Adrian Hamilton: Gesture politics never works abroad

No wonder the White House is getting fed up with its needy and gaff-prone ally

Share
Related Topics

If you want to know what it is like when a failing government desperately seeks credibility by claiming a place on the international stage, you need look no further than the British government's response to the attempted bombing of a plane over Detroit by a Nigerian educated in Britain and trained in Yemen.

The Prime Minister, declared No 10 in a statement at the weekend, had been in touch with President Obama and had agreed a new joint Anglo-British taskforce in Yemen to stop it becoming a haven for terrorists such as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

All good stuff. Only that was not quite the picture that came out when he appeared on the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 on Sunday. "There's been some confusion this morning, Prime Minister," said Marr, "about a statement that came out of Downing Street yesterday saying that you and President Obama had had talks resulting in this new British co-operation in Yemen. In fact, the word from Washington seems to be that it was just at official level and that it's an American operation to which we are now contributing. Can you clear this up?"

Brown: "Actually the truth is we've been doing this for some time."

Marr: "But had you talks with President Obama about this?"

Brown: "Not directly".

Marr: "Not directly?"

Brown: "We've been doing this for some time and we've been working with the Americans to strengthen counter-terrorism co-operation in Yemen."

Marr: "So this is a new British initiative, this particular thing?"

Brown: "This is a continuation".

Marr: "A continuation."

Brown: "... of what we're doing, but a strengthening of what we're doing."

Two days later No 10 was it again, declaring that it had given over the information about the bomber to the American authorities.

The suggestion brought a tart retort from a US government spokesman, who dismissed it as "a mistake", at which point No 10 rowed back with a prolonged explanation about co-operation and the statement that "there is no suggestion that the UK passed on information to the US that they did not act on".

This is more than an embarrassing case of British overspin, or just another example of the Prime Minister's well-established propensity to declare every old fact as a new initiative by himself. It is part of a growing, and humiliating, pattern of events in which ministers attempt to move centre-stage in world events, only to be firmly slapped back into our place on the fringes.

David Miliband steps forward to denounce, with supporting statements from No 10, the suppression of anti-government riots in Iran and then loudly criticises the Chinese decision to sentence to death a Briton found guilty of drug smuggling. Both actions, he declared, were intolerable, uncivilised and wrong-headed – with the implication that Britain at least would not stand for them.

And what happens? The Iranian government proceeds with the oppression while taunting Britain for getting up to its old tricks of imperial interference in others' affairs, while the Chinese execution takes place with some sharp government comments about the posturing of a power once responsible for forcing the opium trade on China. Britain in their eyes, as those of Tehran, was a toothless tiger easy to tease and to dismiss.

It's not that we're wrong to raise these issues. In many ways we're right. It's just that, in doing it in the way that we do, we simply reveal our own lack of any real clout. The countries concerned – be they the US, Iran or China – see our interventions for what they are, the gestures of a weakening country trying to show a false face to the world.

And they are right. The one thing that history teaches you in international affairs is that gestures done out of domestic weakness nearly always end in disaster. Most wars begin that way for a start. The secret of diplomacy is no secret at all. It is to know what you are trying to achieve and then working out how best to do it, very often by making someone else believe it was their idea, or at least in their own interests.

Gesture politics don't work abroad. We saw that in Copenhagen. Gordon Brown rushed off to get there a couple of days before the other leaders in order to show the folks back home that he really cared about an issue on which he had weak credentials and to prove that he was a real player on the big stage.

No doubt he tried hard. But it got him, and Britain, nowhere. Copenhagen failed because it had become an assembly for gesture politics from the scientists to the politicians. If it achieved any progress it was because the big boys, led by the US, sat down together to prevent it being a total disaster.

If it does achieve any practical progress post-Copenhagen, it will be because of the efforts of hard-headed pragmatists such as Germany's Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who is hosting the next summit meeting on climate change.

After Copenhagen, Gordon Brown's next reach for global glory is to hold an international conference on Afghanistan in London at the end of this month, in tandem now with a summit on Yemen. To the astonishment of some of those invited, the conference is only to last a day, time enough for Brown to seize some headlines in the local press but not nearly enough to develop any new policies. Without any real definition of purpose – so far it has none – it is difficult to know what it can achieve of practical import.

We're once again in the world of gesture summitry and, once again, we're in the hands of the Americans to throw us something we can call a "British result". No wonder the White House is apparently getting fed up with its needy and gaff-prone ally.

Gordon Brown isn't without qualities and he isn't without experience. Over the issues of financial reform and a co-ordinated response to recession Britain has a role – not least because we're host to half the problems – and the Prime Minister has played it effectively. But the harder it gets at home, the more he thrashes about abroad. And that is doing the country no good at all.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Account Manager / Membership Manager

£35 - 38k + Benefits & Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking an Account Manager ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Services Advisor / Administrator

£16000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This position will in the main ...

Recruitment Genius: Ecommerce Assistant

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the top Cosmeceutical br...

Guru Careers: Software Developer / Web Developer

£350 p/d (Contract): Guru Careers: A Software Developer / Web Developer (PHP /...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The UCAS clearing house call centre in Cheltenham, England  

Ucas should share its data on students from poor backgrounds so we can get a clearer picture of social mobility

Conor Ryan
A study of 16 young women performing light office work showed that they were at risk of being over-chilled by air conditioning in summer  

It's not just air conditioning that's guilty of camouflage sexism

Mollie Goodfellow
Giants Club: After wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, Uganda’s giants flourish once again

Uganda's giants are flourishing once again

After the wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, elephant populations are finally recovering
The London: After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

Archaeologists will recover a crucial item from the wreck of the London which could help shed more light on what happened in the vessel's final seconds
Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

The invention involves turbojets and ramjets - a type of jet engine - and a rocket motor
10 best sun creams for kids

10 best sun creams for kids

Protect delicate and sensitive skin with products specially formulated for little ones
Tate Sensorium: New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art

Tate Sensorium

New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art
Ashes 2015: Nice guy Steven Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

Nice guy Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

He was man-of-the-match in the third Test following his recall to the England side
Ashes 2015: Remember Ashton Agar? The No 11 that nearly toppled England

Remember Ashton Agar?

The No 11 that nearly toppled England
Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks