How Gordon sees the world

How Gordon sees the world

Opinion piece (The Spectator)
Mark Leonard
26 August 2006

Imagine the scene. It is 2007. The pale November sun is slowly melting the frosted roofs of Camp David. A throng of journalists — bristling with cameras, arc lamps and microphones — jostle for position around two podiums. Suddenly the doors of a log cabin swing open, and President Bush and Prime Minister Brown walk out for their first joint press conference. They ignore the battery of predictable questions — ‘Does Prime Minister Brown — like Blair and Bush — use Colgate toothpaste?’; ‘Have the two leaders prayed together?’; ‘Will they use military strikes against Iran?’ After the obliga-tory platitudes about the importance of the special relationship, Brown drops his bomb-shell: the British mission in Iraq has been accomplished; our boys are coming home.

Though none of the ministers, MPs or advisers to whom I talked in preparing this piece has suggested this is likely to happen, it is the fantasy that is inspiring sections of the Left who are gunning for a Brown premiership. Some commentators — such as the Times’s Anatole Kaletsky — have argued that withdrawing from Iraq could provide a ‘Bank of England moment’ for the new Prime Minister. In the same way that the shock decision to grant independence to the Bank of England signalled that a new Labour government had broken free from its legacy of inflation and currency devaluations, a decision to withdraw troops could allow it to move out of the shadow of Iraq. But are they right to think that a Brown foreign policy would be so different from Blair’s?

Would Gordon have handled Lebanon differently if he had been running British diplomacy rather than bonding with his new-born baby son? A recent article by Ed Balls — the Chancellor’s closest political confidant — in the left-wing Fabian Review has been seen by some as evidence that Brown would be less loyal to Washington than the incumbent. Its emphasis on economic development rather than ‘draining the swamp’ of Islamic terrorism is seen as a vital clue to Brown’s vision for peace in the Middle East. But the truth is that Gordon — as he has done in each of the international crises to afflict New Labour — is keeping his own counsel.

A recent blizzard of Brownite media stunts — posing with foreign leaders, sitting in fighter-planes, embracing Trident — tells us more about Brown the politician than Brown the statesman. It has more to do with projecting gravitas — and highlighting David Cameron’s lack of it — than mapping out a coherent approach to the world. Indeed, for a politician whose political phil-osophy has shaped every nook and cranny of domestic policy, Brown’s foreign policy remains a conspicuous black hole. Even his closest advisers admit that they have very little idea what Brown the prime minister will do when he (finally) gets the keys to No. 10.

Mark Leonard was director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform (2005-2007)

Brown’s silence on foreign policy is partly a consequence of the so-called ‘Granita deal’, which divided policy between the two founders of ‘New Labour’, giving Brown unprecedented sway over domestic issues, but no say on international ones. It is also because a prime minister’s foreign policy — a combustible mixture of instincts and events — is notoriously hard to predict. No one thought that Tony Blair — who allegedly used his first meeting with Nelson Mandela to ask for an autograph for his children — would lead his country to war six times in seven years.

Tony Blair’s foreign policy in 1997 was defined in opposition to the legacy of the Tory years: moving from ‘little Englandism’ to ‘rulesbased multilateralism’; from beef wars in Europe to ‘leading in Europe’; and from a narrow focus on the ‘special relationship’ to building a British ‘bridge’ between Europe and America. The war in Iraq left each of those pillars in disrepair, and Brown will have to define his own foreign policy as much against Blair as against Cameron. Brown is likely to rebalance all three of Blair’s strategies: restating the importance of British interests and British values; developing a more pragmatic policy of engagement with the European Union; and a more hard-headed brand of Atlanticism.

Instead of seeing Britain as a ‘bridge between Europe and America’, Brown will try to bridge the pursuit of the British national interest with a moral focus on the world’s poor. Above all, his intimates suggest that Brown will break with Blair’s adventurism: ‘Tony is a creature of fashion. His Europeanism is a fashion of his teen years, when getting into Europe was the ultimate symbol of modernity.

