Trump Sees Chance With Boris Johnson to Lure UK on Iran, Huawei
By David Wainer
As Boris Johnson hurtles toward a no-deal Brexit that could leave the U.K. diplomatically adrift and economically vulnerable, President Donald Trump is looking to seize an opportunity to lure the country away from Europe on some of his top foreign policy priorities: Iran and Huawei.
Yet with Johnson focused on negotiating a breakup with the European Union—and perhaps a snap election at home—the White House may have to be patient in its hopes that the U.K.’s leadership change will bring closer alignment on issues including sanctioning Iran’s nuclear program and blocking Huawei Technologies Co. equipment from new 5G mobile networks.
Trump is pressing his case regardless. He and Johnson spoke by phone last week about “areas of further cooperation,” including trade, 5G technology and global security, according to a White House statement. With Johnson—a “good man” Trump has long praised for wanting to leave the EU—now at 10 Downing Street, the U.S. sees Johnson’s need for an eventual bilateral trade deal with America as leverage to peel Britain away from Europe on key issues.
In a first bid to serve as a bridge between the White House and European allies, the U.K. announced on Monday that it will lead “an international mission to restore safe passage” in the Persian Gulf, working with partners including the U.S. Navy. The move offers a face-saving opportunity for countries that spurned a U.S.-led initiative because they blame Trump for quitting the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran.
A senior White House official said the U.S. expects cooperation will grow more robust with the new government, as the two countries work together extensively on security issues including North Korea. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo predicted the nations that long have boasted of their “special relationship” will grow even closer.
“I think we’ll find that there’s a very good working relationship there,” Pompeo said in a Bloomberg TV interview last month. “When the prime minister gets his feet on the ground, I’m looking forward to having a chance to chat with him and his foreign secretary so that we can deliver on behalf of these two important democracies.”
New Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab will be in Washington this week, and his language will be mined for clues on where the U.K. is headed.
Working in the U.S.’s favor is Johnson’s need to seal a trade deal with Washington after the U.K.’s departure from the EU, expected Oct. 31. To help smooth that process, Johnson could take more symbolic steps to spurn Europe and sidle up to Trump.
Key Question: Iran
Johnson’s proposal on Gulf maritime security was welcomed by the U.S. But that doesn’t mean he’s ready to follow Trump in quitting the multinational nuclear agreement the American president has called the “worst deal ever.” In announcing the maritime mission, Raab, the foreign minister, said, “We remain committed to working with Iran and our international partners to de-escalate the situation and maintain the nuclear deal.”
Johnson has repeatedly signaled that he’s a strong supporter of the nuclear deal, which the U.K. and other participating nations have struggled to maintain in the face of renewed U.S. sanctions against Iran. As British foreign minister in 2018, when Trump pulled out of the agreement, Johnson said talks with Tehran culminating in a new accord were difficult to imagine.
“One of the big questions is whether he will break with European unity on Iran,” said Richard Nephew, a Columbia University scholar who was part of the U.S. team that negotiated the nuclear accord. “He needs Trump on his side, at the very least promising a favorable trade deal, as he takes the U.K. down the Brexit route.”
In Germany, there’s concern that Johnson and Trump will try to build a new version of the “special relationship,” according to a coalition official in Berlin.
The Germans see Johnson’s intention to seek a trade deal with the U.S. at a time when the EU is already negotiating such a pact as further evidence of a breach, said the official, who asked not to identified discussing Britain’s political direction. French President Emmanuel Macron’s aides also routinely say that they see the British as potential trouble-makers on trade.
Despite receiving invitations, Johnson hasn’t traveled to the major European capitals. By contrast, his predecessor went to Berlin within days of coming to power.
In the most telling example of friction between London and its European partners, the U.K. undercut a French-led initiative to find a common candidate to lead the International Monetary Fund. Mere hours before EU governments were to begin voting on a candidate, the U.K. suddenly objected to the process and said it wouldn’t take part in offering a potential nominee or in the voting, according to a source familiar with the interaction.
All this is fertile ground for the White House to act to pull the U.K. away, and the promise of a free-trade deal is the biggest carrot of all for a prime minister determined to bring about Brexit and deliver on its promised benefits. That’s why Johnson’s meeting with Trump at the Group of Seven summit in France this month will be the most-watched bilateral of them all for the Europeans.
Picking an Envoy
Johnson will also have a chance to appoint a new ambassador to Washington because Kim Darroch abruptly resigned last month after the leak of internal messages in which he criticized the Trump administration as “clumsy and inept.”
Johnson’s failure to defend Darroch in a televised campaign debate brought criticism from a Foreign Office official who said he’d thrown the ambassador “under a bus.”
Trump had failed to win British support on a number of issues under former Prime Minister Theresa May. A U.K. government official said the U.S. relationship can only improve in light of May’s lack of rapport with Trump. The official predicted a strengthening of relations, drawing on new opportunities on trade and other issues, but not a total reset of ties.
Even under Johnson, breaking the U.K. away from the European Union on foreign policy will be tough, according to three senior European diplomats with knowledge of the new British government. Any moves to cozy up to Trump may be more symbolic than substantive, particularly because Johnson has to worry about maintaining a single-seat majority in the House of Commons.
“What Trump and Johnson have in common is they are political opportunists,” said Charles Kupchan, former senior director for European Affairs at the National Security Council in the Obama administration. “They believe in America First, Britain First. They’re out for themselves and I don’t think either Trump or Johnson will be making sacrifices to help each other.”
And while the U.K. is still reviewing its position on Huawei, which the U.S. sees as a stalking horse for Chinese spying and wants banned from allied nations, all four U.K. carriers are already building their 5G networks using equipment from Huawei. BT Group Plc’s EE and Vodafone Group Plc have even gone live with their Huawei-supported 5G. Delaying or freezing that deployment would be an additional hit to an increasingly fragile British economy.
Trump may have to be patient, knowing the U.K. leader has other priorities. Unlike May, who Trump publicly criticized on multiple occasions, the president sees in Johnson’s rise a vindication of his own style of showman politics.
“Trump from the get-go has been a supporter of getting on with Brexit and he likes populist and right-wing leaders, wherever they may be,” said Kupchan, the former Obama administration official who’s now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
But unlike Trump, Johnson has less room for error on the world stage and is therefore expected to be less volatile. While Trump can insult allies and foes, tear up agreements, and still command any leader’s attention, the U.K. is a diminishing power, said Andreas Krieg, who teaches defense studies at King’s College London.
“He talks about building a Global Britain but he know there’s no capacity to build a global power,” said Krieg. “He understands Britain is not America.”