Gordon Brown and Hard-Headed Internationalism (ARI)

Gordon Brown and Hard-Headed Internationalism (ARI)

Theme: Gordon Brown is about to complete his first semester as British Prime Minister and it is now possible to assess some of the changes which he has made to foreign policy. Some of Brown’s intentions have been revealed by his response to questions -from the Reform treaty of the European Union (EU) to Darfur- which demanded immediate action. But he has also sought to reformulate some of the principles which will guide British foreign policy in the longer term. This new vision, which combines multilateralism with interventionism, he describes as ‘hard headed internationalism’.

Summary: Gordon Brown has adopted a lower profile on the international stage than his predecessor Tony Blair. The dominant foreign policy questions during his first six months have focussed on Europe and the US. The latest episode in Britain’s perennially difficult relationship with the European Union (EU) concerns the ratification process of the Reform Treaty. Brown is attempting to avoid at all costs the referendum being demanded by the opposition Conservative Party and by powerful sections of the media. Brown has reasserted the pre-eminence of the transatlantic relationship as Britain’s most important bilateral tie but has hinted that an emerging multi-polar world will require changes of strategy. His doctrine of hard-headed realism attempts to predict some of those changes by arguing for reformed multinational institutions whilst insisting that intervention (with force on occasion) will be more necessary than ever in a globalised world.

Analysis: Since Gordon Brown became Prime Minister in June 2007 there has been a marked change of tempo and tone if not of direction in British foreign policy. Whereas his predecessor Tony Blair revelled in a global role, Brown is a more reluctant traveller -or as one Government insider once put it ‘Gordon does not do abroad’-.[1] Brown’s reticence to seek out opportunities on the international stage, or become over-engaged in foreign policy, has been one of the most notable contrasts with Blair over the last six months. On the eve of Brown’s first major foreign policy speech as Prime Minister. the Financial Times commented that he ‘must be looking forward to [it] like a trip to the dentist. He does not seem to have much taste for Abroad -especially Europe-‘.[2]

Given that foreign policy -in particular Iraq and the Lebanon- led to his predecessor Tony Blair’s forced, premature departure from Downing Street, Brown’s more reserved approach to international affairs is perhaps understandable. But beyond giving foreign policy a lower profile in the overall Government message, what has changed in the content and what are the new directions being mapped out by the Brown administration?

When Gordon Brown became Prime Minister little was known about his views on foreign policy. He was the most powerful member of the Blair Government after the Prime Minister but whilst he had a veto, if not control, over extensive areas of domestic policy, his expressed views on foreign policy were seldom if ever at variance with the Government line.

As a consequence, since becoming Premier, Brown has been forced to tread a fine line between continuity and change. Bound by collective, cabinet responsibility and political expediency he has had to defend the record of the Labour Government of which he was such a prominent member over the previous decade. Yet he has also sought to nuance some elements of policy, notably on Iraq and the transatlantic relationship, in an attempt to assuage critics of the existing policies inside and outside the Labour Party.

Brown sent out an early message to the anti-war lobby by bringing John Denham (who had resigned from Blair’s Government in April 2003) into the cabinet and appointing Mark Malloch-Brown, assistant Secretary General at the UN and another Iraq critic, as a minister in the Foreign Office. Perhaps the more important if subtle message of his initial appointments was that Brown intended to maintain firm control over foreign policy choices. Rejecting behind-the-scenes claims from more senior and experienced members of the Government, he placed young and relatively inexperienced ministers in the key foreign policy posts: David Miliband (41) became Foreign Secretary and Douglas Alexander (37) became Secretary for the Department for International Development.

