Boris Johnson’s appointment as foreign minister points up something that is a British peculiarity – the amazing amateurism of Britain’s government.
Boris Johnson speaks foreign languages and takes an interest in foreign policy. He has never however held a diplomatic post. His main career until he became Mayor of London was as a journalist. Even as Mayor of London he continued to write as a journalist articles for the Daily Telegraph for which allegedly he was paid £5,000 an article.
Philip Hammond – Britain’s new Chancellor of the Exchequer (ie. finance minister) and Boris Johnson’s predecessor as foreign secretary – was a businessman with no background or visible interest in either foreign policy or security policy until David Cameron made him first Defence Secretary and then Foreign Secretary. As Defence Secretary he seems to have soaked in the strongly anti-Russian attitudes of the officials in Britain’s Ministry of Defence, which he then took them with him to the Foreign Office. I have heard complaints – and not just from Russians – about his lack of basic diplomatic skills and lack of interest in his job. The nature of his business career – mostly in medical equipment manufacturing – incidentally hardly makes him the obvious choice for Chancellor of the Exchequer either. His predecessor as Chancellor of the Exchequer – George Osborne – was however arguably even less qualified for that post than Hammond is, having been nothing other than a professional politician all his adult life.
As for the new Prime Minister, Theresa May, she is actually rather more experienced in government than most British political leaders having been Britain’s Home Secretary (ie. interior minister) for an unusually long period (by British standards) of 6 years. However she too had no obvious qualifications for that post before she was appointed to it. Any expert knowledge she has acquired she literally obtained on the job.
This chronic British amateurism is in sharp contrast to the situation elsewhere. For example US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has had continuous experience of finance and budget policy since he became a Clinton administration aide in the 1990s, whist US Secretary of State John Kerry took a heavy interest in foreign policy from the time of his election to the US Senate in 1982, and became Chair of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee in 2009.
Of course if one compares the situation in Britain to that of Russia then the contrast is much starker. Russia’s present Finance Minister – Anton Siluanov – is a trained economist and graduate of the Moscow Finance Institute who has held posts in the Russian Finance Ministry continuously since 1985, whilst Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is a professional diplomat who has held diplomatic posts continuously since 1972.
The British addiction to amateurism bewilders foreign governments who have to deal with top British officials who are simply not up to their jobs, which they anyway usually only occupy for a short time. The Chilcot Inquiry Report identified this amateurism as a major factor in the British debacle in Iraq as key decisions were made by people who lacked either the experience or the expertise to make them. Nothing however is being done to address the problem.
Needless to say this chronic amateurism works against any attempt to achieve a major change in direction in foreign policy as British foreign ministers simply lack the self-confidence and authority that comes with expertise and experience which is needed to change it. This is one further reason why in terms of foreign policy at least one should not expect too much from Britain’s new government.