IIt should not be remarkable that a British prime minister has friendly relations with the French president. It’s a measure of how low the bar is set that the newsworthy feature of last week’s cordial encounter between Rishi Sunak and Emmanuel Macron was that it happened at all.
They smiled, hugged and exchanged cooperative platitudes. Post-Brexit, such professional banality is rare enough to be reassuring.
It’s not just a British malaise. Macron’s election victory earlier this year was a triumph of low expectation. He comfortably beat Marine Le Pen in a second round of voting. It was a happy ending, in the sense that a calamity had been averted. The campaign further entrenched far-right rhetoric and the candidates more deeply than they already had in the mainstream of French politics.
Fans of liberal democracy dare to celebrate only with sighs of relief these days. There was a time, not too long ago, when American elections were not stress tests of the country’s constitutional order. It shouldn’t be hard to know if bossy maniacs with a tenuous understanding of reality can be defeated.
That’s not to downplay the success of Democratic campaigns that blocked the anticipated “red wave” of Donald Trump tribute acts and conspiracy theorists. It is heartening to see the tide of vandalistic nationalist disruptions slowed down, if not reversed. But the waters haven’t receded much, and they’re leaving a filthy jetsam.
Republicans who now see a tactical advantage in distancing themselves make no apologies for the record of working with a man whose despotic ambition has never been a secret.
In this context, it is worth recalling how comfortably the British right has slipped into a sycophant orbit around Trump, well beyond a fundamental duty to maintain transatlantic relations. Realpolitik did not force Michael Gove to write an oily defense of the newly sworn in president in 2017, noting that George Washington and Abraham Lincoln had also had their share of British detractors. Following normal diplomatic protocol for American leaders did not necessarily mean rolling out the “reddest of red carpets”, as Jacob Rees-Mogg advocated.
American democracy had a near-death experience with Trump, and the conservative party was traveling with the assassin.
Part of self-demeaning loyalty was mercantile. Conservatives desperately wanted a free trade deal with Washington as a symbolic pivot away from the European single market and a relaxation of trade sovereignty. This did not correspond to an economic exchange, but the real motive was ideological. In the feverish years between the referendum and the enactment of Brexit, coinciding almost exactly with Trump’s tenure in the White House, Britain and the United States were adjacent testing grounds for similar populist experiments – a capture analogue of traditional conservative parties by xenophobic nationalism, disguised as fraternal insurgencies against liberal elites.
The resemblance was inaccurate in the many ways that two countries separated by an ocean are culturally different, even when their policies are in sync. A big difference is that Trump could be removed from office using the normal election cycle. Britain is stuck with Brexit as a legal fait accompli.
Within two years of signing the deal, its author was revealed to be a congenital liar and expelled from Downing Street. But Boris Johnson’s exposure as a serial political fraudster hasn’t undone his biggest cheat.
The claim that it was something else is increasingly difficult to sustain, even for conservatives who keep the Johnsonian faith. Earlier this week, George Eustice, a former environment secretary, admitted that a free trade deal with Australia, hailed last year as a freeing bonus from Brussels, was “a failure” that ” gave too much for too little in return.” ”. He did not indicate that the same could be said for Brexit as a whole.
As trade realities hit the Brexit economy, Vladimir Putin laid bare his strategic madness. The war in Ukraine highlights a distinction between governments that recognize mutual obligations, mediated by law, and regimes that see international affairs as a zero-sum game where the rules are dictated by whoever is willing to further aggravate the showdown.
A staunch alliance with Kyiv is the call that Johnson got right. For once, his pompous self-esteem as the embodiment of the Churchillian spirit was put to good use. But those choices were made with Joe Biden in the White House. US support for Ukraine is part of a foreign policy of solidarity with European democracies and commitment to the institutional foundations of the post-war order.
It’s not the Trump doctrine, and Putin’s excuses are still rife on America’s radical right. It was also the British eurosceptic spirit. In 2014, Nigel Farage declared his admiration for the “brilliant” Russian president and blamed the West for provoking the Kremlin into territorial aggression. Johnson also took that line in 2016, telling a referendum that a trade deal in Brussels had “caused real trouble” and confusion in Ukraine.
The scale and bloodlust of Putin’s invasion made him enough of an outcast that many European nationalists saw fit to lower their former appreciation. Plus, he loses, which lessens the appeal of a military strongman. In 2017, Le Pen visited the Kremlin and pledged to support Russia’s annexation of Crimea. In this year’s presidential election, she downplayed the tie, dismissing suggestions of a “friendship” with Putin and denying financial ties between her party and Russian banks.
The Kremlin pumps money into political movements that can destabilize Western democracies and pollutes online discourse with disinformation to achieve the same goal. As a project whose explicit goal was the schismatic disruption of the EU, Brexit was exactly the kind of mission Putin’s dirty financiers and troll armies could support.
No rational assessment of the UK’s global strategic position in recent years can ignore the implications of this endorsement. But too many Tories, including the current Prime Minister, were enjoying the Eurosceptic dance to question which regimes were cheering or who was paying the piper.
Now we are told that Sunak is the adult in the room. Here is the prime minister responsible! He walks and talks like a serious member of the international community, capable of having a civilized summit with the President of France. In an age of lowered expectations, a return to diplomatic sobriety is welcome if it spells an end to drunk driving in foreign policy. But that doesn’t mean we’ve forgotten who was driving when the country was steered into a ditch.