More recently he was driven by the messianic interventionism of the neocons. Gordon’s approach to foreign policy will be more pragmatic, like his domestic politics. Very thoughtful and cautious.’ The yin and yang of Brown’s international outlook — morality and economic interests — will build on his impressive record at the Treasury. No Brown speech these days is complete without a litany of challenges that arise from globalisation, and his forthcoming spending review is organised into five international themes: globalisation; demographics; technology; global insecurity; and climate change. Brown will want a foreign policy that promotes open markets — engaging China, India and Russia — but at the same time putting pressure on them to obey international trade rules.

As Brown first showed in his 1999 ‘economics of hope’ speech to the Church of Scotland, his economic and moral agendas are intertwined. One of his friends says, ‘Gordon, more than anyone else, recognises the extraordinary impact that trade can have in places like Africa. That comes both from his experience as a finance minister but also from the impact of trade on the poor in Kirkcaldy.’ Over the years Brown has applied his formidable political skills and obsession with policy detail to changing the nature of the debate on international development: spearheading the campaign to drop debt, inventing the ‘International Financing Facility’ to boost development aid with money from bond markets, and playing a lead role in the 2005 campaign to ‘Make Poverty History’. As one Brownite puts it, ‘You always know where Gordon’s priorities are by looking at how much money he gives to different departments. When he came to power the Department for International Development was a small backwater in the FCO — now it has a budget three times the size.’

But just as important has been Brown’s alliance with charities and churches to turn public opinion around on development (a former adviser to the Catholic Church talks about cardinals in the Vatican ‘eating out of his hand’). The success of the coalition to ‘Make Poverty History’ points to a different way of doing politics and foreign policy, which Ed Balls believes could be replicated with broadbased campaigns on climate change and globalisation. Brown will argue that development spending is a policy for countering terrorism as well as a moral imperative. His friends explain that he compares the scale of today’s terrorist challenge with the Cold War — where military strategies went hand in hand with appeals to hearts and minds.

The moral and economic strands of Brown’s foreign policy will be linked by the ‘golden thread’ of Britishness which increasingly frames all his policy pronouncements — about globalisation, terrorism or Third World poverty — in terms of distinctive British values and interests. Brown’s recent speech on security — where he used this approach to talk of a ‘British way’ of tackling terrorism — was seen by critics as a reversion to ‘Little Englandism’. One Foreign Office official, noting that he barely mentioned the Middle East, Iran, Iraq or Afghanistan, said, ‘Brown doesn’t have a foreign policy. His agenda on terror is about protecting ourselves at home by promoting Britishness, sharing intelligence and fighting money-laundering. He wants to engage the outside world through trade and aid, not diplomacy.’

But for Brown, Britishness serves as a platform for engaging with Europe and the world — not a pretext for isolationism. Speaking on the Today programme recently he said, ‘I think being more explicit as a country about what we value about being British is a very essential element of how we are part of the modern world. You can be part of the global economy and benefit from it but have a huge pride and patriotism that you feel about your own country.’ In other words, Labour prime ministers can’t win the trust to engage with the EU and the world until they have proved that they will doggedly defend British interests. Brown’s allies suggest that his brand of ‘British exceptionalism’ could lead to a foreign policy that is both less Atlanticist and less pro-European.

Brown’s instinctive Atlanticism — expressed through his holidays in Cape Cod and an affinity for the work hard/play hard ethic of American society — is much reported but little understood. It is true that he has better connections in Washington than any incumbent prime minister since Churchill, boasting a circle of friends that includes left-wing democrats such as Ted Kennedy and Republicans such as Alan Greenspan. He was part of the crowd — along with Blair and Philip Gould — that made the crusade to the Clinton war room to see how modern elections are won. But Brownites suggest that Brown’s obsession with American public policy has faded with the decline of the Democrats, and the rightward drift of US politics to arguments about guns, gays and abortion: ‘From 1994 to 1997, there was a lot of thinking going on there which was useful to us. Since then there has been not very much thinking going on.’

