Friday, 16 November 2007

16 November 2007

You can sometimes wait several months for a decent foreign policy speech from a government minister, and then, blow me, two come along in less than a week.

First, we get Gordon Brown talking about “hard-headed internationalism”. I’ve already written about this on my blog ( ... what do you mean you haven’t looked at it yet?) And then, yesterday afternoon, David Miliband popped up in Bruges of all places (remember Mrs T back in 1988, when, according to her supporters, she “reinvented Euroscepticism as an intellectually powerful and popular movement”?), to talk about the EU as a model state rather than a super state.

There are several ways to read these speeches … my preferred option is to look at them as a way of gaining an insight into how this post-Blair government proposes to order Britain’s affairs in the big wide world.

David Miliband began in Bruges by claiming impeccable perdonal Euro-credentials: “My father was born in Brussels, my mother in Poland.” Beat that. His key argument, hardly original, admittedly, was that “nation-states, for all their continuing strengths, are too small to deal on their own with these big problems (religious extremism, energy insecurity and climate change), but global governance is too weak.”

The Miliband vision is of a Europe that reaches out to its poorer neighbours – not only Turkey, but also the countries of the Middle East and north Africa. It must, he said, be “open to trade, open to ideas and open to people.”

It must also be prepared to use both “hard power” and “soft power” – in other words, military and non-military means -- not just to resolve conflict, but to prevent it. He spoke not only of past action in Kosovo and Macedonia, but also of current or potential future action in Congo, Darfur, Zimbabwe and Burma.

So what did it all add up to? More fine-sounding words, more Blairite good intentions? Well, yes, the basic approach is little different from Blair’s: we have responsibilities to our fellow-citizens; the EU can be a power for good; in the era of a globalised economy, isolationism is not an option.

But I think I detect a subtle change of tone. Gone are the certainties, the fervour, the sometimes Messianic-sounding zeal of the former Prime Minister. In their place, yes, many of the same ideas, but wrapped up in a less religious packaging. This, it seems to me, is very much foreign policy post-Iraq. Lessons have been learned.

Of course, both Brown and Miliband recognise that the US is still the sole dominant world power, at least until such time as either China or India – or both – match its overwhelming economic and military strength. But there’s no attempt to argue that the world’s problems can be solved by simple means: both men are proud to be known as intellectuals, and they are happy to engage with complexity.

I am well aware that two speeches do not make a New World. Sounding good is easy. We’ll have to wait to see how they respond to deepening crises in Iran or Pakistan. But for those of us who take an interest in how Britain interacts with the rest of the world, it’s certainly been a fascinating few days.

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