An attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable and make the best of a weak hand

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The Prime Minister's annual foreign policy address last night could hardly have come at a more critical juncture. Mr Blair was speaking just three days after his return from celebrating the "special relationship" with the newly re-elected George Bush and three days before the French President's state visit to this country to round off the centennial of the Entente Cordiale. It was the start of the week after Yasser Arafat's death; the US Secretary of State's resignation had been announced just hours before - and all this was happening against a backdrop of escalating violence in Iraq. Rarely can a Mansion House speech have been given amid such a foreign policy cacophony, with hope and despair, beginnings and endings, concord and discord all vying for precedence.

The Prime Minister's annual foreign policy address last night could hardly have come at a more critical juncture. Mr Blair was speaking just three days after his return from celebrating the "special relationship" with the newly re-elected George Bush and three days before the French President's state visit to this country to round off the centennial of the Entente Cordiale. It was the start of the week after Yasser Arafat's death; the US Secretary of State's resignation had been announced just hours before - and all this was happening against a backdrop of escalating violence in Iraq. Rarely can a Mansion House speech have been given amid such a foreign policy cacophony, with hope and despair, beginnings and endings, concord and discord all vying for precedence.

Mr Blair made what might be seen as a valiant attempt to impose some order on this confusion. Had the circumstances been more auspicious, the construct more realistic or the rhetoric more high-flown, it might almost have been possible to echo Mr Bush's tribute to his British ally as "visionary". Unfortunately, he fell short in all three departments. His speech came across rather as a self-serving attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable and make the best of what is now, post-Iraq, an exceptionally weak foreign policy hand.

The thinking behind the speech was clearly the urgent need, as Mr Blair sees it, to re-establish Britain as the "bridge" between the United States and Europe, by appealing to a shared transatlantic commitment to democracy. Alternating appeals with lightweight brickbats, Mr Blair called for a change of attitude on the part of both the US and Europe, while arguing for the United Nations to be more active in encouraging states to "protect, not injure their own citizens". This did not mean, he hastily clarified, the repeated exercise of military force. That is one consolation, at least.

There was nothing in what Mr Blair said, however, to suggest that Britain had conducted itself in anything other than in exemplary fashion. He held out a small olive branch for those Europeans who had opposed the war, when he said that it was "sensible" to say that terrorism would not be beaten by toughness alone. And he had words that could be interpreted as oblique criticism for the US, when he said that America, too, had to "reach out": "Multilateralism that works should be its aim. I have no sympathy for unilateralism for its own sake."

If this was a warning for Mr Bush as he embarks on his second term, however, it was both insubstantial and poorly timed. Colin Powell may have been discredited as an intermediary between the US and Europe during the run-up to the war in Iraq, but he was the last vestige in Mr Bush's Cabinet of a co- operative approach. Much will depend on who replaces him, but his departure seems to threaten even the appearance of multi- lateralism in US foreign policy. Last week, Mr Bush told Mr Blair that he intended to work to "deepen" ties with the nations of Europe in the fight against terrorism, poverty and despair. Mr Powell's departure raises the question: on whose terms, and according to whose model, is that rapprochement to take place?

A little more than three years ago, addressing the Labour Party conference shortly after the atrocities of 11 September, Mr Blair spoke his subsequently much-quoted words about re-ordering the world. "This is a moment to seize," he said. "The kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in a flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us reorder this world around us."

Mr Blair has made no secret of his belief that he shares with Mr Bush a sense that together they can change the world for the safer and better. What he refuses to admit, however, is that the most ambitious mission he has embarked on to that end - the invasion of Iraq - has achieved the very opposite of the freedom, order and security envisaged. This is a result that no quantity of fine words about bridge-building spoken at the Lord Mayor's Banquet can disguise.

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