Ever since British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to cancel his trip to Moscow the Russian embassy in London has been enjoying itself trolling him with a succession of witty tweets.
It is not in fact difficult to see why Boris Johnson decided to cancel his visit.
The British only took the decision to make overtures to Russia because they were worried that the Trump administration would pursue a rapprochement with Russia which would leave Britain isolated. Their hearts however were never truly in it, as Boris Johnson’s plan to read out a lecture about Russian misbehaviour to Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov shows.
Supposedly some European governments, presumably including the German government, were also unhappy that Britain’s ultra hard line towards Russia was complicating efforts by other European countries to re-establish a dialogue with Moscow.
However the moment the US attacked Syria, making it seems that the Trump administration would not be pursuing a rapprochement with Russia after all, the British happily cancelled a visit they never truly believed in.
What continues to puzzle me about all this is why anyone outside Britain cares. The last year in which Britain exercised a pivotal role in international diplomacy was 1939, the year the Second World War began. Thereafter it has been increasingly sidelined. British diplomacy in 1940 and 1941 sought to bring the USA and the USSR into the war against Nazi Germany. However it was unsuccessful. Both countries eventually went to war with Nazi Germany not because the British wanted them to but because Hitler and his Japanese allies attacked them. Thereafter for several decades after the war ended Britain with its relatively large military and relatively large economy remained a force to be reckoned with, but since the 1990s what residual influence it once possessed has almost entirely gone.
To be clear if the Western powers decide to lift or extend sanctions against Russia or Syria or anyone else, that decision will be taken in Washington and Berlin, not in London. The Russian embassy has delighted in ridiculing reports that Boris Johnson is proposing to present an ultimatum to the Russians to withdraw from Syria. It is completely right to do so since Britain is in no position to enforce such an ultimatum. Nor are the Western powers taken as a whole, as they surely know. As for Syria itself, whether President Assad goes or stays is a decision which the British by themselves have no power to make one way or the other.
In reality the only role the British have left is that of providing a reliable supporting chorus to anyone in Washington or Berlin who wishes to pursue a hard line whether against Moscow or anyone else. However the hardliners in Washington and Berlin do not need British support to make their influence felt, and even in that respect Britain’s role is now marginal.
I say all this with no pleasure. On the contrary I think it is a tragedy. One of the reasons why Britain previously rose to global preeminence was because the British – or rather the English – were once quick-witted enough to manoeuvre skilfully between the Great Powers, never aligning permanently with any of them.
Now that Britain is leaving the European Union it is a skill the British desperately need to relearn. That demands talking to everyone – including the Russians – and keeping the City of London open to anyone who wants to do business, not turning them away by imposing sanctions on them.
It is however a skill the British have not only forgotten but which they seem to have no desire to relearn. That all but guarantees that their slide into irrelevance will not only continue but will accelerate.