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14 January 2008

A new foreign policy

Ahead of the Fabian Change the World

By Sunder Katwala

The world is watching the dramatic US Presidential primaries. But only Americans have a vote. The last eight years have shown how much their choice will affect us all, so how can we be more than spectators in shaping the world after Bush?

That depends on ensuring that the dominant theme of ‘change’ in the US election crosses the Atlantic too. Europeans have criticised Bush’s unilateralism. We must now show that multilateralism can deliver. And that means Gordon Brown and David Miliband will need to develop a new British foreign policy for the post-Bush era.

Foreign policy is dominated by events. The Bhutto assassination. The Kenyan election crisis. Independence for Kosovo. These crises, punctuating the endless rounds of international summits, demand attention.

But ideas matter in foreign policy too in shaping how we respond to events. Bush’ neo-con revolution has failed. But that does not necessarily mean there will be a turn for the better. A reassertion of realism in foreign affairs – that national interest is all that matters – risks returning us to the Douglas Hurd era, where all talk of ethics and values is for fools

So the internationalist left must demonstrate that it has an effective multilateral approach – and show that this offers credible solutions to the issues on top of the diplomatic in-tray for 2008.

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On climate change, Bali gives us the framework for a deal – if none of the detail. The next US President will have a crucial role in bringing the developing world. We need to build public pressure in other countries – like Canada and Japan – who are opposed to the deal we need. That should include asserting that there will be no free riders this time – that countries who do not sign up to the post-Kyoto Treaty should be ineligible for WTO membership.

On Pakistan, western policy – to broker a fragile Musharaff-Bhutto alliance to prop up the western-backed President – is in tatters. This has delivered neither stability nor a democratic transition. We must refocus on backing the principles and institutions – not just free elections, but media and judicial freedoms, rather than individuals whose commitment to those is contignent at best. Otherwise, the west will be charged with hypocrisy and double standards by those who should be our allies: the latent majority in Pakistan who want rule by neither the military nor the mullahs.

Iran has slipped from the international front pages, as the chances of a last Bush military adventure have much diminished. That is the outcome of successful multilateral diplomacy. But the issue will return if we do not have a strategy for a diplomatic resolution of Iran’s engagement with the international community.

That means a deal – on civil nuclear power, on full diplomatic relations with the US and a responsible role in the region, and on letting Iranians decide their own political future. This is the best way to avoid helping Iranian hardliners use anti-western confrontation to squash Iran’s forces for democratic reform.

However, there are two major political barriers to Brown’s Britain being a leading advocate of a new multilateralism,.

The first is how to deal with the scars of the Iraq war. Brown was part of the Cabinet which took the decision. He cannot change that history. But he has not yet found a way to signal that lessons have been learnt. Brown had rebuilt his relationship with Robin Cook, but found himself giving the eulogy at his memorial service, instead of bringing the former foreign secretary back into Cabinet. John Denham has returned to government, but rightly insists he is in Cabinet on his merits.

Ultimately, a public inquiry on Iraq will be needed to bring closure, and enable the space for the future foreign policy debates that Labour needs.

The second is that the Brown government needs to think much harder about Europe. The government has been defensive about the EU Reform Treaty, for which it has little enthusiasm. But it risks therefore sending the public signal that the government is protecting the public from the European project – instead of showing how our interests depend on being fully engaged with it. Nor, politically, can Labour undermine the contradictions in Conservative policy towards the EU – effectively ‘in and out’ – while appearing content to be semi-detached themselves, as over the fiasco of signing the Lisbon Treaty.

Britain can not champion a ‘new multilateralism’ and yet appear happily semi-detached from the most important multilateral presence on the global stage. Gordon Brown and David Miliband must start a new public argument about Europe in Britain – that it is the essential means to Britain punching our weight in contributing to the international cooperation that the world after Bush desperately needs.

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