Adrian Hamilton: This is not the new world, just more of the old

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It was, perhaps, unfortunate of the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, to begin his first major foreign affairs speech at the Lord Mayor's Banquet this week with a quotation from George Canning as Foreign Secretary in the 1820s, declaring that he had "called the new world into existence to redress the balance of the old".

Canning said it all right, but it was a politician's classic exercise in misleading rhetoric. The whole point of the post-Napoleonic world ushered in by the Vienna Congress was that it restored the structures of the old, pre-Napoleonic Europe, with all its monarchical rule and traditional balance of power on the Continent.

Exactly the same could be said of today. We have all the Canning-like (or, rather, Blairite) rhetoric of the new world of globalisation, new threats, climate challenges etc, while all the time we are reverting to the old world of the Cold War.

What else is going on over Pakistan if it is not an increasingly strained attempt to keep in power "our" tyrant, General Musharraf, because he is needed in the war against terror, just as we used to support authoritarian regimes in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, because they were a bulwark against communism? How else do you regard America and Britain's ratcheting up of the confrontation with Iran if it is not an attempt to preserve the old balance, or, rather, imbalance, of power in the Middle East. Where else to seek an explanation for the UK's enthusiasm for a very limited expansion of the membership of the Security Council if it is not to ensure the authority of the Big Five (including, of course, ourselves) over the future?

Forget all the waffle about new institutions for new challenges, new internationalism for the new world of globalisation. Foreign policy is made in our response to specific events and in the ordering of our priorities.

Looking around the world today, any sensible politician would list the most urgent questions – in no particular order – as being: how long do we stay in Iraq? Can we any longer hold Afghanistan as a NATO operation? What do we do with Gaza if we want an Israeli-Palestinian peace? Do we need a new international agreement to rebalance currencies? What is to become of EU foreign policy if we now get an EU Foreign Secretary? What can be done, if anything, to keep the World Trade talks going? And, is it time to abandon our support for Musharraf?

You will search in vain for any enlightenment on our policies on these issues in Brown's speech. Iraq barely gets a mention, the plight of Gaza and its implications for Middle East peace is ignored, the crisis over currencies doesn't figure, the problems of the world trade agreement don't appear, Nato's role in Afghanistan goes by the board. Instead, on every policy that Brown does mention – ramping up sanctions on Iran, building up Olmert and Abbas as the only route to peace in the Middle East, erecting terrorism as the major international challenge of the West – he aligns himself with George Bush. Read the speech and the tenor is that of Britain and the West ordering the world, through international institutions and direct intervention, according to its vision of what it should be.

Of course, it is difficult for any Prime Minister to talk of detailed policies.That way lies political disaster, as David Miliband and Lord Malloch Brown, let alone Lord West, have discovered to their cost. But the trouble with the mouthing of meaningless phrases such as "hard-headed internationalism" and the presentation of institutional reform as a demonstration of new initiatives is that they are a substitute for policy, not the route towards it.

It's easy to talk of making reconstruction and development the corollary of UN intervention, but first you have to answer under what terms and with what aims the UN should undertake intervention in the first place. Iraq is not an encouraging precedent, for all David Miliband's re-iteration of his and Brown's belief that it was the right thing to do.

You can do things differently. If Brown wants Britain to "continue to be a leading nation in negotiating nuclear arms reductions", he could start by cancelling plans for a new generation of Trident. If he believes "indifference to the plight of others is not only wrong, but not in our interests", he could start by declaring Britain will not participate in the EU policy of starving Gaza into submission.

There is indeed a "new world" to be "called into existence to redress the balance of the old". It lies in a fresh approach to Iran, a genuine reconstitution of the UN, a just peace in the Middle East and an equitable agreement on world trade that addresses the distortions that bear so heavily on the poor. But, on the evidence of this week, it is not going to come from London.