When Boris Johnson became prime minister, the conventional wisdom was that he was a populist and would therefore act like one. Johnson was seen as a British equivalent of Donald Trump – and all the other figures, movements and parties around the world that have been identified as “populist”.
However, the concept of populism always obscured as much as it illuminated – particularly when it comes to Brexit and Boris Johnson. In terms of the UK’s wider foreign policy – as opposed to its approach to withdrawing from, and negotiating a new relationship with, the European Union itself – it does not help us understand what, if anything, made Johnson’s approach different from his predecessors as prime minister or what, if anything, might remain of his approach after he leaves office.
It is difficult to separate Johnson’s approach from the moment in which he became prime minister. After the vote by the British people to leave the EU in 2016, Johnson probably did more than anyone else to shape the form it took – and he played a particularly important role in shaping a post-Brexit foreign policy.
It began with a slogan: “global Britain”. Many dismissed it as signifying either a kind of neocolonial approach to the world – as if the UK was about to try to recover its lost empire – or as absurd hubris that was completely out of touch with Britain’s importance in international politics in the 21st century, or even with geography. However, during the past three years it has begun to take shape and to seem more real, and more realistic, than it initially did.
A key moment in this emergence of a post-Brexit foreign policy was the publication of the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy last March. When it was published, much attention focused on the idea of a “tilt” to the Indo-Pacific region and some in Europe worried that the UK was abandoning them – even though the review itself reiterated that the Euro-Atlantic area remained the UK’s priority. In fact, in its clear identification of Russia as an acute threat, it now looks prescient.
As a permanent member of the United Nations security council, however, the UK also sought to make a contribution to security in the Indo-Pacific region. This aspiration was also dismissed as hubristic. But when the aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth II led a multinational strike group in the Indo-Pacific last year, it demonstrated the role that the UK could play as part of a coalition of countries seeking to deter China from acquiring territory by force.
The UK also applied to join CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership), the trade agreement involving 11 Pacific countries that had been the centrepiece of Barack Obama’s “pivot” to Asia but was abandoned by Trump when he became US president. This again illustrated the differences between Trump and Johnson – whereas Trump took a mercantilist approach to trade, Johnson insisted that the UK was a free trade champion, even as it erected trade barriers with the EU, its biggest trading partner.
Perhaps the most important, and overlooked, aspect of the integrated review was the change of approach it signalled in relation to the mantra of a “rules-based international order”. In a more competitive world, the review said, it was no longer enough to defend the status quo. Instead, the UK needed to take a much more proactive and dynamic approach to shape the world – together with its partners, of course, but also taking a lead where it could.
The war in Ukraine has changed perceptions of Johnson – particularly in countries such as Poland, where the first reaction to the news of his resignation was to worry about whether his successor would be as committed to defending Ukraine as he has been. In reality, however, another British prime minister would probably have taken a pretty similar approach to the war – even if, for example, they might not have been as quick to appear in Kyiv with Volodymyr Zelenskiy as Johnson was.
In the end, where Johnson may have made a difference – and one that might outlast him – is in recovering a sense of agency. For several decades since the end of the cold war, British foreign policy was on autopilot, driven largely by outdated liberal assumptions and the interests of the City. Johnson has shown that we have choices and can do things. His successors may make different choices than he did, but they will be doing so in a context created during the three years he was prime minister.
Hans Kundnani is head of the Europe programme at Chatham House