For the sake of his political survival, Boris Johnson needs to make a mark on the world stage. Derided as a buffoon or worse, he is likely to look beyond Europe for a way to secure his legacy. Due to the UK’s divisions, he will be facing equal criticism in the case of a deal or no-deal Brexit, meaning that outside Europe, he may have to seek a legacy in the Middle East.
And in this endeavour, he could find partners across the Atlantic. While the Trump administration and its hollowed out State Department struggle to gain any meaningful momentum with their Middle East policy, the UK, with its plethora of pragmatic Foreign Office mandarins and deep historical links, may be what is needed to restore trust across the region. As the global balance of power shifts away from the West, this trust is essential for ensuring a peaceful world.
This shift has been a long time coming. From decolonial movements – which aim to dismantle the vestiges of colonial power structures – to the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003, Western policies in the Middle East have been a byword for overconfidence and failure. This led President Obama to be especially cautious in becoming involved in the region in general (and Palestine in particular), resulting in the two-state solution – the “peace process” that never was – wilting rather than bearing fruit.
Into this void have moved several international actors – including Russia, Turkey and China – with various military, political and economic interventions. The political hegemony of the West is being further challenged by decolonial players from within the region challenging both Western dictates and their pliant local leaders.
This is a challenge to Trump and Johnson’s nostalgia, which is linked to the US and Britain’s huge investments in the Middle East; not only in terms of its natural resources but also in what it means for the future global balance of power.
Rather than embracing this shift, a reformulation of a colonialist paradigm in the Middle East is the grand vision that both leaders take to. Johnson brands himself as a Churchillian character whose natural habitat is the Great Game amongst world powers rather than the nuances of domestic policies or European legislation, which seem to be frankly boring to him.
Similarly, Trump sees himself as a great dealmaker and master negotiator who claims to have an ability to “get things done” that has never before graced the Oval Office.
Both men face mounting opposition and controversy at home: Trump in the form of the Mueller investigation and Johnson as he negotiates Brexit. They both need grand projects on the global stage that can demonstrate their competence to sceptical domestic audiences. And there is nothing grander – or more necessary – than justice in Palestine and an end to the Israeli occupation.
Trump, however, has already exhibited his incompetence in the region. There is a lack of expertise on the Middle East in the Trump White House; many of the presidential advisors seem compromised by Far Right think tanks and commentators who have no interest in sustainable, equitable solutions in the Middle East.
The State Department – the diplomatic heart of the US government that does the heavy lifting in any large scale overseas political project – is paralysed and fragmented under Trump administration. Relations between heads of government and the civil service are often strained, but in the last two years, they have sometimes spilled into open conflict in Washington DC.
All this – coupled with Trump’s apparent nepotism in propelling his son-in-law to the forefront of delicate Middle East negotiations – has come at a price. His much-touted “Deal of the Century” unveiled in Bahrain earlier this month fell on deaf ears. While promising to buy Palestinians with tens of Billions in investment, it did nothing to address the ongoing injustices of the occupation, or refugees’ right of return.
The only thing Trump’s deal did achieve was uniting the various camps amongst Palestinian leadership in opposition to it. The Israeli response was similarly lukewarm, despite the deal clearly favouring the status quo in terms of the occupation and the lack of Palestinian rights.
It is often said in diplomatic circles that the transatlantic ‘Special Relationship’ is not only dictated by the two respective heads of government. In classical terms, it is a partnership between the Romans and the Greeks: American muscle and firepower is Roman in stature, but British strategy is Greek in its nuance.
Can the mandarins in both London and Washington restrain Trump and Johnson from reproducing outdated colonial relationships, and instead push towards a more just and equitable accommodation that reflects the complexities of the 21st century?
It is time diplomats and politicians across Europe stood up for what is the Western world’s supposed USP on the global stage: its commitment to the idea that we are all equals.
The West – the US, Britain and also the EU – must accept that its role in the Middle East in the 21st and 22nd centuries will be very different to that of the 19th and 20th. It may even be completely unrecognisable to what went before, based instead on partnership and mutual respect rather than subjugation and racism. That would be a triumph for all involved – but in particular for the native people of those lands who have suffered for too long at the hands of colonial policies.