Two issues in particular have dominated Brown’s first six months in office. First, and most importantly in terms of domestic politics, the EU Reform Treaty to replace the failed Constitution and the process of ratification. Secondly, the future British presence in Iraq and Afghanistan and a possible recalibration of the transatlantic relationship with the US. Finally, Brown has begun to develop a distinct, overarching framework for his foreign policy, described as ‘hard-headed internationalism’. This attempts to reconcile a new emphasis on multilateralism and reformed multilateral institutions with an interventionism driven by shared interests and values.[3]

Consistent with the image of a generally robust approach, Brown has adopted a particularly tough European policy described by his closest political adviser as ‘hard-headed pro-Europeanism’.[4] Since becoming Prime Minister, Brown has retained his coolness towards the EU and consolidated the reputation he acquired as Chancellor for being impatient with the EU machinery and some of his European counterparts.[5] Although Brown has a reasonably warm relationship with other new leaders in Europe -notably Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy- he still appears to be uninterested or ambivalent about the EU. In a recent major speech on foreign policy he mentioned Britain’s membership of the EU and the Commonwealth in the same sentence and implied (intentionally or not) an equivalence between the two organisations. There were only three other direct references to the EU in the entire speech -two in passing and one urging more reform-.

Brown’s lukewarm attitude to the EU has, however, be understood as a political response to what is, in the UK, a highly divisive issue. The opposition Conservative party is dominated by a strong anti-EU wing which constantly charges the Labour government of ‘betraying Britain’s interests in Brussels’. A key attack point has been the reform process. At the Lisbon summit in June 2007 the outgoing Prime Minister Blair negotiated four ‘red lines’ or sections of the Treaty which would not apply to Britain concerning justice and home affairs, defence and foreign policy, social security and a fundamental rights charter. On the basis of this Brown has argued that the new Reform Treaty as it relates to Britain is materially different to the Constitutional Treaty.

The point is significant. In its General Election manifesto of 2005 the Labour Party pledged a referendum on the Constitution before ratification. Brown now argues that that pledge does not now apply to the new Reform Treaty. The opposition Conservative Party and powerful sections of the press -from the populist Sun to the cerebral Economist– argue that the Government is duty bound to hold the referendum and will be breaking an election pledge if it does not do so.

Frustrated by politicians around Europe who have publicly emphasised the similarities between the Constitution and the Reform Treaty, Brown has repeatedly had to emphasise the differences, in particular as they relate to Britain:

‘Why is this treaty different? It is different because it is not a constitutional treaty; it is an amending treaty. Why is it different? It is different because we won a protocol in the charter of rights, we got an opt-in on justice and home affairs, we got an emergency brake on social security, and we have exempted the security issues’.[6]

The debate is important for two reasons. First, if the Conservatives do force a referendum most analysts expect a ‘no’ vote. This would paralyse the ratification process and the EU. Secondly, a quarter of all Conservative MP’s have signed a parliamentary petition (known as an Early Day Motion) calling for a referendum in the UK before or after ratification by Parliament. If a post ratification referendum rejected the Treaty Britain would be obliged to renegotiate her terms of membership -or withdraw from the EU altogether-. The Conservative leadership refuses to comment on whether it would be bound by this demand from its own Backbenchers but the stakes are clearly very high both for Britain -and for the rest of Europe-.

In the context of the British debate Brown’s ‘tough love’ approach to Europe is understandable but it does bring to the fore the question of why he is in this position and why Europe continues to be such a neuralgic issue in British public life. It is all the more odd because in many important respects the British vision of Europe has prevailed: the single market, the Lisbon agenda and enlargement to name but three notable victories.

These are all responses to global challenges but Brown still appears to be frustrated by the reluctance of some European leaders to recognise the nature of the problems and has no patience with those who would construct ‘fortress Europe’. He put the point plainly in a speech shortly before becoming Prime Minister when he spoke of the English Channel as a highway to the world and said ‘whenever the choice has been between protectionism and the open seas, Britain has chosen the open seas… to be global rather than insular or protectionist’.[7] Brown’s Europe Minister has reiterated the Government’s view that ‘the real challenge for Europe is to show in real, day to day terms, how it is helping people adapt to the challenges of globalisation’ and has published a position paper called Global Europe: Meeting Economic and Security Challenges.[8]

Yet it is not always clear that Brown sees the EU as an essential link into this globalised world. Despite being elected to put ‘Britain at the heart of Europe’ over a decade ago, the Labour Government has never made any sustained, consistent attempt to convince an admittedly sceptical British electorate of the merits of the EU. Gordon Brown has been one of the most reticent to make the case and over the next few months he might, as Prime Minister, face the consequences of that failure to change public attitudes.

