Notes on a post-Blair foreign policy

How the game has shifted

Noted for his command of the ministerial brief, David Miliband is arguably the most cerebral occupant of the Foreign Office in a generation. The main challenge confronting him, and indeed Gordon Brown, since he assumed office in June 2007, has been the shaping of a foreign policy for the post-Blair years. This has proved a testing proposition – on the one hand trying to detach current policy from the more bitter legacies of the past decade, while on the other attempting to rekindle that sense of internationalism which animated new Labour’s first term in office, with Robin Cook at the helm.

One of his first moves was to abandon Tony Blair's "bridge" metaphor - Britain uneasily straddling the Atlantic between Europe and the US - a role that Miliband has suggested was "never quite right". The subtle shift in emphasis was further evident in the Foreign Secretary's "Democratic Imperative" speech in Oxford (12 February 2008), in which he steered the pursuit of democratic ideals away from military intervention and towards the use of "soft power" instruments. Miliband demonstrated a willingness to learn the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, stressing support for a multilateral order and its institutions, which were all too easily bypassed on the road to Baghdad.

This shift has been complemented by a focus on the role of the individual in global affairs. Highlighting what he has termed the "civilian surge", Miliband has argued that there are now "more people wanting and able to shape their own lives", a concept critical in tackling climate change, global poverty and internal repression.

In the latter case, empowering a foreign population against ruling elites is unlikely to result in anything but a bloody outcome, as people on the streets of Burma and Kenya will attest. But there is evidence of a greater willingness in government to move beyond conventional thinking when facing up to the challenges of the 21st century. It perhaps also reflects Miliband's position as the first British foreign secretary of the post-soixante-huitard generation, relatively unencumbered by the divisions of the Cold War.

By its very nature, foreign policy seldom offers a blank canvas, the legacy of the past and the unpredictability of events being ever present. These are lessons, Miliband's critics suggest, he is learning the hard way; his mishandling of the Georgia crisis and irritation caused to Indian officials on his recent visit remind us of the value of an experienced diplomatic hand. Unsurprisingly, the shadow of the Blair years continues to loom large, not least because of the ongoing entanglements in Iraq and Afghanistan, the latter of which is likely to place further strain on British troops this year.

A renewed appetite for revisionism in British foreign policy has been evident over the past month. This largely stems from the arrival of a new US president, offering the chance for catharsis, both within the foreign policy Establishment and among the public at large. During his speech in Mumbai on 15 January this year, Miliband said that the discourse of the "war on terror" was "misleading and mistaken". Such revisionism was also apparent in the FO's recent attempt to re-energise debate on nuclear disarmament. This is an issue that had stalled over the past decade, having received interest in new Labour's early years. It now has fresh impetus following commitments from President Barack Obama.

Specifics aside, it is in providing a broader sketch of the future international order that a post-Blair foreign policy is likely to find definition. This is something that Gordon Brown addressed in the more propitious days of his premiership: a call to build a "global society" founded on shared progressive values formed the core of his Kennedy Memorial lecture (18 April 2008).

At a time of global instability the need to find common purpose is greater than ever. The success of such a vision will rest on how well it can be sustained during a time of deepening global economic woe. The first significant test of the revived, yet still fragile, multilateralism will be the G20 summit in London on 2 April. Yet the ultimate measure of a post-Blair foreign policy will be found less in the spectre of the past, but rather in remaining true to progressive aspirations while grappling with the crises of the present.