Gordon Brown’s Foreign Policy Priorities

Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s foreign policy speech of 12 November highlighted the challenge of straddling the power politics of yester-year with the imperatives of post-modern political management

Gordon BrownPrime Minister Gordon Brown’s first speech on international affairs was bound to attract a good deal of attention and he duly ticked all the boxes that could be regarded as obligatory: the interdependence of international issues, the importance of environmental challenges, Britain’s commitment to international security, to international institutions, to a tougher line on Iran, on Pakistan, on Europe’s importance in world diplomacy, on the close relationship with the United States, and so on.

But if all the boxes were ticked, the strokes were subtly different to those that Tony Blair habitually used. The content was perennially British, but the tone was distinctly Brownite. He satisfied his growing American critics with strong words on Iran and a notable omission in not ruling out military action against Tehran. Iran faces a choice, he said starkly, ‘confrontation with the international community’ or ‘a transformed relationship with the world’. There is no half way house for Tehran. And he made it clear that the US was, of course, Britain’s ‘most important bilateral partner’. But he was not saying that the US was Britain’s only realistic bilateral partner. By implication, there was scope for others and Britain would choose its constellation of partners on the merits of each issue. Britain’s relationship with the United States, Brown was signalling, would be on the basis of national statesmanship rather than personal friendship. That may change next autumn once it becomes clearer who the incoming American foreign policy team is likely to be, but for now the relationship is formal rather than personal; realistic rather than idealistic.

More significantly, the speech implies an important shift of perspective on the global context. Britain’s international environment is here seen as one of problems and challenges rather than struggles over values, still less as one of necessary crusades against manifest evil.

The emphasis was placed firmly on the security of the British people and their essential interests. But there are also more important changes of perspective behind this shift in emphasis. The Prime Minister called for a reform of international institutions, the G8, the IMF, the World Bank and the Security Council of the United Nations. He called for more emphasis on reconstruction and rebuilding than on intervention and regime change. He infused the speech with concepts of multi-nationalism and the management of inter-dependence.

There is nothing new in this, as such, but it became increasingly clear as he spoke that these were not just mechanisms in the diplomatic armoury of any developed state but rather, in his view, the essential fabric of international affairs itself. The intricate web of political, economic, and social inter-dependence which throws up so many problems of complexity and control in modern world politics is at least as important, in this view, as great power diplomacy itself. He did not say that the Bush Administration is learning afresh the importance of multi-national management and now discovering the difficulties even for the United States of exercising crude military power, but he clearly implied that the post-Blair leadership in Britain has learned this lesson; in fact, had never forgotten it in the first place, and we stood ready to respond to other great powers as they made their own judgements. The new enthusiasm of France and Germany to re-establish relations with the United States was welcomed in the speech as part of a necessary multi-lateralism between the developed countries as they confront their variously inter-dependent problems. Whether this was meant as sincerely as it was put will remain to be seen.

Nevertheless, there was still an important omission in this post-modern view of world politics. Britain’s Prime Minister may take the politically sophisticated high ground in respect to the manifestly botched power politics of the Bush Administration, but he still faces a world in which Russia and China are at least as crude in their inclination to attempt to use unsophisticated power to achieve their objectives.

The fact is that the next ten years is likely to be characterized both by very old-fashioned power politics as well as the inter-dependent and subtle politics of system maintenance. Tony Blair felt comfortable – even invigorated – by the world of power politics that took shape after 2001. Prime Minister Gordon Brown – instinctive bureaucrat that he is – may feel more comfortable in the post-modern world of political management. But for all the emphasis in his Guildhall speech, he may not be able to avoid the discomfiture of trying to straddle both these worlds of international politics in which we now live.

Professor Michael Clarke
Director, RUSI

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