5 March 2017

So Boris Johnson, Britain’s diplomatically inept, part-time foreign secretary (his other job is entertainment) is going to Moscow for talks with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. In announcing this move, he has probably been encouraged by a recent report of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee of the House of Commons that is critical of Foreign Office handling of Russia. So far so good. However, an outspoken critic of Russian foreign policy, and the minister who urged demonstrators to protest the bombing of Aleppo outside the Russian embassy in London without a thought for the safety of diplomats in the British embassy in Moscow should the Russians have retaliated, Johnson has further let it be known that he will adopt a posture of ‘guarded engagement’ and also say nothing to Lavrov that he has not already said about Russian policy in public. This typical bluster raises at least two questions. First, is this an unusual approach; or, put another way, is his normal procedure in talks with foreign counterparts one of ‘unguarded engagement’? In light of Johnson’s natural tendency to make flippant, throw-away remarks, this is only too likely. Second, if he is going to say nothing about Russian policy that he has not said before, in what sense is his visit designed for the purposes of ‘engagement’? (This is a synonym for diplomacy popularized by the Obama administration.) If it is in fact not so designed, the suspicion must be that, instead, it is just another exercise in grandstanding, with the admittedly remote possibility of further promoting his book on Churchill on the side, as he did on an official visit to Serbia late last year and for which he was heavily criticized. The proposed visit to Russia is, therefore, another reason to pity the poor embassy in Moscow. Having said all this, it must be acknowledged that the idea comes from Lavrov rather than Johnson and some good might come of it.