Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Brown needs quick wits for his international balancing act

TONY Blair's departure from Downing Street raised a flickering hope that Gordon Brown would bring with him a shift in British foreign policy away from a devotion to Washington to closer multilateral engagement with other allies and the United Nations.

Attempts by Brown during his trip to Washington to convey a message that UK-US relations remain much the same cannot cover up how Britain has to actively push forth with alternative relationships. After his trip to Washington, Brown moves on to the United Nations in New York where he comes face to face with a world where the UK cannot rely on special relationships or even necessarily the continued engagement of the US.

Blair's first meeting with Bush in 2001 confronted fears the new Bush administration would push the US into isolationism. Similarly, Brown finds a US increasingly uneasy with its role in the world, chastened by a war in Iraq that two thirds of Americans now think was a mistake, and matched by a similar uncertainty that they are winning the "War on Terror".

Isolationism is back on the agenda with the debate set to rage in the run-up to the 2008 Presidential election. Brown has clearly taken note, for beneath the assurances of close relations there is a distinct unease at the change of mood in the US, but with little certainty as to what it will mean for Britain and the wider international system.

Brown must therefore balance a range of tensions that have bedevilled previous British Prime Ministers. On the one hand appearing candid and distant with the US and pushing forth the UK's other relationships, on the other he must maintain a working relationship with Washington that seeks to ensure the US makes full use of the multilateral options on offer.

Yet this isn't the only international balancing act Brown faces. Even Blair couldn't ignore that Britain increasingly approaches the US, the UN and the wider international system from a European perspective. The UK has led efforts to develop the EU's foreign, security and defence policy. It remains to be seen whether these can later be co-ordinated with the US or not.

British approaches at the UN, or on issues such as Iran and climate change have been built through the EU, not the US. To state that relations with the US are the "single most important bilateral relationship" disguises the fact that Britain's relationship with the EU is the more important because the UK is a leading part of the EU.

Having worked on debt relief, development and environmental change, Brown now faces the more pronounced issues of war and peace and the negative image the UK carries in the world thanks to Iraq.

The appointment to the Government of Sir Mark Malloch Brown, former Deputy Secretary General of the UN, while not well received by his neo-conservative opponents in Washington, did win Brown plaudits from some at the UN. Yet many remain wary.

The problem for Brown is that, as even President Bush has begun to realise, for all their faults, the UN and multilateral approaches can solve problems over Iran and North Korea, not to mention Zimbabwe, Darfur and Israel-Palestine. They offer more potential than the unilateral approach of going it alone.

Yet the UN and other institutions such as the IMF and World Bank cry out for reform but from all angles it seems nigh on impossible due to a combination of rich countries – the UK included – being unwilling to give up vested interests and the developing world's suspicions and divisions.

The growth of powers, such as India and China, only serves to make reform more urgent. At heart, the tensions over human rights, sovereignty and international justice remain as complex and intimidating as anything domestic UK politics has thrown up for Brown. As Brown negotiates his first steps in the foreign policy arena, the underlying issue defining Britain's place in the world remains Iraq. It is no longer a question of whether Britain will withdraw from Iraq, but when and how.

No British Prime Minister has an easy time in international affairs, and the intense briefing accompanying Brown's visit to Washington shows how big a problem he faces in simply conveying a clear message; let alone a clear set of policy choices.

A man not gifted for communication – but for hard thinking – needs to show he can be a quick thinker and a better communicator in explaining the complex challenges Britain under its new Prime Minister faces in its relations with the rest of the world.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Mr Men and Little Miss at Uni

One of the small pleasures of living and working as a Senior Member at International Hall (IH) of Residence and wrting the hall newspaper is producing stuff like this...

The world of every British child would have been a poorer place were it not for Roger Hargreaves!
Where there’s drink there SHOULD be food.

When it comes to food and alcohol I’ve often said the world can be divided into two groups of people: those who like to combine drinking alcohol with eating food and those who prefer just to drink. My loyalties lie with the former; I’ve never understood the temptation to simply drink and drink, for me alcohol has to be combined with food which makes it a more social and pleasurable experience. So I was happy to read a good piece by Nicholas Lander in the FT this weekend arguing for more food with drink.

