Thursday, January 20

Maybe the Brits are just having us on: the world reacts to Boris Johnson as foreign minister



The world of politics, diplomacy and celebrity has reacted with a mixture of amusement and horror to the news that Boris Johnson has been appointed Britain’s new foreign secretary.

Johnson himself said he was “excited” to take up the new role , which will involve travelling the globe, meeting foreign leaders and representing Britain on the international stage.

However, his track record when it comes to interacting with other cultures is patchy to say the least, and politicians around the world will no doubt be intrigued by the prospect of working with a man who once wrote a poem about the Turkish president having sex with a goat.

In the US, the official reaction was one of carefully restrained laughter.

When State Department spokesman Mark Toner heard the news, he struggled to keep a straight face – a broad smile breaking out more than once – before saying the US “looked forward” to working with Johnson.

Toner was not alone in his bemusement. American political scientist Ian Bremmer hoped it might all be an elaborate joke.

In Germany, the chancellor, Angela Merkel, declined to comment on May’s surprise decision to appoint Johnson when asked by reporters. “I believe it is our task to work closely with governments in allied countries.

The world has enough problems for us to progress in our foreign policy cooperation with Great Britain as we have always done,” she said. The hashtag #Außenminister (foreign minister) however captured the national mood.

Ralf Stegner, deputy chairman of the Social Democratic Party, the junior partner in Merkel’s coalition, said “Mrs May looks weaker after such a choice of personnel”. Johnson had not come across as an exemplary diplomat in the past, Stegner said. “Now he is negotiating Brexit. Enjoy the trip!”

Simone Peter, co-leader of the Green Party, likened Johnson’s appointment to “trusting the cat to keep the cream”. Green Party parliamentary co-leader Anton Hofreiter said appointing Johnson was “a very bad sign for the leaving process and raises doubts over the competency of the new prime minister”.

The Brussels correspondent of German public broadcaster ZDF, Anne Gellink, said that Johnson was “properly, properly hated” and seen as “the head of a campaign of lies” in the EU’s headquarters. ZDF’s Berlin correspondent, Nicole Diekmann, tweeted: “So, Boris Johnson, foreign minister. British humour”.

Nikolaus Blome, the deputy editor of Germany’s biggest tabloid Bild, tweeted: “There’s justice after all. As foreign minister, Boris Johnson now has to lie in the bed he made himself”

Sweden’s former prime minister Carl Bildt was among those despairing over the decision.

And Cher was, well, not happy.

Scottish crime writer Val McDermid was similarly unimpressed.

The world’s second largest economy was scratching its head as it woke up to the news that Boris Johnson – or “Bao Li Si” as he is known in Chinese – had been made foreign secretary.

“What’s going on?” one baffled Chinese commentator wrote on a popular WeChat group dedicated to life in Britain.

“Foreign secretary Boris is going to hog the global headlines,” the writer predicted, adding: “Does Auntie May think he is a mascot? I can hardly bear to watch it unfold on [state broadcaster] CCTV.”

Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter, also erupted in a bout of Borisology, with many observers focusing on the former London mayor’s hair rather than his foreign policy experience.

“Just from looking at Boris Johnson you can tell that British hairdressing is not doing so well,” quipped one. “He’s so funny!” celebrated another.

Not all observers in China, where Johnson is seen more as a celebrity than a politicalactor, were so enthusiastic.

“What are they doing?” one critic of Theresa May’s selection asked on Weibo. “Boris will be in charge of diplomacy???”

There was also bewilderment at Johnson’s appointment in Beijing’s diplomatic circles.

During his last trip to China in 2013, the loquacious London mayor bamboozled Chinese interpreters with his use of words such as polymorphous and joked about his Bullingdon Club days to a senior Communist party leader.

“The idea of having Boris Johnson as foreign secretary never even entered my mind,” admitted one senior western diplomat.

The diplomat, who keeps one eye on Westminster politics, described Johnson’s appointment as a risky move that had the potential to backfire badly.

“But sometimes a bit of charisma helps give you more visibility. Let’s see if he is more pragmatic and less of a performer in his new job.”

In the hours after Johnson’s unveiling, British residents of the Chinese capital were bombarded with sarcastic messages from fellow expats.

“What is happening to your country?” read one provocation sent to the Guardian.

Another, less diplomatic dispatch sent to a functionary of the British embassy said simply: “Your new boss is a plonker.”

Some, however, believe Johnson is the right man for the job.

Among his fans is the former Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott – who once threatened to “shirtfront” Vladimir Putin.