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Hook, line and sinker for Bush

Blair’s ditching of core Labour values led to a series of foreign policy disasters from Iraq to Europe. With a lameduck Bush, David Clark explains it’s just possible a Brown leadership might rethink.


t is a key element of New Labour’s mythology about itself that Tony Blair’s relationship with his party takes the form of a binding contract, the terms of which were clear from the outset. Blair would deliver power, and in exchange Labour would accept a political programme much further to the right than its instincts would naturally lead it to embrace. Any attempt to rewrite this pact by arguing that the Government needs to reconnect with Labour’s core beliefs thus constitutes a form of bad faith.

Like all myths, this contains an element of truth. Most Labour members in the mid-1990s understood perfectly well that their party would need to move towards the centre in order to build a winning electoral coalition. What none of them anticipated, let alone signed up to, was that their government would continue drifting inexorably to the right once in office. That this shift has taken place is undeniable when you consider the very real possibility that Labour is preparing to repeal parts of its own Human Rights Act. Or the fact that Labour was elected in 1997 on a pledge to end the NHS internal market and has since reintroduced it.

In international affairs, this trend is clearer than possibly anywhere else. Indeed, anyone returning home having been marooned on a desert island since the autumn of 1997 might look at the current Government’s foreign policy record and reasonably conclude that the Conservatives had regained power at some point in the last nine years. The fact that this process has happened gradually does nothing to lessen its impact.

Labour’s international strategy in its first term had an unmistakably progressive edge. Some of its first acts included the signing of the EU’s Social Chapter, the restoration of trade union rights at GCHQ, a decision for Britain to rejoin UNESCO, the banning of landmines and the negotiation of the Kyoto Treaty. Tougher controls on arms exports were adopted with the intention of preventing British weapons being used by foreign governments for internal repression or external aggression.

A new human rights agenda was adopted which led to dozens of new initiatives from the publication of an annual Human Rights Report to a decision to use Britain’s diplomatic influence to campaign for the global abolition of the death penalty. This ‘ethical dimension’ informed a new doctrine of humanitarian intervention born of the conviction that the tragedies of Bosnia or Rwanda should never be allowed to happen again. The most significant consequence of this approach was Labour’s intervention in Kosovo, a place of no strategic value to the west, but whose Muslim population faced the horror of ethnic cleansing.

Most of this policy programme had been developed in opposition at a time when Blair took barely any interest in foreign affairs and was happy to farm out responsibility to his Shadow Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook. But the more Blair became involved in international diplomacy as Prime Minister, the more Government policy began to drift from its early progressive concerns. The issue of arms exports provides a useful illustration. One of Blair’s early foreign policy decisions was to overrule Cook who wanted to revoke licences granted for the export of Hawk jets to Indonesia. Although not a breach of the new arms export guidelines (the licences had been granted by the Conservatives), it proved to be the first step on a slippery slope. The next was a decision to grant export licenses for the export of Hawk spares to Zimbabwe in clear violation of the Government’s own policy. This journey reached its logical destination in Labour’s second term. Faced with the prospect of upsetting America by refusing the export of parts for F16 jets that ministers knew would be re-exported to Israel for use in the Occupied Territories, Blair simply changed the guidelines to permit it.

Of all the things that have impacted on Labour’s changing foreign policy, it is the terms of this special relationship with America that have had the most serious and damaging effect. Despite Blair’s closeness to Bill Clinton, there was little indication in Labour’s first period in office of what was later to come. The Bill and Tony show appeared to be based on an affinity of progressive outlook, and at that time Labour talked about Britain acting as a ‘bridge across the Atlantic’, a metaphor that suggested balance in its transatlantic priorities. All of that changed in November 2000 with the election of George W Bush.

It is likely that even without 9/11 the rise of the Republican right to power in Washington would have exerted a negative influence on Blair’s thinking. The Bush administration’s contempt for the international community, along with its toxic brand of ‘America First’ nationalism, was always going to lead to confrontation, not least with Europe. In this environment, Labour’s attempt to avoid choosing between its Atlantic and European vocations was always going to be in vain. When 9/11 forced this choice dramatically and suddenly onto the agenda, there was little doubt that Blair would opt to prioritise closeness to the White House.