One senior Brownite implies that Brown will be less susceptible to pressure from Washington than the current Prime Minister. ‘Blair’s policy of “public support, private criticism” has reduced Britain to part of the inter-agency process in Washington. It is an extraordinary position for a sovereign country to find itself in.’ This would suggest that Brown’s style might be more similar to the German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s than Blair’s: positioning himself as an unambiguous Atlanticist — but reserving the right to be critical of American policy in public. Reports of Brown’s first meeting with the American Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, in 2005 suggest that he has already put this philosophy into practice: the meeting soured when Brown lectured his American interlocutor about the importance of increasing aid.

So would a cautious Brown be willing to risk withdrawing from Iraq? It is the sort of decision that new prime ministers can make: José Luis Zapatero did it for Spain, Romano Prodi for Italy. And now even Junichiro Koizumi of Japan, one of Bush’s staunchest allies, has announced that his troops will go home. Withdrawing from Iraq would certainly put David Cameron and Sir Menzies Campbell on the defensive: the Liberal Democrats have called for it themselves, and the Tories would find it hard to oppose. Brown would also have the comfort of knowing that — for all the sound and fury unleashed in Washington — the dwindling President Bush would be out of office within a year. But there would be a lot of pressure on a newly appointed Labour prime minister — without a foreign policy track record — not to risk the perception that he was cutting himself off from Washington. Much would depend on the situation on the ground in Iraq and Brown’s ability to claim that the British mission had been accomplished.

Would Prime Minister Brown be willing to send British troops abroad? Iraq and Afghanistan were wars of choice rather than necessity, and their legacy will probably be a decline in American interventionism (not least because so many troops are still committed in these countries). In recent years the West has decided to sit out major conflicts, preferring to support existing peace operations (such as the African Union on Darfur or the United Nations in Congo) or provide civilian support through policing missions. The one exception could be Iran, which might come to a head shortly after Brown takes office. Many Americans agree with the presidential frontrunner, John McCain, that the only thing worse than military strikes is a nuclear Iran. Most Europeans would prefer to contain and deter Iran than to attack it. If diplomacy fails to halt Tehran’s nuclear programme, Brown might have to take sides. It is impossible to know which way he would go, but having seen the destructive effect of the Iraq war on the Labour party and on Tony Blair’s authority, it seems unlikely that he would involve Britain in any attack — even if his American friends asked for moral support.

Paradoxically, Brown might find it easier to build political relationships across the Channel than across the Atlantic. Much has been made of his doubts about the euro, his frustration with the ‘Ecofin’ meetings of European finance ministers, his opposition to the agricultural protectionism and restrictive practices of what he refers to as ‘trade bloc Europe’. One Labour adviser even suggests that his Euroscepticism has cultural roots: ‘He doesn’t read European novels or listen to Beethoven. His reference points are American and Scottish.’

But Brown is above all a practical politician. With the European constitution in remission and the euro off the political agenda in this country, he is unlikely to have to slay any European dragons in his first few months. As well as Britain’s economic interest in reforming Europe’s economy, there are compelling political reasons for Brown to emphasise Europe’s importance. David Cameron’s pledge to withdraw Conservative MEPs from the centre-right European People’s Party laid him open to attacks about taking Britain to the sidelines, and not being a credible prime minister in waiting.

It is no coincidence that Brown was quick to strike up a relationship with Angela Merkel (who, to his delight, welcomed him to the Chancellery in Berlin, while denying an audience to Cameron). By the time Brown becomes prime minister there will also be a new President in France — either Nicolas Sarkozy or Segolene Royal — who both speak Brown’s language on ‘reform’. These ambitious new leaders are very compatible with Brown. Unlike François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl, they are soft nationalists who are pragmatic in their engagement with the European Union, and more interested in domestic reform than European federalism — much like Gordon Brown himself.

