LONDON (AP) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said a lot of beautiful things about Donald Trump over the years, from expressing his admiration for the US president to suggesting he might deserve the award Nobel Peace Prize.
But after a crowd of Trump supporters invaded the U.S. Capitol on January 6, Johnson changed his mind.
Trump, he said, had encouraged the violent insurgency, disputed the outcome of a “free and fair election” and was “completely wrong”.
It was a dramatic pivot for someone who has often been compared to Trump and for years refrained from openly criticizing him. Other world leaders have also faced dilemmas when the unstable and unpredictable president who trashed international agreements and institutions with abandon. But Johnson’s critics say his years of flattering – and, some say, impersonating – Trump have damaged Britain’s international authority and poisoned his political culture.
Leslie Vinjamuri, director of the United States and the Americas program at Chatham House Think Tank, said the question of how to deal with Trump was “the biggest question in Western diplomacy in the past four years.”
“And I would say the UK was on the wrong side,” she said.
Johnson is not the only Western leader to have sought to befriend, persuade or appease Trump. French President Emmanuel Macron had an early bromance with the US president, inviting Trump to Paris in 2017 for a military parade and dinner on July 14 at the Eiffel Tower. Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, visited the White House just days after Trump’s inauguration and was pictured holding the president’s hand.
The two relations quickly turned sour, but Johnson was more successful in staying on the safe side of a president who non-grammatically praised him for “Britain’s Trump.”
“The dirty secret of Europe during the Trump era was that everyone thought he was a threat,” said Brian Klaas, associate professor of world politics at University College London. “It’s just that Boris thought he was a threat that could potentially serve his own interests.”
Johnson supporters argue he had no choice but to woo the leader of Britain’s most important ally – especially as Britain left the European Union and sought a key trade deal with Washington.
Johnson tried to change Trump’s course, unsuccessfully trying to convince him to return to the Iran nuclear deal. He also initially resisted US pressure to ban Chinese tech company Huawei from the UK 5G telecommunications network – although it eventually gave in. Meanwhile, the coveted UK-US trade deal has yet to see the light of day.
Critics say Johnson took his courtesan towards Trump too far and got little in return.
Emily Thornberry, a senior opposition Labor MP, said the Conservative government’s lenient attitude toward Trump had been “humiliating and unnecessary.”
“We did everything we could to charm him,” she told The Associated Press. “There was no charming about this man. … He was a bully and the way to deal with bullies is to stand up to them.
“It was wrong in principle. It did not represent our interests at all and it gave Donald Trump a certain credibility that he did not deserve, ”she said.
Like Trump, Johnson has engaged in populist stunts, exaggerated promises and, at times, racist and inflammatory language. But on most major political issues, Johnson is closer to President-elect Joe Biden than to Trump. Johnson, leader of the British Conservative Party, believes in international alliances such as NATO and believes tackling climate change should be a government priority.
Some British politicians and officials fear that the government’s relationship with Trump, which was deposed Wednesday by the US House of Representatives for a historic second time, could harm him with the new administration of Biden.
Biden is wary of Johnson, who once insulted President Barack Obama by saying that the “half-Kenyan” leader had an ancestral dislike of Britain. Biden criticized Johnson in the fall when the British leader threatened to violate an international Brexit treaty he himself had signed.
Kim Darroch, who lost his job as UK ambassador to Washington after his candid and confidential comments on Trump disclosed in 2019, wrote in the Financial Times that “there will be a price to pay somewhere on the track, for our obsequiousness to Mr. Biden’s predecessor.
The change in US leadership is also embarrassing for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a staunch ally who did not even mention Trump’s name when he condemned the “shameful” riot on Capitol Hill.
Netanyahu’s reluctance to criticize his good friend was not surprising. Over the past four years, Trump has showered Netanyahu with diplomatic gifts, ranging from recognizing the disputed city of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, to concluding a series of diplomatic deals between Israel and Arab countries.
But Netanyahu may also have been reluctant to criticize the tactics he himself uses against his enemies. Like Trump, Netanyahu frequently denounces the media and belittles opponents with language seen as racist or inflammatory. On trial for corruption, Netanyahu also attacks the country’s democratic institutions.
Netanyahu arrived at the start of his trial last year with an entourage of lawmakers and ministers standing behind him as he accused the media, police, prosecutors and the judiciary of conspiring to oust him during a coup. More recently, Netanyahu has remained silent as supporters have been accused of attacks on anti-Netanyahu protesters.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin implored citizens to learn the lessons of the American turmoil and remember that democracy “must not be taken for granted”.
“The right to vote, the voice of the citizen exercising his democratic rights, as well as the strength of the judiciary and the maintenance of the rule of law, must be principles shared by us all,” he declared.
In Britain, there are also warnings that authoritarianism and “post-truth” provocation have seeped into the country’s political blood.
Neil O’Brien, a Tory lawmaker who debunks anti-science publications online, said Britons would be wrong to view the events on Capitol Hill as a uniquely American crisis.
He said Britain also had conspiracy theorists who clashed with police in protests against coronavirus lockdowns – and politicians who “flirt with them to get clicks and harness their energy.”
O’Brien wrote that the chaos in Washington “happened not only because of one man, but because those in positions of power made short-term decisions to feed the beast and play the game. “
“Don’t think it couldn’t happen here,” he said.
Associated Press writer Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed.