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Boris Johnson’s wish to pick fights with his old enemies risks making the UK a pariah

‘No way out’: Commentator predicts Boris Johnson’s future 02:10

London (CNN)UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his government have spent much of this week fighting with the EU and rowing with a European human rights court, all while playing down accusations that they are breaking international law and pandering to his party’s base.

On Monday, Johnson’s foreign secretary, Liz Truss, revealed the long-awaited Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, a piece of legislation that, if passed, would allow the British government to unilaterally override parts of the Brexit deal it agreed with the EU in 2019.
Two days later, the EU responded by launching legal proceedings against the UK over its failure to implement parts of the protocol to date, while Maroš Šefčovič, the European Commission vice-president, said that “there is no legal nor political justification whatsoever for unilaterally changing an international agreement … let’s call a spade a spade: this is illegal.”
UK government officials responded angrily by insisting that the bill, if passed, would be perfectly legal. Suella Braverman, the attorney general who gave the new bill a green light, went on television to defend the proposed legislation. In doing so, she accused the BBC of painting the EU as “the good guys” and told ITV’s political editor that his assertion the bill would break that law was “Remaniac make-believe.”
On Tuesday, the Johnson government found itself cursing the name of another European institution, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), after it was forced to abandon a flight that would transport asylum-seekers to Rwanda. The UK announced a deal in April under which asylum seekers in the country could be relocated and granted asylum in Rwanda. The UN’s human rights agency had previously warned the UK that the policy might be unlawful, as it could expose those refugees to human rights abuses in Rwanda.
Demonstrators protest outside of an airport perimeter fence against a planned deportation of asylum seekers from Britain to Rwanda, at Gatwick Airport near Crawley, Britain, June 12, 2022.

The scheme had been widely criticized by human rights organizations, which succeeded in numerous legal challenges against individual removals but failed in their bid for an injunction suspending the flight. However, when the ECHR intervened on Tuesday night, saying that the last asylum seekers due to be on board had not exhausted their legal options in the UK, the plane was grounded.
Again, government ministers responded by insisting that the plan was lawful. Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab has since suggested that the UK will introduce its own Bill of Rights that could effectively allow it to ignore the ECHR.
Johnson’s willingness to have public spats with large, international institutions makes sense when you look at recent history. Both Johnson and his predecessor, Theresa May, picked fights with the judiciary and the EU during the most frustrating days of Brexit. This, so the theory goes among Conservatives, gave both leaders a boost among their core supporters for attacking elitist bodies that were blocking the will of the people.
“Historically, Boris has done well hitting out at big institutions like the EU and courts,” says a former government minister told CNN. “These were not artificial fights, both Rwanda and Northern Ireland are proper government policy. But the hardline way we’ve defended them suggests to me that Boris sees a silver lining,” they added.
In one sense, this logic makes sense. Johnson has been hit by scandal after scandal and has seen his personal approval ratings tank, along with national polling for his Conservative Party.
He has had to fight off a vote among his own party to remove him as leader and on Thursday night saw his own ethics adviser Christopher Geidt resigned, saying that Johnson’s government had put him in an “impossible and odious position.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks as he takes questions at the House of Commons in London, Britain June 15, 2022.

So, a fight with the lofty elites in Brussels and Strasbourg over real red-meat Conservative issues like Brexit and immigration could be just what Johnson needs to get things back on track.
However, every time a government becomes so fixated on domestic policy, it risks forgetting that allies and enemies around the world are paying attention.
CNN spoke to multiple Western diplomatic sources who said that Johnson’s government had cast a dark shadow over their perception of the UK. One senior Western official who has worked closely with the UK during the Ukraine crisis said that while allies still coordinated with the UK, the sense of concern that they don’t know what version of Johnson they will get has become normalized.
“He is not Donald Trump, but he is so unpredictable that it’s easy for allies to think of him as being like Donald Trump,” said a Western diplomat.
A European diplomat told CNN that “it’s hard to overstate just how much damage has been done. Trust has been hugely damaged.” They pointed to the issue over Northern Ireland, saying that “on our side, we know that there are solutions to the protocol. But those solutions rely on trust. Why should we trust him not to tear up any new agreement in the future?”
Western officials say, with some sadness, that there were moments in the immediate aftermath of Russia invading Ukraine where they thought Johnson might start behaving like a “stable and predictable” leader, as the Western diplomat put it.
A European official agreed, saying that “there were moments when we looked at the UK with some admiration and thought there might be some path forward. Ukraine was something bigger than our squabbles.”
However, the official continued that this feeling of optimism faded quickly, after Johnson compared the Ukrainian fight for freedom to Brexit.
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the National Service of Thanksgiving held at St Paul's Cathedral as part of celebrations marking the Platinum Jubilee of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, in London, Friday, June 3, 2022.

