A shaky start: more prudence required

Within two weeks the new cabinet has managed to antagonise both Washington and Moscow

The Brown cabinet is feeling its way towards a foreign policy. Gordon Brown's first move was the pointed decision to appoint Mark Malloch Brown as a minister at the Foreign Office. A loyal servant of the United Nations and an outspoken critic of the Bush administration, the newly ennobled Malloch Brown is loathed by the Cheneyites.

As if that wasn't enough, Douglas Alexander then confirmed to the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington that Britain wants to discard the Bush-Blair axis in favour of a multi national approach to all major foreign policy challenges, including security and terrorism. Brown was predictably swift to deny that he wanted any changes in the transatlantic relationship. But nobody in the US is fooled, and nobody should underestimate the symbolic power of the Prime Minister's early statement of intent: he is smoothing the way for close ties with the incoming Democrat administration that most anticipate will take office in January 2009.

Just in case President Bush thought he was being singled out for special punishment by Gordon, David Miliband stepped up to the despatch box with the dramatic announcement that four Russian diplomats (aka intelligence officers) were being expelled in response to Moscow's refusal to hand over the main suspect in the Alexander Litvinenko murder case.

Miliband was clearly pleased with the cross-party support he got for his actions. But it may be worth pausing for thought. Britain does not have an extradition treaty with Moscow, and Russia is under no compulsion to deliver Andrei Lugovoi to the Crown Prosecution Service. And Britain remains unwilling to deliver Boris Berezovsky either to Moscow or to Brazil, despite Brasilia issuing an Interpol warrant for his arrest on 12 July. The CPS and Miliband may well argue that legally there is a watertight case for Lugovoi's extradition. Politically, it is much more shaky.

So, within two weeks, the new cabinet has managed to antagonise both Washington and Moscow. Sergei Lavrov - who I can't help suspecting may be the secret love child of the late, grumpy Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko, known as Mr Nyet - has indicated that Russia does not want this matter to escalate. None theless, the Brown government may encounter obstacles to co-operation with Moscow and Washington in the coming months.

The list of major foreign policy issues where Britain needs good relations with the two powers is long and troubling. Iraq and Afghanistan are the two most obvious. On Iran, there is a real danger that as the end of the Bush administration nears, Washington might concoct ever more nutty adventures such as an invasion, in order to present an incoming Democrat president with foreign policy chaos. Britain and the EU could be in the unusual position of wooing Russia as an ally as they try to head off the apocalypse.

But the immediate headache is Kosovo, which was high on the agenda at Miliband's EU talks in Brussels on 23 July. The US and Russia are on a collision course over the UN-administered territory's final status. Washington insists that it will recognise a uni lateral declaration of independence by the Kosovar Albanians in the event of the UN Security Council failing to adopt a resolution sanctioning independence. The Russians have said they will veto anything Belgrade doesn't like.

Playing chicken over the Balkans is unwise at best. But neither Moscow nor Washington will be picking up the pieces - whatever the outcome, the EU will be clearing up the mess, financially, politically, socially and even militarily.

And this, counter-intuitively, is where David Miliband has a real opportunity to develop an innovative foreign policy with concrete results. Until now, Britain's Kosovo strategy has in effect been an adjunct to the state department's policy in Washington. This is both tired and unable to deliver results. But the replacement of Blair, Chirac and Schröder, a stultifying combination, with the invigorated trio of Brown, Sarkozy and Merkel offers a genuine opportunity for Europe to fashion coherent policies, on a case-by-case basis, that will advance the interests of the collective and the EU's individual members.

Kosovo is the obvious place to start - it is in Europe's backyard, and if the EU can prevent the Russians and Americans from wrecking stability in the region by persuading the Serbs and Albanians to reach a negotiated settlement over the territory, then Britain may be able to develop a foreign policy capable of compensating for the disasters of the past five years.