In dealing with the transatlantic relationship Brown has been on much firmer ground. Comments over the summer by a couple of ministers suggesting that Brown might be about to distance himself from the US were intended only for domestic consumption.[9] In reality they were designed to create an impression which distanced Brown from Tony Blair, not from Washington. One of Brown’s first overseas trips was to President Bush in the White House. It was widely remarked that the personal chemistry between the two leaders was not as it had been with Blair (Brown looked less than comfortable at being whizzed 360 degrees by Bush in the Presidential golf cart) but there were no policy rifts. This was confirmed by Brown when he said in a recent speech that ‘It is no secret that I am a lifelong admirer of America. I have no truck with anti-Americanism in Britain or elsewhere in Europe?’ (incidentally, it is impossible to imagine Brown repeating the first sentence but substituting the word ‘Europe’ for ‘America’).[10] The Foreign Secretary recently confirmed that ‘the US is the single most important bilateral relationship’.[11]

It is true that under Brown, Britain is scaling down its contingent to the Iraq coalition force, but this was happening anyway. In 2003 Britain contributed 35,000 to the invasion force. That number has dropped to 3,000 and Brown has announced that another 1,000 troops ‘will be home by Christmas’. Foreign Secretary Miliband has conceded that the post war reconstruction ‘could have been done better’, although this sentiment is now widely expressed in the US too and was behind the sweeping congressional gains made by the Democrats last November. Miliband insisted, however, that a Brown-led Government would have taken Britain to war in 2003.[12]

Britain is also robustly supporting firmer action against the failure of Iran to comply with the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty and the terms of three UN Security Council resolutions. Whilst the former Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, described military action against Iran as ‘inconceivable’, Brown now says that ‘nothing should be ruled out’.[13] He has, however, emphasised that sanctions are ‘bearing some success’ and will be desperate to find a diplomatic solution for both security and domestic political reasons. He knows that if there is a US or Israeli strike on Iran he will be presented with an uncomfortable dilemma. He would probably approve a strike but this would further alienate that part of the electorate (and his own party) which became disenchanted with Tony Blair over Iraq. In the less likely scenario that he condemned a strike he would be written off as permanently unreliable by important allies.

The UK-US relationship remains as strong as ever. Beneath that, however, subtle differences are emerging which may become important partly depending on the outcome of the presidential elections in November 2008. If the incoming President resists tendencies towards either continued unilateralism or a new isolationism there may be a coincidence with the new foreign policy tenets being sketched out by Brown.

Brown has argued that foreign policy will increasingly be played out in a context shaped by ‘six new global forces unique to our generation’:

  1. Instability and uncertainty arising from failed or rogue states.
  2. The spread of terrorism.
  3. The global shift in economic power arising from the flows of capital and sourcing so that ‘the new frontier is that there is no frontier’.
  4. Climate change.
  5. World-wide migration of people and pandemics.
  6. Technology-driven networking so that ‘it is possible for the first time in human history to contemplate and create a global society that empowers people’.

From this, Brown drew three conclusions. First, that ‘the old distinction’ between an ‘over there’ and an ‘over here’ was no longer relevant in terms of important issues such as terrorism, migration or environmental degradation.