Conservatives in Westminster have mixed views on how bad this all is. Some worry that Johnson’s continued scandals and rhetoric are making the UK a pariah. Worse, they fear that a country like the UK — a longstanding member of the rules-based, international order — playing so fast and loose with international law sets a terrible precedent at a time when democracy is under threat in many parts of the world.
On the other hand, some MPs think that Johnson’s critics are getting worked up about something that normal people don’t care about. They say, not unreasonably, that a G7, NATO member with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council — and one that has in many respects led the way on Ukraine — is not about to get cut out by its allies.
Ultimately, Johnson’s international spats are most likely to play out in the domestic political arena. Some will love that he is taking a hardline stance. Others will feel a deepening sense of embarrassment that this man is their prime minister.
“If you are in Boris’s position, then you may as well double down on some of this stuff. What does he have to lose?” a senior Conservative MP told CNN. “Either things are so terminally bad that he’s doomed whatever he does, or he’s got two years to turn things around before the election. So why not go out there and have fights on your own pitch?”
That summary makes a lot of sense when you are sitting in Westminster, talking to people who spend too much time in Westminster. However, Johnson’s decisions seriously impact the lives of people who spend no time in Westminster and for whom this really is not a game. Especially as the UK is going through the worst cost-of-living crisis it has suffered in decades.
Johnson won’t know if his red meat gamble has paid off with the public until the next general election — unless he’s removed from office before then. There will undeniably be people who see him as the same Brexit street fighter who stands up for Britain against the bullies seeking to do it down.
But there will be an awful lot of people who think that instead of picking fights with the EU and ECHR, Johnson should be thinking of ways to improve their lives.

US enemies are lining up to test Joe Biden

President Joe Biden is confronting a series of distinct but interlocking global crises and hotspots with US foes lining up to test the mettle of an under-pressure leader and their own sense that the United States is a retreating global power.

Biden made the kind of fateful decision on Monday that might be more at home in the tense 1970s, putting up to 8,500 troops on alert to rush to Eastern Europe to counter the Kremlin’s move to force the US away from its Western flank. But hoka shoes for women his trial of nerves with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is holding Ukraine hostage in a bid to reverse the West’s expansion after the Cold War, is far from his only global headache.
On the other side of the globe, a strategic ballet of military might is playing out as the US and China maneuver armadas and warplanes amid tensions over Taiwan, and other disputed territories, in a long-term duel for dominance in the Asia-Pacific region. While the prospect of a Russian invasion of Ukraine is fixating the world right now, a future Chinese strike against the self-governing democratic island is the more likely trigger for a disastrous superpower conflict.
US places up to 8,500 troops on alert for possible deployment to Eastern Europe amid Russia tensions
Then there is the Middle East, from which America has been trying to extricate itself for years. US forces at a base in Abu Dhabi leapt into action early Monday, using Patriot missiles to shoot down several missiles flung at the Gulf emirate by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. The emergency was a reminder that despite some hopes of renewed nuclear talks with Iran, the Islamic Republic’s regional power plays are a grave risk to US personnel. And the vicious war in Yemen, prosecuted by Washington ally Saudi Arabia with terrible civilian consequences, endangers the US by association.
And if Washington was tempted to forget the frightening prospect of a nuclear North Korea, its leader Kim Jong Un has other ideas. One of a string of recent missile tests by Pyongyang triggered extraordinary ground stops at some US West Coast airports, which underscored the nightmare scenario for any US President that the extreme hermit state could have the US mainland in its sights.

