UK must not cower away from ‘the cult of the strongman’, warns Foreign Secretary

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson
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A post-Brexit Britain must become a “leading agitator” for free trade and commit itself to promoting to the peace and prosperity of the world, the Foreign Secretary has declared, as he warns of a future in which Western institutions and values “fade away into irrelevance”.

In his first major policy speech since taking up the office, Boris Johnson has painted a stark picture of a world where “the cult of the strongman” is on the rise, and liberal democracy and open trade is in retreat.

But he sent a clear message that Britain was not prepared to “cower” away from such challenges on the international stage, as he called on the country to strengthen trade and defence links with allies across the globe.

The speech, delivered to an audience at Chatham House, was seen by some as a crucial opportunity for the recently appointed Secretary of State to demonstrate his credibility and competence in the role.

In recent weeks he has been accused of both alienating European leaders with his attitude to Brexit, and of taking differing views in public and in private on key issues such as freedom of movement.

However, in this morning’s address, he made a clear effort to smooth relations with EU leaders, as he spoke of building “a new European partnership where we continue to develop our work on things that matter to all of us in Europe”.

He also emphasised the importance of helping Europe remain strong for the sake of guaranteeing Britain’s own stability and security.

In a show of support for Donald Trump’s recent challenge to Nato members to step up defence spending, he said it was unjustifiable that the US accounts for 70 per cent of Nato funds.

He said the UK’s own commitment to fulfilling the 2 per cent of GDP obligation was “unbreakable” and called on fellow member states to meet the same target.

However, he sent a strong signal that the Government does not share the President-elect’s soft stance on Russia, as he stated that Britain is “prepared to be tough” with the Putin regime.

And though this “does not mean it is wrong to engage” with the country, he stressed the UK “cannot normalise relations with Russia or go back to ‘business as usual’”.

One of the overarching themes of Mr Johnson’s speech was the need to protect what he referred to as “the global liberal order” from “fading into irrelevance”.

He warned of the growing popularity of the “cult of the strong man” and an arc of instability across the Middle East, that threatens to push democracy into “retreat”.

“We have to acknowledge that in many respects the world is not in good shape,” he said.

“We have the cult of the strong man, we have democracy in retreat, we have an arc of instability across the Middle East from Iraq to Syria to Libya.

“It is precisely because of the intensity of these challenges that we need to redouble our resolve and to defend and preserve the best of the rules-based international order.

“If we fail, then we risk reverting to an older and more brutal system.”

Mr Johnson pointed to trade as on the main areas in which Britain can cement its place as a key player on the world stage.

He claimed it is the country’s “historic post-Brexit function” to be the “leading agitators for free trade”, and urged the UK to “commit [itself] to the peace and prosperity of the world”.

“We are not some bit part or spear carrier on the world stage. We are a protagonist,” he stated. “It is in our interests to contribute to global stability; peace; order,” he said.