Secondly, that technological change is providing a gateway to information and connecting people so that ‘it is possible in this century, for the first time in human history, to contemplate a global society that empowers people everywhere‘. The logic of this is that individuals will be empowered to form groups and networks out-with the traditional units of the state. And a global society implies global citizens. Whilst the concept can be traced back to the writings of Tom Paine the reality would be a very radical prospect indeed. This may be the import of what Brown is saying but raises some big questions: what kind of rights will these global citizens enjoy? More to the point, how will global citizens be able to enforce their rights and who will help them? The logic of his argument has the potential to open up a whole new chapter in international relations.

Thirdly, Brown concludes that if this process of integration is to be successfully managed then it will require stronger and better international institutions, rules and networks. The International Monetary Fund and World Bank have both promised to reform their structures (the former has pledged that the next Managing Director will not necessarily be European) and a Brown premiership will be pressing them as a matter of urgency. But it is reform of the UN Security Council which would be the greatest prize in order to make it ‘more credible and more effective’.[14]

Brown evidently believes that sustained unilateralism by any country is bound to fail, and probably sooner rather than later, in an increasingly multi-polar world. David Miliband has already warned, implicitly, of a decline in US supremacy, commenting recently that ‘within 20 years, political, economic and military power may be more geographically dispersed than it has been? since the 19th century’.[15] This could be interpreted as a Soto voce warning to the US that it should contribute to shape this process of reforming multilateral institutions whilst it has the power to do so. But what if it does not? It is not difficult to anticipate tensions arising between Brown’s loyal Atlanticism and his muscular multilateralism. If the prevailing mood in Washington over the next eight years is to continue to dismiss the international community as ‘irrelevant’ or simply unreliable it is not clear how Brown will react.

On specific issues in his first six months as Prime Minister Brown has already offered some examples of how he thinks global problems might be tackled. At variance with Washington, and some in Europe, he is highly focussed on climate change. He is introducing legislation which will make Britain the first country in the world with a legal framework to cut CO2 emissions. He has also called for a strengthened role for the UN and World Bank in environmental protection and wants to help developing countries ‘leapfrog’ the dirty energy phase. Africa is another priority. He has attempted to draw world attention to individual regions (with Sarkozy he promoted the latest initiative in Darfur) and has developed plans to universalise education on the continent to improve economic growth. This emphasis on economic support as a means of alleviating global tensions is a constant in Brown’s worldview: he is an active supporter of more free trade in the Doha round and has formulated an ‘economic road map’ for Palestine as a precursor to peace in the Middle East.

Despite Brown’s lower personal profile on the world stage, there is no indication that he wants to diminish Britain’s presence. On the contrary, on issues such as climate change, trade and Africa he is at the forefront of those pushing for reform. His policy of interventionism is largely a continuation of that developed under Blair, but the new emphasis on multilateralism could give this greater scope in the future.

David Mathieson, Ph.D.
Senior Analyst, Global Trends Unit, BBVA

[1] Quoted in the Spectator, 3/XI/2007.

[2] Financial Times, 12/XI/2007.

[3] Rt Hon Gordon Brown Speech at the Mansion House, 12/XI/2007.

[4] Rt Hon Ed Balls MP quoted in the Financial Times, 16/V/2007.

[5] According to one British MEP his appearances at ECOFIN meetings left some of his European colleagues with the impression that he had only stayed long enough to lecture them about the failings of their dirigiste, protectionist policies before he left to brief the press.

[6] Gordon Brown, House of Commons debates, 17/X/2007.

[7] Rt Hon Gordon Brown, speech at the Mansion House, 22/VI/2006.

[8] Jim Murphy MP, speech to the Centre for European Reform, 12/VII/2007.

[9] Speech by the Rt Hon Douglas Alexander, 12/VII/2007, and comments by Lord Mark Malloch-Brown.

[10] Mansion House speech.

[11] Rt Hon David Miliband, speech to RIIA, 19/VII/2007.

[12] The Independent, 14/XI/2007.

[13] Statement, 12/XI2007.

[14] Rt Hon Gordon Brown, speech.

[15] David Miliband, New Statesman, 23/VII/2007.