Boris Johnson, the British foreign secretary, has defended Donald Trump’s handling of relations with Russia, saying the US president has taken a more uncompromising approach towards the Kremlin than Barack Obama.
Johnson, speaking in Australia on Thursday, voiced strong support for the way Trump had handled what he termed “the Russia problem”. He rejected allegations that Trump was too close with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and said the US had been resolute in maintaining sanctions over Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
Johnson offered high praise for Trump’s “kinetic” response to the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack in Syria in April. “When you look at how the Americans responded to the Syria crisis, they’ve been more hardline against the Russians than the Obama administration was,” Johnson said.
“Actually, the Americans responded to the barbaric massacre on 4 April, when up to 100 people died in a chemical weapons attack, by kinetic action, which the Obama administration never did. It is the Americans who have been tough on the Assad regime’s convoys, and so I think just look at what they’re really doing.
“Is it fitting and right for the president of the United States to have any kind of personal relationship with Mr Putin? Well, I think, actually, it is. He didn’t meet him until 20 July, and they had a lot to discuss,” he said.
Johnson’s speech, delivered to an audience including senior Australian politicians, diplomats and academics, was largely a passionate defence of Brexit. He drew laughter throughout, including when questioned about remarks he made in 2015 describing Trump as “clearly out of his mind”.
“I have been in Japan, I have been in New Zealand, I’ve now done two days in Australia, and to my certain knowledge I have yet to say anything that has caused a major international incident,” Johnson said.
“I have to say that when I met Donald Trump he was actually extremely gracious, in spite of the remarks to which you unkindly allude. And he said, rather mystifyingly, how often he was mistaken for me, which I thought was a low blow.”
Johnson sought to allay fears about Brexit, which he said was being “turned into a great superstition” akin to the millennium bug, a comparison he has made previously.
“It’s just not true, we will do a great deal. It’s overwhelmingly in the interests of our friends and partners to do it,” he said. “Yeah, there’s going to be some arguments about money and freedom of movement of people and that kind of thing, but we’ll get it done.”
He asked the audience to imagine where Australia would be had it somehow joined the European Union in the 1970s. The nation would have little autonomy in determining immigration policy or protecting its agricultural or wine industries, he said.
“You would find yourselves regularly outvoted in the council of ministers on hours of work or the definition of chocolate – and it must be seriously doubted whether the Polywaffle, let alone the Violet Crumble, would have been admitted,” Johnson said.
The central argument of his speech was that if Australia could achieve prosperity and success on the world stage, despite its geographic isolation, so could the UK.
“So when we look at the forward momentum of Australia in the last few decades, you can perhaps see why we in Britain are inclined to take with a pinch of salt some of the very slight gloom and negativity that is emanating from some distinguished quarters about the decision of the British people to leave the European Union,” he said.
“They seem to think that the UK is like some poor, wriggling crustacean about to be deprived of its protective shell. I say: don’t come the raw prawn with me.”
Johnson signalled the UK would seek to expand its role in the Asia-Pacific, including through stronger relations with the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean).
“Which, by the way, costs about $1m a year to join, rather than $20bn. Not that I wish to, as I say, cast aspersions on the wonderful EU,” he said.
This article was written by Christopher Knaus in Sydney, for theguardian.com on Thursday 27th July 2017 13.56 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010