Brown’s rhetoric suggests he will abandon the Foreign Office view that Britain needs to take part in European projects — even if they are flawed — in order to influence them from the inside. At the Treasury he has often relied more on the brute force of his ideas and the threat of a veto to influence his European partners (although this approach is less effective in policy areas that are decided by majority voting). One famous battle over a Commission proposal for a ‘withholding tax’ saw Brown argue his way from being in a minority of one in 1999, to securing majority support for his approach in 2003. Brown’s allies expect him to use similar tactics to reform the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). One explains, ‘There was incandescence in the Treasury when Blair settled on the EU budget in 2005 without sorting out the CAP. Total incomprehension. The damage it did to public finances; to world trade talks and the chances of France and Germany shifting in the Doha round.’ One concession that Blair did win was an agreement that the European budget will be reviewed in 2008 or 2009. A Labour adviser predicts that Brown will use the opportunity for a showdown with the French: ‘Brown has more appetite for a fight than Blair. Blair wants to be liked and have other leaders on the phone. Gordon would be much more comfortable being isolated in Brussels, lapping up the praise from the press back home.’

This showdown might turn into a double-struggle, because EU leaders have also agreed to negotiate a new treaty to replace the failed constitution by 2009. The German government, which holds the rotating presidency of the European Union in the first half of 2007, would like to start a process of picking through the entrails of the rejected constitution next year, to craft a new treaty. By calling the new text a ‘treaty’ rather than a ‘constitution’, Berlin hopes that it can be ratified with parliamentary votes rather than referendums. When I met Merkel’s advisers — on the eve of Brown’s visit to Berlin — one even speculated about a ‘grand bargain’ where sceptical leaders such as Brown might agree to an ambitious treaty — in exchange for substantial reform of the CAP. Brown will need to decide if he is willing to ratify the new treaty with a parliamentary vote, or if he — like Blair — will succumb to press demands for a referendum. This will be a real conundrum. He won’t want to risk a referendum defeat so early in his premiership. But, at the same time, he will not want to pilot a European treaty through parliament before he has been blessed by the public in a general election.

A former No. 10 official argues that the biggest difference between Blair’s and Brown’s foreign policy will be in style rather than substance: ‘Blair’s ideal day is spent on the phone to ten foreign leaders trying to broker some deal through charm. Gordon is much more of a one-on-one man — he is not as comfortable brokering coalitions and building networks. He is much less of an extrovert than Blair.’ According to a Brown ally, this shyness leads the Chancellor to find solutions in the realm of policy: ‘His approach to the Middle East was immediately to go for the economics, working with [former World Bank President] James Wolfensohn to look at the underlying problems. It was very technocratic. Tony would have called a big summit and tried to charm everyone into submission. Gordon starts with a concrete solution.’

Brown’s allies are increasingly anxious to break with the Blair era. Their attempt to heal the wounds of Iraq in the Labour party will take them into the realm of foreign policy. So who might Brown look to as a role model for his progressive foreign policy? There was a clue at a recent seminar that the Chancellor hosted with Bill Clinton which began with a joke about the former Swedish prime minister Olof Palme going to see Ronald Reagan in Washington: ‘Reagan said, “Isn’t he a communist?” And his advisers said, “No Mr President, he is an anti-communist.” And President Reagan said, “I don’t care what kind of communist he is!”’

Palme remains an iconic figure for centre-left politicians. He had a strong moral core and was the first leader to take international development seriously. But he combined his internationalism with a strong sense of Swedish independence, pursuing friendly but semidetached relations with the European Union and the United States, and standing aside from military adventurism in Vietnam. What’s more, his principled Moralpolitik provided the legitimacy for Sweden’s aggressive pursuit of its national economic interest. Of course Britain — as a member of the UN Security Council, the fifth biggest economy in the world, and a former imperial power — is very different from Sweden. But the image of Gordon Brown as Olof Palme with nuclear weapons could be a telling one.