As Lander notes, alcohol is absorbed into the blood stream more slowly and less dramatically whenever accompanied by food, and because we can’t physically drink and eat at the same time we reduce the speed we drink at. What gets me is that this is basic bloody common sense, yet widely ignored.

I know there are numerous cultural, historical, political and of course economic factors behind all this which I don’t want to go on and on about, blah, blah... I just long for the day when I can enjoy a night out in the UK with a choice of bars that offer food and drink and not simply have to resort to mentioning the idea of a restaurant with my comments immediately interpreted as a complaint that is met with a bag of Walkers. Fat chance of it happening…

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Draft piece below for the Yorkshire Post about the role of the Foreign Secretary in UK government and politics. It's to coincide with the launch of the book 'British Diplomacy: Foreign Secretaries Reflect' edited by Graham Ziegner. Christopher Hill and I wrote the concluding chapter on New Labour.

The Crowded World of the Foreign Secretary

Heading Britain’s foreign policy sounds a powerful and glamorous job. The international travel, the meetings with world leaders, the elaborate state dinners with accompanying pomp and circumstance; all point to importance and purpose. Yet the diplomatic circus hides a job that is one of the most frustrating and ambiguous in government. What is the point of a foreign secretary in a globalised world where all levels of UK government and politics have links to the international affairs which were once the preserve of the diplomats at the Foreign Office?

As current Foreign Secretary Margaret Becket recently noted herself, the UK needs ‘360 degree diplomacy’ to tackle the new challenges globalisation presents. The same can be said of her own job, which is increasingly about managing bureaucracy, public diplomacy and domestic demands as it is about traditional statecraft.

It is a far cry from the simpler world of 1948 when Sir Winston Churchill set out three interlocking circles representing Britain’s place in the world: Empire/Commonwealth; USA; Europe. Churchill’s was a world where foreign secretaries and the rest of government knew the difference between the foreign and the domestic, if only because of the long time it took to communicate with or travel by steamship to foreign postings.

Today the empire and steamships are no more, and the Commonwealth no longer stands at the centre of Britain’s outlook. Yet the UK’s connection to ‘the global’ continues to grow, demonstrated in the open nature of the UK’s economy, increased ease of travel and communication, Britain’s demographic and historical links with large parts of the world, and its leading membership of international organisations.

The threat of terrorism long ago blurred the border between the domestic and foreign. Its heightened nature today requires cooperation from Yorkshire to Afghanistan, London to Cairo. Combating this and other urgent issues such as environmental problems or international development requires cooperation across UK government.

With the Department for International Development leading in Africa, the Home Office taking the lead on internal and external security, the Treasury pushing forward on environmental issues and the Scottish Executive taking an interest in EU energy policy, one might wonder if the only growing demand for a foreign secretary’s services is in dealing with the increasing number of Brits abroad needing consular services.

It is in Europe that we see this problem at its starkest. The Europe Britain joined in the 1970s was a foreign policy issue; since then European integration – whether for good or bad – has bound the UK into a union that is now daily domestic politics. Whether in economic or social policy, defence or local government, no area of British government goes without some connection with Brussels and other EU states. The foreign secretary has become one amongst many members of the government deal with the EU, and who make policy through Europe that shapes the UK and the UK’s relations beyond Europe.

And while the European constitution and the success of the Euro might have stalled, the EU is determined to push forward cooperation on defence and foreign policy. The unpleasant memory of Europe’s inability to deal with the former Yugoslavia remains vivid; and challenges such as the Middle East or an increasingly assertive Russia will continue to compel European cooperation.

The UK and future foreign secretaries will remain at the heart of this, irrespective of their party’s view on the EU. No UK government or foreign secretary can abandon cooperation with the EU; even during the Iraq War, which severely strained relations with several EU partners, the UK and the EU pushed forward with cooperation on issues ranging from Iran to Russia, international environmental cooperation to defence cooperation.

