Could Robin Cook's bite be even better than his bark?

Now Britain is punching above its weight, says Steve Crawshaw
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The Independent Online
Gradually, very gradually, it is becoming clear. Dramatically so - and much more than is publicly acknowledged. The changes are for real.

Amidst the video screens and the designer backdrops at the new-look Foreign Office, it has been easy in recent weeks to feel that the medium is the message. For all Robin Cook's talk about an ethical foreign policy, it has remained difficult to get a handle on what that will mean. That has left room for much doubt. And, in the case of arms sales to Indonesia, it has caused much indignation, especially from those MPs and pressure groups who expected more from Mr Cook, and felt disappointed. One explanation was that difficult nettles need to be grasped carefully. Sceptics felt that the issue had merely been put to one side.

In Bosnia, there appeared to be half-good news. The recent swoop on two suspected war criminals (one was seized, the other was killed after shooting at British troops) clearly moved the debate forward. Ministers boasted that British forces had carried out the swoop. And yet, there was still no hint that this was a British idea. On the contrary, it all seemed to be down to international teamwork.

But, if the whispers are right, it did not start as teamwork. The dramatic new policy - harking back to the Mad Max-meets-Reagan remark, "You can run, but you can't hide" - started "at the Cabinet table", in the words of one insider. The spin doctors are still curiously reluctant to admit this fact, as though leading from the front were a slightly dubious practice. This creates a curious paradox. The Foreign Secretary is ready to boast about the generalities of the policy, while failing apparently to make radical changes. And then, when a radical change does take place, it is officially brushed off as though it were part of a natural game plan.

The previous government was always at pains to stay at arm's length from the Bosnian conflict, arguing that it was all to do with hidden tribal conflicts. While in opposition, the Labour leadership did little throughout the worst years of the Bosnian war to challenge that. It was left to Paddy Ashdown to talk of moral imperatives, as the slaughter continued and got worse. Both Conservative and Labour could afford to patronise Mr Ashdown - the leader of a little party, who did not understand what Real Politics were all about.

Even at his most recent presentation of his policy this month, Mr Cook talked of the money that Britain was providing for the construction of a new court for war crimes in The Hague. It all seemed quaintly symbolic.

It now appears, however, that Britain not only played the key role in the recent snatch, but is also playing a leading role in preparing for the next and most dramatic act: the possible seizing of the two most wanted men in Bosnia, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. If those two are not quivering, they should be. In effect, George Robertson, the Secretary of State for Defence, has been despatched by his Cabinet colleagues to find out what can be done.

Douglas Hurd famously boasted about Britain "punching above its weight". The reality was often the opposite. On European issues, for example, Britain was permanently sidelined, a political spittoon for any EU country that was feeling cross. On Bosnia, Britain's main contribution to the debate was to stop things happening that might otherwise usefully have taken place. In effect, Mr Hurd insisted that punching was outlawed, because the thugs needed a gentle talking-to instead.

Diplomatically, it makes sense that Mr Cook, who has this week been in Bosnia and Croatia, is not boasting about the role that Britain has played: there is no good reason to irritate the allies in Paris, Bonn and Washington by preening oneself centre stage. But it is refreshingly grown-up - surprisingly grown-up, some might say - if such a down-to-earth approach has taken hold.

It provides double reason for hope, too. Despite the seemingly empty razzmatazz of the presentation of policy, there is real substance behind the rhetorical point-scoring. That is in itself a reason to rejoice. Even better, though, are the signs that Britain is wary of claiming the credit. Not just in an Ian Richardson/Francis Urquhart "You might say that, I couldn't possibly..." kind of way, but a genuine reluctance to take credit where credit is due. Bafflingly, given his previous form, Mr Cook was even cautious about bashing the previous government for its failures of Balkan policy, in his interview with The Independent this month. Above all, Britain seems keen to be perceived as a Team Player, even when it might gain some private glory for itself.

Traditionally, the Americans have been much more gung-ho about Bosnia than the British (Tory or Labour) ever were. Now, the boot is on the other foot - for the first time, Britain really is punching above its weight. Admittedly, there is no proof that Mr Cook came to the Foreign Office with a firm agenda of toughening up on war criminals. On the contrary, there are indications that pressure from the Labour backbenches helped to change his mind. But Mr Cook deserves credit for picking up the ball and running with it. The deadly serious game has, perhaps, only just begun.