Gordon Brown Must Show the World a Better Britain

New Statesman (1996), December 18, 2006 | Go to article overview

Gordon Brown Must Show the World a Better Britain


A political year in Britain that could not come soon enough is finally upon us. A prime minister, who should have been forced out of office in 2003 for presiding over the greatest foreign-policy disaster for half a century, bought himself some more time. After an attempted coup in September that was only partly successful, but successful enough, Tony Blair will, in a few months, be gone. His chosen successors have fallen, too, leaving only one man in the frame, a man with many doubters to overcome.

For Gordon Brown, foreign policy will be only one of many challenges. But it is the most immediate; it is the area that caught Blair unawares, exposed his naivety and hubris, and was his undoing. Brown, for all his remarkable decade at the Treasury, is little versed in the intricacies of diplomacy. He has a record of impatience with European and other summitry, and has travelled less extensively than might be expected of a politician of his experience.

Brown has kept his counsel on foreign policy, but behind the scenes, work is being done. He will define himself against his predecessor's adventurism, stressing his greater pragmatism. But there are other lessons he should learn. He should shed the delusions of grandeur that afflict British leaders, notably the "special relationship" with America, which has long been one of subservience. With China, India and others challenging the US, Brown would be wise to conclude that Britain will exercise what influence it has mainly through its role in the EU and other multilateral forums.

One of Brown's first tasks must be to shake up and revive the Foreign Office. Our interview on page 12 with Margaret Beckett, the Foreign Secretary, shows how rudderless the department has become.

International co-operation, which Blair and George W Bush ignored during their brief neoconservative hegemony, is sorely needed. China will be crucial in weaning North Korea from its nuclear and isolationist path. A more variegated approach will be required towards Iran, whose nuclear and other ambitions have been enhanced by the west's debacle in Iraq. As everyone but Bush appears now to accept, it is only through engagement with hostile states such as Iran and Syria that progress will be made across the Middle East, from Lebanon to Gaza. …

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