Adrian Hamilton: Miliband's failure as Foreign Secretary

Little wonder that foreign leaders see him as jejune while officals despair of him
Click to follow

Is David Miliband the most lightweight Foreign Secretary since the War? Admittedly there's strong competition for the post. From Jack Straw backwards, the history of British post-war politics has been peppered with foreign secretaries who've loved the travel and prancing about at summits but lacked the grasp of foreign circumstances and British interests to do an effective job.

Yet Miliband, in office for just over two years, has been particularly weak, even by the standards of Straw, in the extent to which he has managed to sound the wrong note at the wrong time. Whether it was making Russia's invasion of Georgia into the equivalent of the German invasion of Poland at the moment the EU was trying a more nuanced stance, issuing virtual fatwas against the Sudanese and Zimbabwean presidents to absolutely no effect whatsoever, or in adopting a continuously patronising tone towards our Continental allies, Miliband seems to have an innate ability to misjudge the situation and Britain's role in it.

Even in his intervention earlier this week on Afghanistan, Miliband got it wrong, declaring a willingness to talk to the "moderate Taliban" as if it was a new policy when it has been a US mantra for the last six months and going on to lecture the Afghan government as to how to treat their insurgents as if it was Britain's right to direct the country's internal politics. Little wonder that most foreign governments seem to regard him as jejune while some of his own officials despair of him.

It's not that he is wrong to decry the Khartoum government for Darfur or President Mugabe for allowing their people to starve. It is just that it is simply pointless posturing unless it has effect. Foreign policy is an area where it is awfully easy to strike attitudes and awfully difficult to do something effective. You have to know what defines your interest and how to work with the grain of events to achieve it.

Which is maybe where the trouble starts. David Miliband's reputation was built up in the job of Environment Secretary, where attitude is all important and where the exposition of a "narrative" is relatively straightforward. "Climate change is the challenge of our time. We must do something about it. All the arms of government should be bent to that purpose." And so on.

Miliband, like his younger brother Ed, is fluent in this very New Labour type of exposition. You pull in all sorts of disparate trends, wrap them together, put the brand "contemporary" and "novel" on them and declare a policy for the future. Where David scored was in developing this way of presentation to cover the full gamut of Labour policies, domestic and foreign, and to seem as if he was reinventing his party after a decade and more in power. It was what made him so widely touted as a potential alternative to Gordon Brown as leader, until his own irresolution tripped him up and the picture of him with a banana defined his image in a less flattering light.

It's certainly not Miliband's fault that he looks as if he has only just started wearing long trousers. Another ten years or so, and those who call attention to his juvenile looks will be bitterly jealous that he has aged so slowly. But it does matter more than it should in foreign affairs, where gravitas is supposed to be the order of the day. Look how often Sarkozy has been tripped up by his own hyperactivism, whereas Mrs Merkel, even at her most dowdy, has always seemed statesmanlike.

Nor has the Foreign Secretary been helped by his boss, who views the world from a narrow Anglo-American stance, or indeed his own department. The days when the Foreign Office could be regarded as a Rolls-Royce service are long since vanished. Although its individual talent may be high, it has failed to adjust either to the realities of a new post-Bush world or the politics of the country which regards the main function of its foreign representatives as protecting British citizens when abroad (how the FCO hates that obligation).

The department has dissipated much of its foreign expertise in its enthusiasm for an issue-based approach to foreign affairs (climate, nuclear etc), tried feebly to recruit ambassadors from outside and failed to come up with a coherent view of Britain's place in the new century.

To that extent, David Miliband could be regarded as victim as much as exemplar of these uncertain times and a failing government. The Foreign Office may have hated the Bush years (not all – some at the top adopted the neo-con analysis with the zeal of converts). Many in the Labour party may also have found them anathema. But at least they provided Tony Blair and his government with a set framework of foreign policy, if a profoundly misguided one.

Barack Obama's election should have been grist to the mill of the new government of Gordon Brown in Britain. And so it has proved, as the two countries, and leaders, have come closer together on the issues of economics, climate change and Afghanistan. And yet this has been in many ways a distraction for the UK. While Obama has preached the gospel of an America of multiple alliances, pragmatic approaches and concentrated interests, the UK has leaned more and more heavily on its relationship, special or otherwise, to prop up the Brown government in its economic and Afghan travails.

Some of the cabinet, Miliband included, had hoped to revise British policy away from the Atlantic reliance once Bush was gone. Instead, Brown is hugging Washington as closely as Blair did.

That may have its advantages. It clearly does. But it is, in truth, a very one-sided affair. Washington may find us useful. But we are no longer necessary. Obama can throw his own weight in the world whilst Britain – over-strained in our resources (as we see in Afghanistan) and drifting away from Europe through domestic politics and economic differences – desperately tries to out-America America in their favour. Poor David Milliband, the youngest Foreign Secretary in 30 years, is left scrabbling for attention for the country and for himself, endlessly spinning new narratives, a courtier without the ear of the prince or access to the emperor.

Maybe the best course, short of changing the man, would be to ask of him a period of silence – at least until the general election.