Not Saussure

December 19, 2006

Chatham House verdict on Blair as international statesman — not wholly encouraging

Filed under: Chatham House, EU, Foreigners, Politics, UK — notsaussure @ 9:58 pm

Heard Margaret Beckett on the radio — you know, the Foreign Secretary, that one — this morning, being ever so irritated about what she refused to call a ‘report, but preferred to characterise as ‘a series of remarks.. observations… not of the kind one tends to assume or expect of Chatham House’ from Professor Victor Bulmer-Thomas, the outgoing Director of that institution, on the subject of ‘Blair’s Foreign Policy and its Possible Successor(s)’. Bit rich coming from someone who’s open to criticism as not being quite up to scratch herself, but there you go.

Update:  Morningstar’s Cynical Chatter From The Underworld reminds us that Mrs Beckett made the remarkable claim during the interview of the notorious 45 minute claim that

“That was a statement that was made once and it was thought to be of such little relevance — and perhaps people began quickly to say, ‘I’m not sure about that’ — that it was never used once in all the debates in the House of Commons.”

Says Morningstar,

Tell that to Dr. David Kelly who died because of that statement, but you can’t tell him now can you, because he is dead, thanks to your government not just failing to look after him, no, you threw him to the fucking dogs.


She’d already issued a press statement dismissing the report:

‘This paper is threadbare, insubstantial and just plain wrong. Chatham House has established a great reputation over the years, but this paper will do nothing to enhance it.’

and she carried on in the same vein on the Today Programme, doing little, one might think, to enhance her own reputation. She deliberately — I hope — misunderstood what Professor Bulmer-Thomas says, preferring to attack a straw man who supposedly advances the thesis — the ‘just plain wrong’ thesis — that Britain no longer has any influence in the world because of Iraq.

Why, she said, just the other day she’d met a foreign minister who apparently ‘spoke with awe’ of the influence Britain and Tony Blair have in world affairs; this must have been gratifying for her but, before resting on her laurels she should, perhaps, recall that the last two foreign ministers she met were those of Jordan and Lebanon.

No, Professor Bulmer-Thomas’ thesis was rather different. British foreign policy, he says, at least during Labour’s first term, ‘must be judged a qualified success’;

By the time of his second election victory in June 2001, Tony Blair could look back on his foreign policy with some satisfaction. On the all important question of where to strike a balance between proximity to the United States and being at the heart of the European Union, he had been much more successful than his immediate predecessors. John Major, crippled by party factionalism, had pushed the United Kingdom to the margins of the European project. Margaret Thatcher had put too much emphasis on her close personal relationship with President Reagan. Blair had demonstrated Britain’s European credentials in many ways, while forging a close working relationship with President Clinton. Even the election of George Bush did not faze Tony Blair, despite the former’s early rejection of the Kyoto Protocol, as he established a modus vivendi with the new president.

Obviously there were some problems along the way, most notably, according to Professor Bulmer-Thomas, the fuss over the late General Pinochet’s extradition. Mrs Beckett thought the professor was most unfair here; he ignored, she complained, the fact that a committee of doctors had said he wasn’t fit to stand trial. That’s not quite what Professor Bulmer-Thomas says, though; he says,

When a sprightly Pinochet then showed in media interviews that his mental faculties were not impaired at all, it made a mockery of Britain’s commitment to international human rights – especially as it occurred not long after the UK had argued vigorously and successfully for the establishment of the International Criminal Court.

which seems no more than a simple description of how people reacted; doubtless Jack Straw had little choice but to accept the doctors’ findings, just as Lord Justice Neill presumably felt he had little choice but to accept the medical evidence about Ernest Saunders, whose release from prison was followed by a similarly dramatic, even miraculous, recovery from Altzheimers, but it hardly looked well.

Where it all came unraveled, according to the Professor, was, of course, in the aftermath of September 11, though he traces the roots of Blair’s reaction back to his speech in Chicago in April 1999, delivered while the Kosovo campaign was still continuing, in which Blair set out

the conditions under which Britain would support humanitarian intervention against a sovereign power with or without United Nations support. It was a potentially open-ended commitment that could never be fulfilled consistently given the imbalance between the limited resources available (political as well as military) and the large number of countries where human rights are systematically abused. While calling for a long-term commitment to post-conflict state-building, it showed no appreciation of the difficulties likely to be encountered. It was, in retrospect, a naïve speech with little or no reference to history that was unduly influenced by European failures in the Balkans before Blair came to power

Professor Bulmer-Thomas’s main thesis, contrary to what Mrs Beckett has been led to believe — she clearly hasn’t read the paper herself and has, instead, had to rely on a dodgy dossier or briefing about it — isn’t that Britain’s role in the Iraq débâcle has lost us all influence. Rather, he argues that it’s been a massive foreign policy mistake in that it hasn’t achieved very much to advance our interests and that, crucially, it’s demonstrated that we don’t have much influence, whatever we do, with the US.

The root failure […] has been the inability to influence the Bush administration in any significant way despite the sacrifice – military, political and financial – that the United Kingdom has made. There are two possible explanations: either the accumulated political capital was not spent wisely or the capital was never as great as was supposed. The latter now looks the most probable explanation, although anecdotal evidence also suggests that the prime minister did not make full use of the opportunities that were presented to him. Given the Byzantine complexity of Washington politics, it was always unrealistic to think that outside powers – however loyal – could expect to have much influence on the US decision-making process. The bilateral relationship with the United States may be ‘special’ to Britain, but the US has never described it as more than ‘close’. The best that could be hoped for is that Britain would ally itself with one of the Washington factions that ultimately prevailed in the internecine struggle for presidential support. Tony Blair has learnt the hard way that loyalty in international politics counts for very little.

And, in the course of this fruitless sacrifice, Blair took his eye badly off the ball in Europe, finding himself unable to help shape events in the aftermath of the crumbling of the European project after the French and Dutch voters rejected the EU constitution; as the report says,

European policy has essentially become one of damage limitation – as demonstrated by the British presidency of the EU in the second half of 2005. Blair can take credit for the fact that Britain is no longer the outlier when it comes to Europe, but British influence is strictly limited and the British public is still uncomfortable in its European skin.

The more significant question, and one not probed in the Today interview, is what happens after Blair and Bush go. We’ve seen an end, no matter who follows Blair, to the attitude of almost unswerving loyalty that Blair’s shown — not, of course, that when he’s shown any independence, as over Kyoto or the International Criminal Court, that it’s bothered the Americans in the slightest. The challenge — an uncomfortable one for both the Atlanticist Gordon Brown and for David Cameron, with his preference for allying the Conservatives with the most Eurosceptic European parties — will be to try again to reassert British influence in the EU, with a view to being able to deliver more effectively than could Blair a positive and coordinated European response to international problems. Our natural partners in this among the more populous EU nations, argues Professor Bulmer-Thomas, are, at the moment, the Spanish; the Italians and Poles are apparently

going through a prolonged period of introspection that will limit their ability to play a major role in the European Union for several years

— though he does not expand on this — and the French and Germans look set to continue supporting each other. This, he suggests, is no more a welcome prospect in Spain than it is here, so we should concentrate on cooperating with the Spaniards.


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