Leading Article: Foreign policy needs a portrait in realism

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The Independent Online
By their wall-hangings shall ye know them. Robin Cook has ordered the removal of the official portrait behind the Foreign Secretary's desk, that of a nondescript 19th-century colonial official. Instead he wants something forward looking, more appropriate to the modern talk about human rights, trade and environment heard yesterday when he introduced Labour's mission statement. But what?

Who is an appropriate icon for Britain abroad on the cusp of the 21st century? Perhaps Mr Cook should hold off touring the National Portrait Gallery until he has given us a more considered version of what Labour's foreign policy is to be. All praise for the way he opened the batting with his public mission statement. He has got the rhetoric out of the way early and can now concentrate on specifics. But don't we still need a bit more rigour in thinking through the foreign and defence stances - and the interplay between them - of a Britain hovering around eighth in the list of world powers as measured by economic potency? Where were the signals, yesterday, to George Robertson, the Secretary of State for Defence, and his forthcoming defence review? Is it steady as you go, or a heavy tilt to port? The Foreign Secretary has been busy of late: perhaps he has missed the latest recruitment advertisements of the Royal Air Force which seem to suggest that the rationale for this expensive military organisation is dropping food aid to the starving. Is that the purpose of the new European fighter?

There is no point in looking for some comprehensively coherent statement, good for all time, that is equally relevant in Riga and Riyadh. British foreign policy will always be messy. There are, after all, scores of new Labour MPs with defence installations in their backyard who will quickly become supporters of the military-industrial status quo. Meanwhile, Mr Cook's talk of leadership in Europe is both ambitious and ambiguous. This is a country, after all, whose public and political class - Robin Cook included - mostly entertains a conception of European unity essentially different from that held in France, Germany and Italy. How revealing was his definition of what he would like the EU to be: a union of independent nations working together merely when they have common problems.

British foreign policy is cursed by its imperial history, having to deal with the fag ends of Empire on a string of islands and dependencies across the globe. Labour will find the Falklands and Gibraltar no less intractable than their predecessors. As for the environment: thanks to John Gummer, the Rio summit gave Britain an international reputation for environmental leadership. It has since been betrayed by the absence of domestic policy change. If Robin Cook starts talking green abroad, he should make sure local authorities, railway operators, road toll-chargers and Treasury taxmen are all in line at home.

It would indeed be welcome if British officials could in future be relied upon to think about the human rights consequences of their actions. But Foreign Secretaries need to take care. High ethical banter at the conference table has to be matched by the practice of British visa issuers in Islamabad and the eavesdropping by British intelligence gatherers in Cheltenham (unionised or not). An unstintingly ethical approach to foreign affairs would forbid trade with China and make negotiation with Laurent Kabila tricky; yet both are necessary, for the sake of British interests, and because pursuit of the least bad alternative is not an ignoble way of conducting affairs. If he is in the market for portraits, Robin Cook might do worse than nip round to No 10 and contemplate WE Gladstone, who stormed into power on the back of a human rights campaign but within months was ordering the bombardment of foreign ports.

Mr Cook might also usefully spend a few moments communing with his colleague Baroness Blackstone, the new Labour spokeswoman on higher education in the House of Lords. She might be asked to rummage in her files and pull out the notes she made on that ill-fated foray by Jim Callaghan's think- tank into examining British embassies abroad, and their hospitality and their laundry bills. The odds are, her notes would still have a point.

Which leads to the key question of Mr Cook's tenure: whether there is, still, too great a disparity between Britain's "objective" weight and its diplomatic standing and military power. Should a Labour Foreign Secretary, especially a New Labour one, bring foreign policy more into scale with Britain's economic standing while downsizing the public's expectations? We are still over-extended - which is, at least potentially, to be too puffed up. Does Britain need that seat on the United Nations Security Council?

The answer does indeed run along the lines Mr Cook suggests. Yes, our status arises partly from being historically entwined in a bundle of entangled alliances and allegiances (Nato, Commonwealth, former colonies, etc). We also derive some of our above-weight punch from, let's face it, being the cradle of the world's lingua franca, being culturally inclined to open trade, being a world centre for the movement of money. To that extent the old Thatcher rhetoric carried some vein of truth. But only a narrow vein. Really, everyone knew all along that the old days of being a free- ranger on the high diplomatic seas are long, long gone, and that the Tories grossly overstated our place in the world. Our true value to the Americans, to take the most obvious case in point, lies in becoming an engaged, active and potent force within Europe. If we were to step off the edge of Europe, American presidents and diplomats would soon be inclined to fly straight past Heathrow and on to Bonn and Paris without stopping. The most ethical and upstanding foreign policy in history won't change that.