A Short History of Boris Johnson Insulting Foreign Leaders
The brash and flamboyant politician, the U.K.’s new foreign secretary, is one of the more cosmopolitan figures on the world stage—but he’s also one of the least diplomatic.
Boris Johnson, a New York City native and accused Little Englander, probably isn’t much of a fan of the twangy Americana stylings of Dan Hicks. Which is a shame, because he might take a cue from Mr. Hicks and His Hot Licks: “How can we miss you when you won’t go away?” BoJo, who was barely finished licking his wounds after being unceremoniously tossed under a double-decker London bus by his friend and fellow Conservative Michael Gove, thus losing his shot at the prime ministership of the U.K., is now the freshly announced foreign secretary in PM Theresa May’s government.
It’s an amusing landing spot. Boris is one of the more cosmopolitan figures on the world political stage: great-grandson of a Turk, born an American citizen (and, depending on whom you ask, perhaps still one), and a veteran journalist on the European continent. He speaks, with varying degrees of fluency, French, Italian, German, and Spanish. If simple knowledge of foreign parts is the foreign secretary’s mandate, he’d be set. But overseeing diplomacy is also in the portfolio, and diplomacy has never been one of Johnson’s strengths. U.S. conservatives howled that President Obama kicked his presidency off with a metaphorical “apology tour,” but Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson might find a literal apology tour essential to kick off his stint in Whitehall.
Obama is, in fact, as good a place to start as any. The U.S. and U.K. have historically been very close allies, but Johnson—a leading voice in the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union—was displeased with the president weighing in on behalf of the “remain side.” In a column in The Sun, Johnson said Obama’s stance was “incoherent. It is inconsistent, and yes it is downright hypocritical.” He also mentioned the incident in which Obama removed a bust of Churchill from the White House (it was, the president noted, only one of several), implying that the removal was “a symbol of the part-Kenyan President’s ancestral dislike of the British empire—of which Churchill had been such a fervent defender.”
It’s not partisan. Johnson was no fan of Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, whom he called “a cross-eyed Texan warmonger, unelected, inarticulate, who epitomizes the arrogance of American foreign policy.”
Obama, of course, is on his way out of the presidency. But that won’t necessarily mend fences between the two countries. On the one hand, the winner of the presidential election could be Hillary Clinton, of whom Johnson wrote in 2008, “She’s got dyed blonde hair and pouty lips, and a steely blue stare, like a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital.” To be fair, Johnson concluded that he wanted Clinton to win that election—though only because it would bring Bill Clinton back to the White House, a reasoning that would probably not endear him to Hillary Clinton.
On the other hand, Donald Trump could also win. The presumptive Republican nominee previously speculated that he was “not going to have a very good relationship” with then-PM David Cameron, a Johnson frenemy of long standing. But don’t count on shared disdain for Cameron bonding the two barmily bouffanted blonds. As mayor of London, Johnson lashed out at Trump for insulting the city with “complete and utter nonsense,” saying that “the only reason I wouldn't go to some parts of New York is the real risk of meeting Donald Trump.” He later said he was “genuinely worried” that Trump might win, and described being mistaken for the entertainer as the low point of a visit to his hometown.
As of press time, Johnson doesn’t appear to have insulted Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson, but there’s still plenty of time.
Closer to home, European leaders had no reason to be fond of Boris even before Brexit. As former Times of London journalist Martin Fletcher wrote:
For decades, British newspapers have offered their readers an endless stream of biased, misleading and downright fallacious stories about Brussels. And the journalist who helped set the tone — long before he became the mayor of London or the face of the pro-Brexit campaign — was Boris Johnson.
His new boss, May, recently mocked him for being incapable of standing up to hard-nosed Teutonic negotiation, remembering an incident in which he bought second-hand water cannons to fight riots but never used them. “Boris negotiated in Europe,” the prime minister quipped. “I seem to remember last time he did a deal with the Germans, he came back with three nearly new water cannon.”
His cheerleading for Brexit only inflamed tensions with continental leaders, and he has made no effort to smooth over ruffled feathers. He accused EU President Jean-Claude Juncker of “deceit,” and has sparred with the French, too—though he did so in their own tongue, perhaps dulling the pain.
Johnson has also picked some fights directly with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, calling her decision to prosecute a German comedian who insulted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “sickening.” He wrote: “She numbly decided to kowtow to the demands of Erdogan, a man who is engaged in a chilling suppression of Turkish freedom of expression.”
However undiplomatic those words about Merkel, he happens to be right about Erdogan and the prosecution. In any case, no one will accuse Boris of numbly kowtowing to the Turkish leader. In May, Johnson came out on top in a contest, inspired by the prosecution, to write an offensive limerick about Erdogan. Here’s the entry:
There was a young fellow from Ankara
Who was a terrific wankerer.
Till he sowed his wild oats
With the help of a goat
But he didn’t even stop to thankera.
Johnson claimed to be surprised that his entry won, and no wonder: “Wankerer” isn’t a word, though “wanker” certainly is, and it’s hard to even produce an imaginary meaning.
In any case, more to Johnson’s liking is Erdogan’s neighbor, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, who on the one hand is a murderous maniac, but on the other hand warmed the cockles of the Oxford classics student’s heart by preserving an ancient monument. That’s not a cheap caricature of Boris’s words—it’s a more or less direct paraphrase: “I suppose it is bizarre to feel such joy at the military success of one of the vilest regimes on earth,” he wrote. “But I cannot conceal my elation as the news comes in from Palmyra and it is reported that the Syrian army is genuinely back in control of the entire Unesco site.”
Looking to East Asia, Johnson has found openings to offend as well. In 2008, he couldn’t resist a jab at China, the world powerhouse in ping-pong: “Virtually every single one of our international sports were invented or codified by the British. And I say this respectfully to our Chinese hosts, who have excelled so magnificently at Ping-pong. Ping-pong was invented on the dining tables of England in the 19th century and it was called Wiff-waff!”
Mild stuff, to be sure. Not so easily forgiven was a remark in a 2006 column, in which he wrote, “For 10 years we in the Tory Party have become used to Papua New Guinea-style orgies of cannibalism and chief-killing.” The country’s attache in London was not amused.
Of the many ironies of Boris’s Brexit success, quick fall, and subsequent rebound as foreign secretary is that he may have given himself a larger and more complicated portfolio than his predecessor. It wasn’t so long ago that Johnson was railing against Scottish independence, warning darkly on the eve of a 2014 referendum that the U.K. was “on the verge of … an act of self-mutilation that will leave our international rivals stunned, gleeful and discreetly scornful.” He further worried about the “horrific financial and constitutional implications” of such a split.
The referendum failed and Scotland remained, but having engineered a split between the U.K. and EU, however, Britain is seeing horrific financial implications already, and it could reap some constitutional ones, too: Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has suggested that the Brexit vote is grounds for a second Scottish independence referendum, since an overwhelming majority north of the border favored remain. Perhaps Boris can use his personal charm to bring the first minister around?
Or perhaps not. Johnson previously likened Sturgeon to a fox in a henhouse, a jewel thief, King Herod, and “voracious weevils.” All of these descriptions were found in the same column. Ah well: If the Scots split off, Sturgeon should fit in very well with all the other fuming foreign leaders he’s managed to offend.