In search of a British foreign policy

January 15, 2009 at 11:35 pm | Posted in Barack Obama, British Politics, International, New Labour | 1 Comment

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Coming just five days before the next President is sworn-in, David Miliband’s sudden recalibration of British foreign policy has been widely – and rightly – interpreted as a make-over to match the more refined tastes of the Obama administration. By abandoning the brutish, unloved ‘war on terror’ and embracing complexity, pragmatism and an acceptance that our enemies can’t be thwarted by force alone, Miliband’s Guardian piece bore a striking resemblance to the language of ‘smart power’ that Hillary Clinton promised in her appearance before the Senate.

However, the question of whether or not this is ‘change you can believe in’ is up for debate. Scribo scribe James Hooper declares himself ‘reassured’ and notes that a foreign policy pinched from Barack Obama is still a huge improvement on eight years of Britain saying “I’m with stupid“. On the other hand, Claude at Hagley Road catches a whiff of opportunism and points out that this is the same man who spent years waving pom-poms behind his Prime Minister’s gallantly stupid war. Meanwhile, Aaron just wants to know: what the hell took you so long?

There are some good points in each of these posts, but what I think’s been missed about Miliband’s rather blatant fawning is that he seems to think that by mirroring the rhetoric of the incoming administration, Britain will be the same kind of sidekick to President Obama as Tony Blair was to President Bush. In my view, that seems unlikely.

Of course it’s in Britain and America’s interests to enjoy strong co-operation, but whilst the Bush administration could achieve its foreign policy objectives either by striking out alone (see: Kyoto treaty; Israel-Palestine) or feigning multilateralism (see: Iraq; ‘you forgot about Poland!’), Obama’s foreign policy brief is so vast that it will be more a case of ‘all hands at the pump’.

To help form a global response to the financial crisis, the climate crisis, the food crisis, the crisis in the Indian subcontinent, Zimbabwe, Sudan or the Middle East, the next President will need far more than a ‘coalition of the willing’. No, he needs a coalition of the unwilling, the reluctant, the haggled & cajoled. These most intractable problems will require the broadest of coalitions, and for that reason any hopes Miliband or Brown might’ve had of playing Alfred to Obama’s Bruce Wayne will surely be dashed.

Sure, Obama will need Britain’s input on various issues, but my guess is that he’ll seek that help in the context of our membership of the EU – a point David Cameron seems to have missed spectacularly when the two of them met in July. He won’t seek to use Britain as a likeminded dogsbody, but nor will he need to lean on our support like a crutch of legitimacy.

All of which should have been a sign that British foreign policy doesn’t need to sound like an exact replica of the US. Whatever you might say about his domestic agenda, the past months have shown that Brown (if not Miliband – yet) can be an influential figure on the world stage and the next President will neither ask nor thank him for giving up the stature of an experienced statesman to become some slavish sycophant.

President Obama will be completely relaxed about Britain persuing a British foreign policy, and if Miliband and Brown can begin to articulate what form that should take – and produce the action to back it up – then both our countries will be much better off.

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  1. […] relations might fare in an age of both Obama and David Cameron is at least plausible. As I’ve noted before, Obama will probably seek to work with Britain as a part of the European community, not as some […]


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