BoJo Misses The Party

13/04/2017 10:53

He was right not to go to Moscow.

It is always wise to be careful what you wish for and the reason normally given is that you might just get it. In the bowels of the Kremlin they must be pondering that at the moment as they wonder whether their support for Mr Trump assisted him to power and reflect on how quickly it has all blown up in their faces.

Trump loosing the Tomahawks to avenge the appalling chemical massacre at Khan Sheikhoun makes many people nervous, including both friends and foes of the US. It isn't so much concern at the raid itself, which seems to have been carried out with surgical precision, but rather concern as to whether the consequences have been fully thought through. How will Russia react to the attack on its proxy? Has Assad become too hot to handle and if so, and if he goes, what will replace him? The difficulty with bringing down a regime is that unless you have something to replace it with, all you create is a void, a playground in which a new generation of warlords can operate. That is a pattern we have seen over and over again, most recently and tragically in Libya.

Perhaps though, the thinking is that the US reaction will curb Assad rather than bring him down. Perhaps his Russian friends will rein him in. That would be a good result but to achieve it requires careful thinking through of political strategy. Has that been done? The raid was launched very quickly. Was it spontaneous, like a particularly deadly form of tweet? Or, had the whole thing been gamed carefully in Washington by people who knew what they were doing?

We may never know the answer to all this and indeed the truth may be somewhere down the middle. Still we are where we are and the question has to be what happens next.

Rex Tillerson, the US Secretary of State, is now in Moscow and it would be hard to imagine a diplomatic mission more important than that on which he is engaged. The fate of the fight against Islamic State sits on his shoulders. So too does the need to end the appalling suffering engendered by the Syrian civil war. He needs to use power backed diplomacy to come to a new understanding with the Kremlin. It will be eyeball to eyeball stuff.

It is a well-known rule of marketing that the effectiveness of teams making presentations is generally inversely proportional to their size. Suppose a number of people make a pitch to a client. They will have rehearsed it beforehand and planned who will make which points and when; then they will pass the lead around as if it was a hot potato. Result? They may all be very good at their specialisms, and of course there are exceptions, but it is usually a dog's breakfast. Far better to have one well briefed individual go into the room like a gunslinger entering a bar in a Western and sell the proposal himself. If he needs support, it can sit behind him, but there should be no doubt whose presentation it is.

Carry this across to diplomacy and you will quickly see why it would not have been helpful to have Boris Johnson delivering his own message in Moscow separately. He would either parrot the US line, in which case what is the point of having him there at all, or he would come out with a slightly different version, the only result of which would be to muddy the message. In view of the uncertainty with which the UK has handled involvement in Syria to date there is nothing useful that he could add. All he could do was to queer Rex Tillerson's pitch. He was right not to go.

The Russian Embassy in London has reacted with mockery. One should not grudge them their jokes because someone who jokes is less likely to press the red button than someone who does not. Still their comments are designed to expose the reduced significance of the UK and its dependence on the US. On both counts they have substance but the right reaction to that is to accept that substance and then see how it affects the strategy. Let's try some of the criticisms of Mr Johnson's decision not to go against that reality. What about Mr Corbyn's suggestion of going to have a "robust conversation" with the Russians? What would that achieve? It is hard to imagine that it would add anything. Or what about going ahead with the visit to show that the foreign secretary can be trusted and is not a mini-me of the US, as Alex Salmond seems to have suggested? That may be good for Johnson politically or indeed for Britain's status in the world but the issues here dwarf such considerations. In the end the focus has to be exclusively on the success of the talks and the best prospect for anything constructive to emerge from them is for the Americans and the Russians to talk on their own. If they succeed in reaching an understanding, well and good: but if they fail, all the king's horses and all the king's men will have the devil's own job picking up the pieces. With stakes at this level it was right to withdraw and not to complicate matters further.

First published in the Shaw Sheet.