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.