Putting American power to the test

Each of these challenges concern foreign states and nationalistic leaders making hard-eyed decisions to advance strategic goals, seeking to increase their power, expand or cement anti-democratic political systems and dominate their spheres of influence outside their own sovereign territory. They also know that with the US under pressure elsewhere, they may have an opening.
Putin, for example, is well aware that Biden wants to pivot to the hoka shoes China threat — so it makes sense to probe to see whether the US is distracted. Beijing, for one, would be happy for the US to get bogged down in Europe. The US probably needs China to help cool North Korea’s provocations. And Russia is a key player in the Iran nuclear talks. It didn’t go unnoticed in Washington that Iran, Russia and China held a third set of naval drills in the Indian Ocean last week.
Since the US is, still, the world’s dominant power, with allies across the globe, and the leader of the democratic bloc of nations, each thrust by one of its adversaries draws it deeper into a confrontation and preventive diplomacy.
The building challenges to US authority come at a moment when there is a widespread perception abroad that Washington is not the power it was for the second half of the 20th century. Despite Biden’s assurances that “America is Back,” the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan last year raised questions about US competence and commitment. US adversaries know Americans are exhausted by 20 years of war abroad, a factor that may lead some to calculate that Washington could waver on its strategic obligations for political reasons.
Biden caught on hot mic calling Fox reporter 'a stupid son of a bitch'
And foreign leaders understand domestic US politics too. With a significant percentage of the country convinced Biden is illegitimate thanks to former President Donald Trump’s election lies, and Republicans lambasting him as weak under Putin’s challenge, there’s rarely been a better time for foreign nations to test a modern President’s character and stamina. The possibility that Trump, who was a four-year force for global instability, could return to office, meanwhile, has some allies doubting that the US can keep any commitments it does make.
Some foreign leaders might look at events in Washington on Monday and wonder whether the stress is beginning to weigh on the President. After a White House event, Biden was asked about inflation by a Fox reporter and in a stunningly unguarded moment on an open mic, he responded: “What a stupid son of a bitch.” The President later called the reporter to apologize.
Putin’s infuriating maneuvering
Each of the geopolitical factors listed above are on display in Putin’s challenge to the West over Ukraine as he seeks to restore some of the strategic sway once held by the Soviet Union over Eastern Europe around the symbolic 30th anniversary of his beloved empire’s collapse.
After massing more than 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s border, the Russian leader made a series of demands for US concessions, including an assurance that the Kyiv government will never join NATO and for the alliance to pull back troops and armaments from ex-Warsaw Pact states that joined the West since they feared the kind of Russian resurgence that Putin is trying to engineer.
Biden has responded by seeking a gradual escalation of pressure designed to convince Putin that the cost of invading Ukraine would be too high, promising sanctions that could cripple the Russian economy and cause knock-on political threats to his rule.
Now, the President is mulling a reinforcement of NATO’s eastern flank with possible troop deployments. The alliance on Monday announced some smaller deployments to the Baltic and Eastern European member states. For the first time since the Cold War, a US carrier strike group will be placed under NATO command in the Mediterranean for a high-level maritime exercise this week.
This is all meant to project resolve, deterrence and to show that Putin’s olukai shoes attempt to get the US out of Europe will fail. It is incumbent on Biden to show Washington has the back of its allies. If he doesn’t, NATO will count for nothing. But it’s a high-risk plan since US deployments could prompt the Russian leader to pull the trigger he has to Ukraine’s head and to argue he must invade to protect Russian security.
Putin is an infuriating, unpredictable adversary, and has forced the US to react to his provocations for weeks. It’s impossible to read his intentions. US diplomacy so far, including a Biden-Putin meeting in Geneva last year and more recent online encounters between the presidents, have yielded no breakthroughs. It has, however, handed Putin the prestige of Cold War-style summits that led Republicans to accuse Biden of that dreaded word — appeasement.
In the latest demonstration of Putin’s penchant for mind games, he and Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel spoke by phone on Monday and agreed to deeper cooperation. Some Russian military officials have suggested deploying military assets to Cuba and Venezuela during the crisis over Ukraine. The allusions to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 — the US-Soviet standoff in which the world came close to nuclear war — are hard to miss.
More showdowns lie in wait for Biden
Some analysts believe that Putin has put himself in a box and will be unable to exit the showdown without at least a limited penetration into Ukraine that would save face. This is why Biden whipped up so much controversy last week when he suggested that a “minor incursion” by Russia would not draw the full sanctions broadside. But the US President was also telling the truth, apparently referring to divisions among allies in Europe about how to handle Putin.
The Russian leader’s timing is no accident as he tries to probe divisions between European powers internally and with the United States over the crisis. This is a transitional period for the three major European powers. Germany has a new governing coalition that is split on foreign policy, knows it is reliant on Russian gas in the winter and remains wary of offensive military operations owing to its historic scar of militarism. French President Emmanuel Macron faces reelection in April, and is using the crisis to push for a more aggressive European Union role that might weaken US authority. And British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is mired in boozy scandals and struggling to cling onto power. The government in London is also locked in a bitter estrangement with its near allies over its exit from the EU.
Biden made a public point of addressing divides in Europe on Monday, gathering leaders in a video call and orchestrating a series of statements on both sides of the Atlantic promising unity on the crisis and the costs that Russia could face.
“I had a very, very, very good meeting — total unanimity with all the European leaders,” Biden told reporters afterward.
But there’s reason to doubt his confidence. The European Union, for example, saw no need to follow the US in authorizing the departure of nonessential staff and family members from Kyiv. Officials on the other side of the Atlantic have not used the same kind of alarmist language as the Biden administration about the imminent threat of a Russian invasion.
The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said Monday that though unity and pressure on Russia was vital, the situation was not irretrievable.
“Certainly, I have reason to be concerned but I don’t want to go in a nervous attack,” Borrell told Hala Gorani on CNN International.
Managing different threat perceptions with Europe is just one of the challenges that Biden faces in navigating the Ukraine showdown, one of the most testing moments in the recent history of NATO.
And he knows that even if he can engineer a peaceful resolution, China, North Korea and Iran are up next, posing more intractable challenges for a presidency never free from crises.