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15 January 2007

When good intentions turn to dust

Charles Clarke asks whether Gordon Brown has what it takes to pursue a progressive foreign policy

By Charles Clarke

The first political certainty of 2007 – that Tony Blair will resign – has led to a general expectation that Gordon Brown will succeed him. And as that moment nears, attention of course turns to Brown’s likely policies.

Last week the Chancellor shaded in some international colour with a powerful argument for investment in primary education in Africa. Professor Amartya Sen made this case forcefully to the Commonwealth education ministers in Edinburgh in October 2003 and it is excellent that it is now going to get priority.

However, as the Chancellor would acknowledge, this emphasis does not amount to an international strategy, and so speculation continues. Last Sunday, the NS editor, John Kampfner (writing in the Telegraph), argued that “the bottom line for Brown will be national interest”, while its political editor, Martin Bright (in the Observer), suggested that “the hard-edged realism of a foreign policy based on economics” would be the hallmark of his approach.

Kampfner and Bright may well be accurate in their assessments, and I have no idea whether sources close to Brown briefed either of them. But I do know that neither “putting Britain first”, nor asserting the primacy of economics, gets even close to defining what British foreign policy needs to become after Blair.

Despite its important international successes, the Blair premiership is a classic illustration of the potential for good intentions to turn to dust. The Britain which was to be at “the heart of Europe” has failed to face its Euro-demons and is now more remote from the centre of European power than ever. An “ethical foreign policy” has given way to a desire not to rock the boat of arms sales to Saudi Arabia. And a commitment to nuclear non-proliferation has yielded to an over-hasty and ill-considered determination to renew Trident, whatever the future security threats. These have been the approaches of the whole government, with the Chancellor bearing as much responsibility as the Prime Minister – indeed, in some areas more.

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The truth is that Britain’s national interest can be served only by committed international engagement, particularly within the EU and with the US. As the international community chooses between action and inaction in places as diverse as Bosnia and Darfur, Iraq and Afghanistan, Rwanda and the Middle East, Labour Britain should not be preaching disengagement. Nor should we welcome any tendencies to isolation in America.

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We should try to influence the form of international engagement and try to strengthen the role of the EU. And influence often means compromise. But as we seek beneficial agreements, the call to “put Britain first”, so beloved by the nationalist right and some of our tabloid media, can become seductively dangerous. Its logical consequence is that other countries will also put themselves first, as for example France has done on the Common Agricultural Policy or the US has done in its attitude to Kyoto carbon limits, or Iran is doing with nuclear weapons development.

And it would be foolish to believe that economic levers alone can bypass political, diplomatic and even military action with the difficult and complex judgements that they imply. It should be a support and reinforcement.

It is true that economic reconstruction is central to peace. That was true in post-apartheid South Africa and post-Good Friday Agreement Northern Ireland; it should have been true in post-invasion Iraq and it is essential in Afghanistan, Palestine (as Shimon Peres has argued for decades) and the Middle East as a whole. But economic reconstruction can succeed only on a firm political foundation. Even the purer forms of economic intervention, such as aid to Africa for primary education, can succeed only if government corruption is rooted out and stability established.

Britain’s foreign policy after Blair should retain our commitment to international action and in particular encourage greater involvement by the EU. We should improve our work to promote economic and political stability. And we should make future strategic decisions on the basis of a proper analysis of the security threats we face.

Charles Clarke served as home secretary from 2004-2006