The key problem for a foreign secretary is that cooperation through Europe or across the Atlantic means managing relations with the rest of UK government to ensure joined up foreign policy. So it was that a few years ago the Foreign Office ran a ‘stakeholder survey’ to consult with those across UK government and politics about how it might better perform its job. But joining up policy or working with stakeholders is not the same as setting the direction. In Europe and Britain’s other key relationship, with the United States, the foreign secretary has consistently played second fiddle to the Prime Minister. Rarely do foreign secretaries articulate new visions of British interests in Europe or the USA; here lies a role for the PM alone.

But we must be cautious. The imagery and rhetoric that accompanies prime ministers in foreign affairs feeds the perception that the office has become presidential; but the substance is often much less. Examples such as Iraq or the Falklands, or close relations with George Bush or Mikhail Gorbachev can distract us from the daily grind of diplomatic and government work that makes the world go around. The managing of international affairs cannot soundly be based on peripatetic prime ministers getting to know fellow leaders on a first-name basis, any more than successful domestic government can rely on micromanagement from Number 10.

But neither can any foreign secretary believe that they run the show on foreign affairs. Every foreign secretary has been acutely aware that their jobs carries the risk of becoming merely the Prime Minister’s errand boy, or else the minister who deals only with states outside the EU, NATO, the G8 and Africa. The present degree of reflection and self-analysis – with talk of ‘360-degree diplomacy’, ‘joined up foreign policy’ and ‘stakeholder surveys’ – serves to illustrate the shifting sands on which the traditional ‘head office’ of British diplomacy finds itself, and the challenging nature of the job facing any Foreign Secretary seeking to lead it into the future.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Draft of a review of 'Independent Diplomat' by Carne Ross. Should appear in the next issue of International Affairs.

Independent Diplomat: Dispatches from an Unaccountable Elite. By Carne Ross. Hurst and Company, London. 2007. 243pp. Index. £15.00 ISBN: 978 1 85065 843 6

Carne Ross’s resignation from the British Foreign Office following his evidence to the Butler Inquiry will be familiar to anybody interested in Iraq or British foreign policy. As he outlines in Independent Diplomat what drove him to give his evidence and eventually resign was his increasing disillusionment not only with policy towards Iraq but with the very nature of diplomacy. This book, therefore, is not simply a memoir and discussion about events leading up to the Iraq War. It is part memoir and confession; part essay on the nature of contemporary international relations and diplomacy; and part manifesto for Independent Diplomat the organisation.

As a memoir the book is at times enthralling and at others banal. It is Ross’s experiences at the British Mission to the UN in New York, specifically in dealing with Iraq that he gives attention to. He provides an insightful and candid discussion of how the UK and the rest of the UN approached the issues of Iraqi WMD and the Oil for Food programme. In doing so he explores whether or not the British government lied over Iraq. As Ross notes, the situation regarding WMD is a blurred and difficult one where we come across what some would term ‘noble half-truths’; but it is clear that in the run up to the conflict there was nothing to suggest significant rearmament or intent to attack Iraq’s neighbours (p73). This is woven into discussion of the ludicrousness of how policy was discussed and agreed. He describes the drawn out and nauseating work drafting impenetrable documents that were more about abstract diplomatic games in New York than the reality on the ground. The secrecy and lack of accountability Ross and his fellow diplomats enjoyed in playing this game is set out in forthright terms.

It is this strange world of diplomacy that is the main target of the book. This is a world where the complexities of a globalised world are reduced to factoids used to wage diplomatic wars in some realpolitik zero-sum game. There is no objective truth with terms such as ‘interests’ banded around without much thought as to what they actually mean: economic (trade and maximum growth, rarely anything else); security (always realist reinforcing a cycle of unstable competition); values (always vague, contradictory and often abused) (pp116-125). In exposing this diplomatic circus he in turn takes a shot at the study and theories of international relations. Here he perhaps takes too narrow an approach to IR theory doing many people who work in IR a disservice. But his critique goes to the very nature of theory itself, arguing that the world is far more complicated than anybody – be they diplomats or academics – can begin to measure or understand. Beyond this his central concern is with how the structure of international diplomacy disadvantages the weak; that in a globalised world the need for a more inclusive and open format of diplomacy is more urgent than ever.

