Adrian Hamilton: Gesture politics never works abroad

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

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.