Blogging from the Highlands of Scotland
'From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step' - Diderot

Sunday, 6 January 2008

Britain's foreign policy - ten years on, just another new soundbite

First of all - A Peaceful, Happy and Prosperous (or at least not too debt-ridden) New Year to all who pass by here. Now, to business!

In the early days of Labour Government rule, the late Robin Cook laid out his vision of Britain and concluded with a rather woolly kind of 'mission statement' of which the following are a few highlights (you can read the whole awful thing by clicking on the link, if you're some kind of masochist):

"to make the United Kingdom a leading player in Europe ...

... a commitment to foster a people's diplomacy to increase respect, understanding and goodwill for Britain among nations as well as governments ...

... It supplies an ethical content to foreign policy and recognises that the national interest cannot be defined only by narrow realpolitik ...

... But this is not just a Mission Statement for Ministers. It is a work programme for every diplomat abroad and all staff in this building. ...

... Within the next two weeks we will be sending to each of more than two hundred foreign posts a video prepared with the help of David Puttnam in which I will speak directly to them of our new goals and our new direction. ...

... I invite them [i.e. all Foreign Office staff] today to work together with us in a joint project to make Britain once again a force for good in the world."

Now I think (I hope) that we can all agree that this was a complete load of tosh when Robin Cook spoke these words, just a few days after Labour came to power in 1997. The practical experience of living through the past ten years has demonstrated just how vacuous was his high-flown rhetoric.

Now we have another of Labour's placemen, David Milliband, in the series of nonentities, wonks and mavericks who have been Foreign Secretary since then, setting out his 'vision' [Gawd help us!] for our foreign policy:

"... Britain should see itself as a global hub for diplomacy and ideas. ...

... That is why from April, in place of the 10 strategic priorities that govern our work, the Foreign Office will focus its efforts on four key policy goals where we can make the biggest difference. The priorities will speak directly to the economic, social and security concerns of British citizens.

First, we will put more resources into countering terrorism and nuclear proliferation. We plan a diplomatic surge in the Middle East and south Asia by raising the number of staff by 30%. That means we can deepen our engagement with Pakistan to prevent the growth of extremism there, including by spending an extra £80m over three years on counter-radicalisation.

Second, we will prioritise our work on conflict prevention. That means working better with the armed forces and international development department in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq.

Third, we want to increase the link between our political work and the economic conditions that underpin it, especially in the context of climate change. The leapfrog of developing countries to low carbon energy and transport, skipping the high carbon mistakes of the industrialised world, is critical to minimising conflict over resources.

And fourth, this requires a strong international system. It is not the overweening strength of international institutions that threatens the security of British people. Instead it is their effectiveness that is the issue. That is why we are right to press for full engagement in the European Union so it turns outwards to the big global challenges. It is why our position on the UN security council should be used to the full, not least to accelerate the pace of reform at the UN. ...

Can anyone come up with a plausible explanation of what this might mean in the real world, the place that most of us live in, but which David Milliband does not? Come back in a year to discover whether any of his rhetoric has had any meaning or impact other than as an opportunity to get an article into one of the 'quality' Sunday newspapers. Call me an old cynic, but I rather doubt it.

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