As usual, Nicolas Sarkozy was the centre of attention when Gordon Brown hosted a mini-summit of EU leaders in Downing Street this week. I'm told that there was "much ribbing" of the French President about his very public relationship with the singer and model Carla Bruni.
The jokes helped Mr Brown accomplish the "kiss and make up" mission he launched after upsetting Britain's European partners by arriving three hours late for the signing ceremony for the new EU treaty in Lisbon in December.
But there was plenty of serious talk on Tuesday night too. The pre-cooked headlines were about the EU leaders' call for more transparency in the financial system after the global credit crunch. That dominated talks round the cabinet table. But when they adjourned for (English) goat's cheese salad, (English) duck and chocolate mousse in the Terracotta Room, a much more meaty discussion began.
It was essentially about shaping a new world order in a year's time when, thank goodness, George Bush will no longer be in the White House. This is Mr Brown's big – if secret – project. You might think from the day-to-day headlines that he spends all his time on crisis management. True, he has had plenty of fires to put out in recent months. Yet somehow he also expends a lot of energy on long-term strategic planning, both on domestic and foreign matters.
The Prime Minister won't "do a Blair" and make grand speeches about kaleidoscopes being shaken. He can't talk publicly about the "post-Bush era" because he still has to work with the US President while the clock ticks ever faster towards his exit next January.
But Mr Brown believes that, whoever succeeds Mr Bush, the rest of the world has a unique opportunity to cajole the US into a more enlightened foreign policy based on multilateralism rather than the unilateralism which failed in Iraq. The Prime Minister also wants to remodel world institutions created mainly in 1945 for the 21st century. Other aims will be to persuade the next president to devote more capital to the Middle East peace process and to sign up to a "son of Kyoto" agreement on climate change.
Mr Brown is going to spend the next year doing the spadework for the reforms he wants to see. Some good digging was done at Tuesday's dinner. M. Sarkozy's pet project is to expand the G8 into G13 by admitting China, India, South Africa, Mexico and Brazil into the club. Typically, the hyperactive French President called for this to happen in one go, while the more cautious German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who does not often see eye-to-eye with M. Sarkozy, suggested a more gradual reform.
The Prime Minister is ready to back the Sarkozy plan and has plenty of ideas of his own. He wants the International Monetary Fund to become more pro-active by setting up an early warning system to head off future problems like the credit crunch. He wants the World Bank to become a world environment bank so that it tackles climate change as much as poverty. Most ambitiously, he wants to expand the United Nations Security Council, so that countries like India, Germany and at least one African nation become permanent members. This is fraught with problems because reaching a worldwide consensus will be virtually impossible. It won't stop Mr Brown trying to broker a deal.
Nor will Mr Brown be able to flick a switch and ensure a better world on 20 January next year. Yet he is privately upbeat that many of his reform boxes can be ticked and that the arrival of a new US president will transform the landscape.
Others are not so sure. Whoever becomes president, "there will be more continuity than change in American foreign policy", Sir Christopher Meyer, Britain's former ambassador in Washington, told a recent Fabian Society conference about "the world after Bush."Sunder Katwala, the Fabians' general secretary, who has kick-started a debate in Britain about the post-Bush era, welcomes Mr Brown's moves towards a new foreign policy based on democracy, human rights, and winning "hearts and minds" rather than a "war on terror" and welcomes the Foreign Secretary David Miliband's parallel statement that "there are no military solutions". But he is worried that the Prime Minister sets too much store on reforming global institutions, saying that to connect with the public the changes will have to secure new policies on issues such as climate change. He is also worried that the Brown-Miliband approach is so coded that the voters won't decipher it.
Another problem is the elephant in the room – Iraq. Although it is a post-Bush strategy, Mr Brown is also forging a post-Iraq one. Again, he feels he can't say it, beyond bland statements about learning lessons. As the fifth anniversary of the invasion approaches next month, it would be a good time for him to be more specific in order to achieve closure. Otherwise, there's a danger that Iraq remains a festering wound that even time will not heal for many voters.
Mr Brown is playing a long game and we may not see the fruits of his international labours for some time. But he's right to try to seize the moment to create a better "world after Bush". Surely, for once, things can only get better.
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