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27 July

Boris Johnson as head of Nato? He’d hate it

It’s a prestigious but often ignored role – and anyway, it’s based in Brussels.

By Megan Gibson

It’s hard to imagine a role that Boris Johnson would be less well-suited for than that of Nato secretary-general.

Yet that’s the latest job the outgoing Prime Minister is rumoured to be up for. (Other suggested next steps for Johnson have in recent days included editor of the Evening Standard, joining the speaking circuit in the US and a prompt attempt to return to No 10.) Now, according to a report in the Telegraph on 26 July, various Tory politicians and Ukrainian MPs have suggested that Johnson should succeed Jens Stoltenberg, who is due to step down as secretary-general in September next year. Many pointed to Johnson’s staunch support of Ukraine and its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, since the start of Russia’s invasion as suitable credentials to lead the military alliance.

Johnson’s backing of Ukraine in recent months has been unwavering (if also conveniently self-serving), but the role of Nato chief requires far greater diplomacy skill than Johnson has ever shown himself capable of. Outside of the UK and away from the front lines in Ukraine, Johnson’s reputation as a diplomat is grim. The two years he served as the UK’s foreign secretary, from 2016 to 2018, were characterised by his flippancy, his flimsy grasp of detail and his habit of starting more diplomatic incidents than he smoothed over. 

This went far beyond the Brexit negotiations with the EU (though many officials in Brussels openly viewed him as a liar). There was the time in 2017 when he remarked at the Tory conference that the Libyan coastal town of Sirte could be transformed into the next Dubai “once they clear the dead bodies away”. The “joke” prompted the Libyan prime minister, Fayez al-Sarraj, to call a meeting with the UK’s ambassador to the country. In 2018 Johnson had a solo meeting with Alexander Lededev, a former KGB officer, without officials present, which he only admitted to during an appearance before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee this month. Security experts say the meeting posed a national security risk.

Then there was the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the dual British-Iranian citizen who was imprisoned in Iran in 2016. Blame for her prolonged detention, as her family campaigned for her release back in Britain, was widely attributed to Johnson who, as foreign secretary, wrongly said in 2017 that she had been in Iran “teaching people journalism”. He later indicated that the UK would pay a £450m debt owed to the Iranian government from a botched arms deal before the Iranian Revolution, thought to be the main obstacle to her release; he resigned from the Foreign Office long before that happened. (Liz Truss secured Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release in March this year.)

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These, however, are not even likely to be the diplomatic incidents that get in the way of Johnson taking the job. The selection of the next secretary-general must be unanimous among members, some of whom have personal reasons to oppose Johnson. A source speculated to the Telegraph that Emmanuel Macron, the French president, could veto him. The veto could just as easily come from Joe Biden, the US president, whom Johnson has clashed with over Brexit and the Northern Ireland protocol. Or from Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, about whom Johnson once wrote a rude limerick involving a goat. Or any number of Nato members who are also members of the EU and view Johnson as fundamentally unserious.

Yet the biggest obstacle to Johnson becoming the head of Nato isn’t likely to be a lack of support from alliance members but a lack of enthusiasm from the man himself. There is little indication based on Johnson’s actions in recent weeks that he’s up for an arduous job. This is the man who, though still Prime Minister, chose to skip emergency Cobra meetings preparing for a deadly heatwave to have a party in the countryside.

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The role of Nato secretary-general requires vigilant diplomacy to keep the 30-member alliance stable. It’s the sort of diplomacy that is often done behind the scenes, with little fanfare for positive results but plenty of public scrutiny for perceived failures or missteps. It’s a prestigious but often ignored role, hardly a position that would play to any of Johnson’s so-called strengths. Plus, it’s based in Brussels.

[See also: Christopher Steele on Boris Johnson’s secret conversations with Alexander Lebedev]

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