Malcolm Rifkind: We must rethink our foreign policy

Labour's policy has been extremely damaging. Blair has failed in almost every area
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The Independent Online

Yet there are exciting opportunities to rethink foreign policy for Britain, in its relations to Europe, North America and to the Commonwealth. And rethink it we will need to do. Labour's foreign policy has been extremely damaging for Britain.

Tony Blair has managed to fail in almost every area. He has lead Britain into a unjust war in Iraq. He has followed a policy of unconditional support for the United States. His Europe policy has collapsed. He has failed to develop the Commonwealth.

Iraq and the US first. All prime ministers, Labour and Conservative, wish to be close to the United States. However, no past prime minister, Labour or Conservative, has given unconditional support to the US. Harold Macmillan was pressed strongly by Lyndon Johnson to send British troops to Vietnam. He refused. Prime Minister John Major and President Bill Clinton disagreed on policy over the Bosnian crisis. Again, although the Americans were disappointed by our stance, they accepted and respected it.

Mr Blair appears to have believed that if he had disagreed with the US over Iraq or some other key policy, our relationship with the US would have collapsed. That judgement is deplorable. Whether it was based on Blair's lack of experience before he became PM is unclear. What is certain is that the US needs countries which share its values but can be candid and honest. We need a foreign policy which is independent.

George Bush is a controversial president, but I would not worry. Churchill said of the Americans that you can always rely on them to do the right thing once they have tried every other option.

Being a critical friend requires friendship as well as criticism. Britain needs to continue to act as a bridge between Europe and North America. Although the Russians are no longer a threat to the alliance, international terrorism is. We can't let Europe and America insult each other or let the alliance weaken.

Blair's policy on Europe has been a disaster. This Labour government now has no European policy. Like the emperor and his new clothes, Blair is now as naked as the day he was born. His central theme was to be at "the heart of Europe" by joining the euro, signing to the EU constitution and joining the French and Germans in a triumvirate which would direct the EU.

Not only are we not in the euro, but so incompetent have the Government been in trying to win public support for this project, they have not even dared ask the public in eight long years to vote on it. As to the second arm of Labour's European project, the EU constitution, the French and the Dutch took that decision for them. As a result of the Iraq policy, the Germans and French have written Blair off.

We need a grown-up debate as to what kind of EU we want. For years we have argued for a much looser relationship. We may not have had much success with the governments of continental Europe, but we now have the evidence that the people in France, Holland and perhaps elsewhere feel the same.

A "variable geometry" for Europe now makes sense. Everyone travelling at the same political speed in the same direction at the same time is wrong. It may have made sense when you had a union of six or 10, but not when you have a union of 25.

Finally, the Commonwealth. I think we hugely underutilise the great asset that the Commonwealth is. Virtually all international organisations fall into two categories. They either cover the whole world, or are strictly regional. The Commonwealth falls into neither category.

As well as being of continued use to current members to help bridge the gap between richer and poorer nations, it could even be of use for certain international disputes. Israel and Palestine were both in the British Palestinian mandate. Maybe, just maybe, if both were willing to join the Commonwealth, it could provide a forum for dialogue for the serious problems they have. Either way, as globalisation adds to worldwide wealth creation, the Commonwealth will become an increasingly important contributor to world discussion.

There are exciting opportunities for the UK. This is still a country that can make an important contribution to world affairs. We continue to punch above our weight. But we have to have a government that has a clear idea of what the national interest is and is prepared to say what it believes, even if it upsets people.

The author was Foreign Secretary, 1995-7, and is a candidate for the Tory leadership