Foreign Affairs: Failing to strike a balance with US and Europe

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Indy Politics

The earliest pronouncements on foreign policy by Tony Blair and his government were the most memorable: Mr Blair's promise to put Britain "at the heart of Europe" and Robin Cook's intention, when appointed Foreign Secretary, to give foreign policy "an ethical dimension".

Six years later, the first promise rings hollow; the second has been widely misinterpreted, but not - despite everything that Mr Blair's critics say - abandoned.

Mr Blair's decision to take Britain to war with Iraq showed a British government once again choosing its alliance with the United States over considerations of loyalty to Europe, after five years of delicately balancing the two. Britain's participation, coupled with Mr Blair's decision to delay all prospect of joining the euro, have left Britain almost as far from the "heart of Europe" as it was after Margaret Thatcher handbagged the EU into producing a rebate.

Mr Blair is starting to mend fences with Europe - he has initiated a rapprochement with France and has limited British objections to the draft European Constitution. But the impression has been reinforced that when presented with a choice between the US and Europe, Britain opts for the US.

It has also become clear that the sort of European Union now envisaged by Mr Blair - a grouping of nation states jealously guarding their sovereignty, with largely deregulated markets - is rather different from the federal structure that is evolving at the initiative of the French and Germans. The "new Europeans" intend to join the single currency as soon as they can and will probably raise fewer objections than Britain to a common foreign and defence policy. It is hard to see Britain being at the heart of Europe unless, at very least, it embraces the euro, yet Mr Blair is still declining to lend the authority of his office to an energetic campaign for Britain to join the euro.

The record on ethical foreign policy is less negative. In fact, the Blair government never professed an "ethical foreign policy" as such; it undertook only to give its foreign policy an "ethical dimension". At the time, this was a politically astute pledge that suited the interventionist mood following the genocide in Rwanda. It was also calculated to appeal to the left of the Labour Party which was luke-warm at best to Mr Blair's economic and social policies.

Britain's contribution to the 1999 armed intervention in Kosovo and its dispatch of troops to Sierra Leone a year later reflected the new priority accorded to the use of force for humanitarian ends. It might have been possible for Mr Blair to justify intervention in Iraq on similar grounds. There was, however, no emergency in Iraq, such as existed in Kosovo and Sierra Leone.

On other gauges of ethics in foreign policy, however, Blair has failed. It has not cut arms sales to dubious regimes, nor has it forsworn the use of landmines or cluster bombs, and it has done nothing to encourage progress in human rights in countries such as China, with which trade has boomed.

On several issues - including the protection of human rights in Zimbabwe, and a settlement of the Gibraltar dispute - Mr Blair has tried, but dismally failed. It is too early to judge whether Mr Blair's efforts to nudge the US and Israel towards peace with the Palestinians will fare better.

Having joined the US in defying the UN over Iraq, Mr Blair is now trying to rebuild Britain's multilateralist credentials. The rapprochement with the EU is one aspect. The other is the effort that he is spearheading to reform the UN. From the post-Iraq perspective, however, Mr Blair will find it hard to dispel the impression that Britain's foreign policy goes much beyond advising, warning and cajoling its senior partner, the US.