Back to the Future - British Foreign Policy Under May

The satirical war on Boris Johnson may have allowed the losing side in the June 23rd vote to let off steam but we may have missed the point that Britain's foreign policy changed across the board, not just in regard to the UK's relationship with Europe.

Some of this still needs unpacking. Johnson is not entirely his own man. He has never before held a major Government position. He knows that the first serious mistake he makes will be terminal as far as his political career is concerned. He will be aware that Prime Minister May has set him up for success or failure on her terms.

Johnson is contained to some degree both by his more experienced 'hawkish' predecessor sitting in the Cabinet as Chancellor and by the fact that trade negotiations and the negotiation of Brexit have been taken out of his hands and transferred to two fellow right-wingers (Liam Fox and David Davis), either of whom could quickly move sideways into his job if he slipped up. Contained he may be but he is far from being a cypher. The team Tory package has some important ideological consistencies and Johnson is a highly educated man of considerable intelligence.

Where do we begin? We might start with the continuities. The new Government is thoroughly Atlanticist and thoroughly committed to NATO although it may not be quite as hawkish in its dealings with Russia as Hammond proved to be. Even his hawkishness may have been exaggerated. It is becoming clear that, although West-East relations remain poor in regard to the border areas between Russia and NATO, Russia and the US are in dialogue in the Middle East. The overall impetus of policy is towards collaborative realpolitik in dealing with terroristic non-state actors.

The May Government might be better characterised as an intensification of an hitherto slow-moving trend away from liberal internationalism towards nation-state internationalism. Cameron's Government, locked into the European Union and trying to manage its kicking horse, was often striving to be Blair-lite against back-bench resistance to the continuation of liberal interventionist strategies using air power and special forces. This use of power remains on the agenda but the devastating Chilcot Report has severely limited the ability of Prime Ministers to act independently.

Liberal internationalism has proved problematic at so many levels, not least in placing an abstract moral idealism (a process started in recent history not by Blair but by President Chirac in his stand on Bosnia and in the wake of Rwanda) ahead of the practical business of ensuring smooth trade flows and exporting goods and services. All that moral absolutism seems to have done is to destabilise the Middle East, drive migration flows and create the conditions for terrorism and regional war. We wait with bated breath to see how Erdogan of Turkey will use his post-coup powers.

Johnson has been very careful in the last few days (he is known to have had relatively radical views on Syria and the Ukraine which May will be well aware of). We can already note the terms of his speech at the French Embassy (this emphasised France's great power status) and the determination to tell European nation states that the UK will be co-operative with them - as nation states. This shift of emphasis to open collaboration between states instead of bureaucratic manipulation of supra-national networks is probably the process to watch most closely under this Government.