The Washington Post Column

New cabinet may signal Britain’s retreat as a Western power

In fact, I get the logic. Theresa May’s first set of appointments — Liam Fox will become minister for international trade, David Davis will run the exit negotiations, and Boris Johnson will be foreign secretary — make a lot of sense. She has put hard-line Brexit proponents in charge of negotiating Britain’s retreat from European politics. It will be impossible, from now on, for anyone to argue that voters were cheated. If these three men can’t manage the United Kingdom’s divorce proceedings, then nobody can.

At the same time, May has deftly eliminated an obvious source of internal disharmony. Like Barack Obama appointing Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, she has given her potentially most damaging critic a huge task that will prevent him from writing nasty articles in the Daily Telegraph. Johnson, bored and sidelined, would have had plenty of time to think up jokes about her and her government; now he’ll be on a plane to Timbuktu instead.

But May’s choices also suggest a more profound change, visible for some time but only just now swimming into focus: Britain, or at least Tory Britain, no longer aspires to be a leading Western power. Surely May knows that Johnson is a hated figure in Brussels. Surely she guessed that the reaction to his appointment would be laughter in Washington. But she doesn’t care because — like the leaders of all small countries without aspirations to international leadership — her concerns are more parochial. She doesn’t need a foreign secretary who is taken seriously in foreign capitals.

Nor was she bothered by the further implications of the choice. Johnson has been a brilliant cheerleader for Britain in the past — a great ambassador for London — and some people now hope he will continue in that role. But in his recent columns and conversations, he has also made it clear that Britain’s traditional alliances — with the United States, with Europe — mean little to him. Instead, he has flirted with Putinism, praised Bashar al-Assad and gone on trade junkets to China. Johnson’s admiration for rich foreign dictators echoes the views of many leading Tories, even George Osborne, the just-retired chancellor of the exchequer. Johnson, Osborne and many British Conservatives are now quite comfortable with the idea of Britain, or possibly just England, as the Dubai of the North Atlantic, the Singapore of the Western Hemisphere: a small trading nation, an offshore home for Russian, Chinese, Malaysian and Nigerian money, a place comfortable with oligarchs of all kinds — even with Americans, as long as they have cash — and very distant from old Thatcherite ideals about democracy and rule of law.

Not coincidentally, the Labour Party is now led by a man with similarly parochial views. Jeremy Corbyn has some different alliances. He has appeared on PressTV and Iranian state television, and his ties are to Hamas and Hezbollah, not China. But he is even more vehemently uninterested in the West, in Britain’s alliances in Europe and the United States, in British influence and British power. Given his rejection this week of the parliamentary Labour Party’s demand for his resignation, it’s worth asking whether he still cares much about parliamentary democracy at all. His vision of Britain, to the extent that he has articulated one, is of a radically isolationist country ashamed of its history.

The question, of course, is whether Britain can keeps its own democracy and its own rule of law intact if none of its leaders still actively promote those things abroad. The British political system is already heavily influenced by the foreign and offshore cash that now flows through London. Groups such as Conservative Friends of Russia and Conservative Friends of the Chinese, both of which have many prominent parliamentarians as members, already lobby openly on behalf of those countries inside the U.K. political system.

I hope very much to be proved wrong. But I am afraid that without the anchor of Europe, the regular meetings with allies, the sheer weight of Germany, France and the rest, the British political class will prove even easier to buy off than ever before. Excuses will be made for Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. Justifications will be given for Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. Foreigners will have an ever greater say in the laws and decisions made inside Britain, too. This is how the world works: If you are no longer trying to set the rules of the game, you have to assume that others will set them instead.