Thursday, July 05, 2007

Is Sanity Contagious?

Tribune 6 July

Ian Williams

If John Bolton attacked Satan, it would certainly boost the Prince of Darkness's credibility with most of the rational world. So it is no bad thing that the blowhard reactionary, who has moved from being the unconfirmed US Ambassador at the UN to being the confirmed and plentifully paid pundit of choice for Fox News, has attacked Gordon Brown's appointment of Mark Malloch Brown as a foreign office minister.

Rupert's other mouthpiece, the Times, has been at it too, broadcasting Bolton's frothings against both Browns without reminding its readers that the ex-envoy is simultaneously attacking Condoleezza Rice and the Bush administration for their alleged reluctance to invade Iran immediately. The Times darkly warns of Bush administration angst at the "mixed signals" that the Prime Minister is sending with his appointments. Of course, anything more complex than nailing a white flag to the pole counts as a mixed signal in the Murdoch-Bolton alternate universe.

In fact, Bolton's attack on both Browns and the State Department raises hope that sanity is contagious and may be spreading to both sides of the Atlantic – it's almost enough to revive hopes for the "special relationship."

With Bush's popularity dropping lower and lower, in both the US and the UK, it is of course very astute of the Prime Minister to put down the markers he has. His appointments of Malloch Brown, John Denham, and David Milliband all radiate strong signals of foreign policy rationality from No 10.

None of these people could remotely be construed as anti-American, but they have certainly disagreed with some aspects of recent American foreign policy. But then, so do most Americans. Malloch Brown in particular came into the UN as an archetypal champion of genuine values of the kind that some in the West are trying to trademark, but he was firm in not surrendering them under the current administration's pressure.

Even so, both Browns, and the rest of the cabinet still have to cope with relations with the USA. Anyone with an historical eye can, of course, see the end of the American Empire, the far-flung battle lines, the sinking fires on the dunes and headlands and all that. In fact, when Kipling foresaw the end of Empire, London was still the world's creditor. In contrast Washington is currently the world's biggest debtor.

But from decline to fall still implies long historical presence. It will be a long time before the Chinese Seventh Fleet steams up the Channel to challenge us directly, while the USA will loom large in the foreign policy of both Europe and the UK for as long as anyone currently in the cabinet is around.

Albeit with less urgency since the end of the Cold War, any British government still has good reasons to maintain friendly relations with Washington, and historically Labour ones even more so. But the purpose of that is to have some leverage on policy, as Tony Blair totally failed to do, and indeed, according to those close at hand, did not even try to do.

It is not a new dilemma. Harold Wilson's tightrope walking to keep the UK in with Washington but out of Vietnam was a virtuoso performance for which the former Prime Minister has not had sufficient credit from his leftist detractors, who, I regret, included myself at the time. Wilson's refusal to capitulate to the very heavy pressure from President Johnson for even the most token British participation in the war demonstrates the residual power that Britain had, and may even still have. LBJ wanted it as a token of international respectability.

In the even more isolated position that George W. Bush's White House found itself in, it is reasonable to doubt whether the disastrous invasion of Iraq could have gone ahead if Tony had imposed conditions.

Similarly, while failing to exercise influence in the White House, recent British behaviour has contributed to the failure of an independent European foreign policy. To be honest, EU foreign policy failed at its first challenge in the Balkans. For a long time, the best argument against a UN Security Council seat for the EU was that it would post a permanent abstention in the face of indecision. But for a time, when most of Europe was social-democratic in outlook there were the beginnings of a common outlook, not totally disrupted by New Labour's love affair with Clinton.

When fickle Albion's affections went to Bush, the British government soon lived down to the reputation that Charles de Gaulle gave it of being an American Trojan Horse in Europe, an even bigger argument against a European Security Council seat was that it would vote perpetually with Washington. Despite the snub to our European partners implied by over-attention to the US, Britain does indeed have influence there. Blair was instrumental in switching a consensus towards uncritical acceptance of the Bush-Cheney eschatological visions of the so-called "War on Terror."

A constructive engagement with EU countries need not reduce leverage in Washington – rather it redoubles it. Similarly, if a UK policy returns to a commitment to development and multilateralism unmitigated by pandering to NeoCons, its influence in the rest of the world will increase, and be reflected in its voice in the USA.

Doormats have uses, but do not have much in the way of influence. The new cabinet seems to reflect that insight.

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