Steve Richards: Gordon Brown does not have any foreign policies. And why on earth should he?

The downfall of Thatcher and Blair can be traced to their fixed positions on foreign affairs
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The Independent Online

Not surprisingly, after the calamitous war against Iraq, there is feverish speculation about Gordon Brown's foreign policy. He must have one, so what is it? Will he be less servile in his approach to the United States? How will he approach Europe?

I pose a different question. Why is there a need for such unrealistic clarity now? The downfall of Thatcher and Blair can be traced to their repeatedly declared fixed positions in relation to foreign policy. So clear were their differing views of Britain's role that they did not allow the evidence or external circumstances to challenge their fixed positions.

Thatcher's neurotic hostility to the EU became unswerving, irrespective of what Europe was up to, or what her senior ministers were telling her Europe was up to. Blair sought a more balanced foreign policy between Europe and the US, but his increasingly naive and desperate search for an unachievable international equilibrium was applied with a similar dogmatic inflexibility.

For Blair, the positioning of Britain in relation to the US and Europe came first and the moral justification for the consequences came second. This was clear from his speech on defence policy last Friday, in which on every front he hailed what used to be called his third way.

He declared that Britain must be in favour of tough policies as well as soft ones, war as well as addressing global poverty, the application of force along with peace initiatives. It must be the ally of the US and pro-European. Few would disagree in theory, but such a deceptively comforting route map can land a follower in a nightmare if used indiscriminately: we must be pro-American so we will support the war in Iraq.

We must be pro-European so we will seek to persuade the EU to back the war by going through the UN. To secure broader support, we will place emphasis on the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction rather than regime change. We will be tough on Saddam, but juxtapose the military action with being soft on Israel/Palestine.

Blair was not dishonest in the build-up to war, the allegation made with tedious persistence. He became trapped by his third way in foreign policy that he was determined to pursue irrespective of the evidence in relation to the threat posed by Saddam, the nature of the country being invaded and, more parochially, the fearfully informed concerns within his party and elsewhere.

Probably there are external circumstances in which Blair's third-way foreign policy might have worked. If the US administration had been interested seriously in engaging in a new peace initiative for Israel/Palestine Blair would have been moving in a more constructive direction. If the UN route had been taken on the assumption that it would make war unnecessary, rather than in the hope of legitimising conflict, Blair's approach might have saved the day.

But this would have required a different type of US administration altogether. Mr Blair applied his third way, even though he was becoming trapped into supporting the most recklessly divided and incoherent US administration for decades. As the Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Hain, puts it in today's New Statesman, the Government was dealing with the "the most right-wing administration if not ever, then in living memory". This was not a time to apply a contorted third-way foreign policy.

The most treacherous part of Blair's route map, as outlined last Friday, is the insistence that Britain must stand by the US on the grounds that insular isolationism in Washington, rather than adventurism, is the greater threat. His dividing line is too crude. Quite often the US is no good at foreign policy, whether it is in an adventurous frame of mind or not. Specifically, Britain is not obliged to be humiliatingly supportive when the most right-wing administration in history sets off in a predictably disastrous direction.

Iran is the main winner of its latest war in Iraq. In the 1960s, the Democrats mired the US in Vietnam. In the 1950s, the US helped to overthrow the democratically elected prime minister in Iran, a mission that led, ultimately, to the Iranian revolution in 1979. As The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote this week: "If it was not for US policies, Iran might have a pro-American government." He noted that "great powers always lumber about, stepping on toes, provoking resentments and solving problems militarily simply because they have that capability. We don't understand the world... we empower our enemies." Part of Blair's foreign policy has been to back the US indiscriminately as it empowers its enemies.

On several fronts, Brown faces a much tougher series of challenges compared with the youthful Blair in 1997. The exception is in the area of foreign policy, where the failures of Thatcher and Blair give him a rare amount of political space. Extreme Euroscepticism of the Thatcherite variety is out of fashion. The Conservatives tried those tunes at too many elections and lost, although they show few signs of realising this. Equally, there is no great appetite across much of the political spectrum for unquestioning support for US military adventures. No future prime minister would dare to support a US attack on Iran. Before Blair's nightmare in Iraq, I fear Britain would have backed such a mission.

As a pro-European, I am relaxed about Brown's relative silence on what will become a huge issue during his period in power. Blair never faced a great showdown over Europe, even though he was prepared for a titanic battle. Brown is much less prepared, and yet will probably face one over a revised constitution. But there is no need for meaningless banalities now.

Every incoming prime minister in recent times has declared a vague enthusiasm for Europe. In each case, to varying degrees, they have failed to deliver. What they say in advance does not matter. It is what they do in power, how strong they are as they are blown around by events, the complex manoeuvring of other leaders and the British media, that will count. Similarly, Brown speaks banalities about standing up for Britain's interests in his dealings with Bush. Such statements are meaningless as the definition of Britain's interest changes depending on the circumstances. In any case, Brown has not clearly defined what he means by Britain's interests.

I am delighted we know nothing about Brown's foreign policies in advance, beyond vacuous mood music. He needs the flexibility in power to work closely as a leading player in Europe and to support the US on those rare occasions when it acts sensibly in its international affairs. Blair's positioning in foreign policies was too clearly defined, even if it offered a fatally imprecise route map. It is better to have no foreign policy in advance than one in which Britain ends up in a blood-splattered Iraq protecting the world from weapons that do not exist.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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