This is where the book tends more towards a manifesto than analysis. Ross outlines what drove him to establish Independent Diplomat the organisation, a consultancy for democratic entities such as Kosovo, Somaliland and the Saharawis of Western Sahara; entities that lack the resources to engage in diplomacy on a par with other actors in international relations. The book outlines why such an organisation is needed, providing a view of diplomacy from the poorer and weaker side of the negotiating table, the opposite side to which Ross was accustomed to sitting on. Independent Diplomat is an interesting venture, but a key weakness of the book is that little is actually said about it. Most of the detail about the organisation can be found on pp191-198. Beyond this there is little discussion of how it deals with the arcane and irrational style of diplomacy that Ross outlines in most of the book.

This absence is the key weakness in this book, especially for readers of International Affairs. Discussing the experiences of Independent Diplomat in more detail could have added something new to the debate about the nature of contemporary international affairs and diplomacy; instead the book actually says very little that’s new. Certainly Ross’s insight into how policy was made over Iraq is new and of interest to those who study the conflict, but his analysis and discussion of the nature of international relations and diplomacy has been well rehearsed elsewhere. Frustratingly the reader will struggle to find substantial reference to this; I for one wondered why there was no reference to the work of Shaun Riordan, another former and disillusioned UK diplomat whose book ‘The New Diplomacy’ (Polity, 2003) provides a far more nuanced discussion of how diplomacy might develop. Perhaps Carne Ross has in mind a second book outlining the experiences of Independent Diplomat the organisation; one can only hope so as it is an interesting exercise that can only helps shed light on the current state of international relations and diplomacy.
This made me chuckle: 'If Kitchener was not a great man', Margot Asquith once remarked, 'he was, at least, a great poster.'

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Nick Cohen

A well written piece by Rebecca Weisser in The Australian reviewing Nick Cohen's new book 'What's Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way' can be found via this link:,20867,21237861-28737,00.html

It ends with the following brilliant example of the type of moral bankruptcy of some on the left that Cohen so powerfully exposes in his book:

In denouncing the failings of the Left, Cohen made an unwanted discovery - its anti-Semitism.

A headline on The Guardian website, "David Aaronovitch and Nick Cohen are enough to make a good man anti-Semitic", was challenged by an enraged reader who protested against the inherent bigotry and demanded the headline be rewritten as, "David Aaronovitch and Nick Cohen are enough to make a good man, or woman, anti-Semitic."

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Tony Blair and the Ideal Type

A book review I wrote for the most recent issue of Political Studies Review.

Tony Blair and the Ideal Type by J.H. Grainger - Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2005. 98pp., £8.95, ISBN 1 84540 024 0

This small pamphlet by J.H. Grainger, an Australian political scientist, attempts to add a new and interesting interpretation to discussion of Tony Blair by drawing on the idea of Max Weber’s hypothetical ‘ideal type’ politician; an excellent example of which Grainger argues is to be found as current British Prime Minister.

Grainger goes on to present Blair as this ‘ideal type’: the outsider to the traditions of British politics and the Labour Party with no particular political background, lacking in ideology, vacuous and chameleon like, a politician that thrives in the modern politics of charisma and spin. Grainger tears into how Blair’s personality and approach to campaigning emphasises familiarity with the voting public taking precedence over policies and concrete ideas. When ideas are put forward they often embrace agendas that can range from Liberal to Conservative, Marxist to Thatcherite, and not forgetting, neoconservative. That such a political creature could reach the highest elected political office in the kingdom is thanks to the break Thatcher wrought to the traditions of British politics. Indeed, it is a well worn avenue of exploration that Blair has no set agenda, no set convictions, no political soul of ideological substance; many have searched his speeches and ideas for some holy grail of a common thread uniting them all and all have inevitably failed. Grainger’s analysis offers an overarching theory to explain this.

Grainger analysis is a powerful one bringing together discussion of British history, society, ideology along with global and European trends, offering in turn some profound comments on the type of individual Blair is and what his premiership says about the directions British politics is headed. He does however overestimate the power of the office of Prime Minister, and at times his approach is too cynical. The single biggest problem I and indeed many readers will face with this pamphlet is the verbose and bombastic style in which the pamphlet is written. This turgid and hard going pamphlet therefore offers some good insights, but much clearer and equally insightful analyses of Blair are easily available elsewhere.