Mission possible

Or a graveyard of good intent?
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The Independent Online
It was the day New Labour stormed the stuffiest citadel of Whitehall, turning the marble and chandeliered splendour of the Locarno Rooms at the Foreign Office into Blackpool's Winter Gardens. And Robin Cook's mission statement could have been an October conference keynoter, full of splendid promises untested by sordid economic and political reality.

Take the "ethical dimension" the Foreign Secretary insisted that Britain, that supreme pragmatist among nations, must henceforth give its foreign policy - as a beaming Tony Blair and a beatific Nelson Mandela looked down from the video screen behind him.

"The national interest cannot be defined only by narrow realpolitik," Mr Cook declared, nor could "political values be left behind when we check in our passports to travel on diplomatic business."

But will the Government really put its money where its mouth is, meting out economic punishment to regimes with dubious human rights records - if that means losing business to less squeamish competitors?

The most obvious area of tension is arms exports, where Britain currently ranks only behind the United States. Ideally, ostracism would be global. But nothing leaks like sanctions where multi-million dollar orders are at stake.

So how will Mr Cook's noble goal square with protecting the 200,000 British jobs that depend on the arms industry, especially when component number two of the Foreign Office's stated mission (behind only global security) is to help exports and jobs at home? Yesterday's answer was less than convincing. Precisely because its defence industry was so strong, he argued, Britain had a responsibility in regulating the arms trade. And will Britain help the "child slaves" in south Asian sweatshops, if that means pushing up the price of playground footballs here, or bar cheap consumer goods from China, if they are manufactured by prisoners or political detainees?

Mr Cook sidestepped some other uncomfortable questions too, among them the precise nature of that much-touted "leading role in Europe" alongside France and Germany. Yes, of course Labour's tone has changed, but exactly where would a nicer but nonetheless Euro-shy Britain lead its partners? Federalism was waning in Europe, he answered.

Still his performance was a polished and seamless as the video presentation about the "Fresh Start for Britain" which had gone before. Sitting alongside the four junior ministers on the rostrum was the Permanent Under-Secretary Sir John Coles, the FO's top civil servant. As the show progressed, his face betrayed no emotion. Simple professional restraint, or silent recognition that, with the best will in the world, diplomacy, like life, can be a graveyard of good intentions