdown if he manages to bypass parliamentary opposition and delivers the promised rupture, and a premature general election if Parliament blocks it. If, on the other hand, he genuinely tries to negotiate an orderly withdrawal agreement, Johnson could still deliver a symbolic Brexit by his October deadline, but also secure the transition period that Britain desperately needs.
The resulting rebound in business confidence would then allow a generous budget of tax cuts, public spending giveaways, and Keynesian fiscal stimulus, paving the way for a general election next spring that Johnson would be almost certain to win with a big majority. For a political libertine whose only consistent principle has been inconsistency, an orderly, negotiated Brexit would surely be the favored option, regardless of the reckless promises to Europhobes that put him in power.
Jeremy Corbyn’s Finest Hour?
With Boris Johnson as UK prime minister, and his Brexit strategy crystal clear, the task of the Labour opposition is equally clear. It must expose the truth about Johnson’s no-deal option – namely, that it means a Trump-deal Brexit – and put forward its own plan to end Britain's interminable ordeal immediately.
ATHENS – Boris Johnson is the first British prime minister in a long time who is free of dilemmas regarding his approach to the European Union. For better or worse, Johnson’s strategy for attaining power has left him with only one viable option: Forget about negotiating with the EU before the October 31 Brexit deadline, call a general election for that day, seek a popular mandate for a no-ifs-no-buts no-deal divorce from Europe, and then sit back and watch his domestic and foreign adversaries sweat it out.
Setting aside the obvious drawbacks of a no-deal Brexit, Johnson has no workable alternative. Traveling to Brussels to renegotiate his predecessor’s Brexit deal would be a tactical error. Theresa May’s failure reflected an inability to distinguish between the EU’s broader interests and the specific motivation of its establishment. Given a choice between securing the profits of continental exporters and reaffirming the bureaucracy’s modus operandi, the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, and the political leaders behind him will unfailingly opt for the latter. Every proposal of significant changes to the withdrawal agreement negotiated by May’s government, even those in the EU’s long-term interests, will thus be rejected.
Johnson is unlikely to repeat May’s error. To be sure, he may be tempted to try out his rhetorical skills on German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron. But Dominic Cummings, his effective chief of staff (and the cunning campaign director of Vote Leave in 2016) would undoubtedly remind Johnson that the last thing he needs is to expose the British public to another scene of their prime minister returning from the Continent empty-handed. Having exploited that sense of humiliation to become prime minister, Johnson would be foolish to perpetuate it.
In the absence of realistic prospects of a meaningful negotiation before October 31, and facing a fractious Parliament that is unable to agree on any Brexit option, Johnson can call a general election to coincide with the October 31 deadline. Doing so would simultaneously neutralize his rebellious MPs and present voters with a clear challenge: “End this dog’s Brexit process now by backing me, or let this ignominy continue under a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour government, one that may need the backing of the Scottish Nationalists who want to end the United Kingdom.”
Opposition politicians and commentators who point out that the public are alert to Johnson’s many character flaws seem to underestimate the allure of ending, once and for all, a negotiation that Britons – Leavers and Remainers alike – find mortifying. A hard-Brexit manifesto would help Johnson destroy the upstart Brexit party and re-unite the Leave constituency for the first time since its June 2016 referendum victory.
Meanwhile, Remainers remain deeply divided not only between the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but also between UK-wide and Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties. Seldom before has a new prime minister, who took over a disordered government and a divided party, had such a clear path to potential dominance.
Despite opinion polls suggesting a Liberal Democrat revival, courtesy of their unambiguous pro-Remain stance, the only impediment to Boris Johnson’s bid for dominance is Corbyn’s Labour Party. Ardent Remainers have lambasted Corbyn for refusing to turn Labour into the electoral wing of the campaign to reverse Brexit. They cite his criticism of the EU’s inbuilt pro-austerity, oligarchic bias as evidence that he was never serious when, in June 2016, he campaigned to remain in the EU while committing to reform the bloc.
But Corbyn was right to be nuanced in his support of Remain. It was not Vladimir Putin, Facebook, or the Leave campaign’s blatant lies that put Brexit over the top. And it was not the critical stance on the hustings of those of us (including DiEM25) who, like Corbyn, campaigned along the lines of: “In the EU. Against this EU!”
No, the best ally of the Leave campaign were establishment figures, from Tony Blair to Christine Lagarde. They oscillated between Project Fear (warning of post-Brexit Armageddon) and a rosy depiction of the EU that whitewashed its anti-democratic decision-making, its misanthropic handling of the euro crisis, and its readiness to sign trade agreements with the United States that usurped parliaments and threatened some of the EU’s greatest achievements.
Since the 2016 referendum, a civil war-like atmosphere has made it increasingly impossible for Leavers and Remainers to hold a civilized conversation. Corbyn valiantly tried to keep Labour’s Leavers and Remainers together by seeking an honorable compromise: The UK would formally leave the EU, to respect the referendum’s outcome, while remaining in as many of the bloc’s structures as possible – including a customs union. Instead of applauding Corbyn for this tricky balancing act, his opponents within the Labour Party, together with a liberal establishment unprincipled enough to deliver all Leavers to Nigel Farage and Johnson, attacked him with extraordinary viciousness.
But that was then and this is now. With Johnson as prime minister, and his strategy crystal clear, Corbyn’s task is to expose the truth about Johnson’s no-deal Brexit – namely, that it means a Trump-deal Brexit – and put forward Labour’s plan to end the interminable Brexit ordeal immediately.
Corbyn must first show voters that a Johnson government will turn the UK into a vassal state of a Trumpian US and of the multinationals eager to usurp the country’s cherished institutions (especially the National Health Service). Johnson will bind the UK to a global alliance of populist/nationalist regimes and destroy Britain’s chances to lead Europe and the world with a Green New Deal that overhauls a failed UK business model based on low taxes, low wages, low investment, zero-hour contracts, and unregulated finance.
Corbyn’s second task is to offer an alternative for ending the humiliation of the ongoing negotiations. That means committing to revoke Article 50 to allow a Labour government time to implement a green-investment, anti-austerity policy agenda in tune with the party’s progressive internationalism, while simultaneously organizing a Citizens’ Deliberative Assembly to formulate the question(s) to be put to voters in a second Brexit referendum.
A general election fought over these two unequivocal alternatives, Johnson’s and Corbyn’s, would empower the UK’s people, at last, to determine their country’s future.