Blairism is first and foremost a doctrine of power and one of its principal tenets is that Labour should never find itself at odds with the powerful Anglo-American conservative establishment personified most visibly by Rupert Murdoch. Whatever damage the Iraq war did to Blair’s influence in Europe and his popularity at home, it was in his view, as nothing compared to consequences of a permanent rift with a section of opinion that had done more than any other to shut Labour out of office for eighteen years. There was no comparable centre of power pulling in the other direction, and Blair was certainly not in the business of trying to create one. Blair’s risk averseness in the face of wealth and power has been one of his few constants. The foreign policy consequences of Blair’s alliance with George Bush have been threefold. The first is that Labour’s strategy of ending Britain’s isolation in Europe now lies in tatters, while Europe itself has been left enfeebled by political division. The project for developing Europe as a force for promoting a more progressive and democratic model of global governance and economic development was a serious one, but it required Britain under Labour to stay the course by joining the single currency and promoting the European Constitution. Instead of helping to restore greater balance in the international community by strengthening Europe, Blair chose to celebrate American unipolarity and dismiss those who question it as ‘anti-American’. The result is that global power relations remain distorted in favour of the right.

A second consequence is that the idea of a rules-based international order has been supplanted by a neoconservative doctrine of power politics. This suits America at a time when it enjoys a preponderance of power, but as we shift inevitably from a unipolar to a multipolar world order, we may soon have cause to regret the missed opportunity to create the rules and institutions required to manage it peacefully and equitably. By the time America realises that it no longer enjoys a comparative advantage, it may already be too late. A more united Europe was perhaps our last best chance to achieve a transition to multipolarity in a spirit of cooperation rather than nation state rivalry. The opportunity hasn’t gone yet, but it is vanishing before our eyes.

The final consequence is that the doctrine of humanitarian intervention is fatally discredited, and likely to remain so for a generation, with appalling consequences for some of the most vulnerable people in the world. The model of intervention developed by progressives in the 1990s, although not perfect, disavowed the cynical policy of national interest in favour of universalism. The effect of the Iraq war, and Blair’s misuse of humanitarian arguments to pursue realist objectives, is that an important strand of liberal internationalism has been contaminated by association with American power interests. The people of Darfur may only be the first of many to pay the price.

With Blair preparing to depart from Downing Street, the question arises of whether Gordon Brown’s foreign policy would be any different. His recent posturing on nuclear weapons suggests few grounds for optimism. While the policy significance of what he said remains unclear, the fact that he felt the need to genuflect to the right in this way was depressingly familiar. Against this there is a very clear imperative for Brown to distance himself from the most unpopular parts of Blair’s legacy, the most obvious of which is Iraq. The Chancellor must surely know that many of those who have abandoned the party in the last three years will need more than a change of face at the top if they are to be persuaded to return. With Bush a lame duck for the remainder of his term in office, there may be very little for Brown to lose in taking a more independent path.

The issue is whether this can be allied to a more coherent strategy for rebalancing global power. For anyone who sees this as an important objective of British policy, Europe remains the only serious game in town. Those who know Brown say he is less of an instinctive Eurosceptic than he often seems, and it is certainly true that his attitude to Brussels was very positive until the mid 1990s. With eurozone growth rates potentially exceeding Britain’s again in the not too distant future and a new generation of leaders assuming power in the large EU member states, it is just possible that Brown might be forced to reassess some of his more recent positions.

But these are only hopes based on second hand impressions and educated guesswork. So much of what Brown stands for in foreign policy remains unknown and will only become clear after he becomes Prime Minister. In this sense his election as Labour leader will be a leap of faith. It depends ultimately on whether he understands that a change of direction on foreign policy is essential if he is to renew Labour in office and reconnect with Labour’s lost voters. One salutary factor is that a failure to do so would be his loss as well as ours.

David Clark is a former adviser to Robin Cook