December 15, 2006

Margaret at the New Statesman

The New Statesman today carries a very confusing interview with Margaret Beckett, the British Foreign Secretary. Beckett's tenure at the Foreign Office has not yet been particularly illustrious- but similarly to her earlier Ministerial roles neither has she done anything seriously wrong. Her reputation as a governmental pair of safe hands- a female Alistair Darling- and as a longtime Labour loyalist, John Smith's deputy et al, has not been diminished by her new office. But her interview shows that whereas Beckett's reputation remains as constant as ever, there are problems at the heart of British foreign policy at the moment.

Simply put the interview is an intellectually tired effort. When challenged, Beckett fails to make an intellectually consistent case- on anything from India's nuclear bomb to Iraq, what we can see in her struggles is a government whose foreign policy is reduced now to what happens and what exists. Take India, Beckett argues that India doesn't need to be censured because it never signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty- something that prompts one to think that it is now British foreign policy to reward countries that don't sign that treaty! She seems unsure whether an Indian bomb is safer than say an Iranian because of the presence of a democratic government, something that reveals her as not fully signed up to the neoconservative project. What she is fully signed up to is the idea that 9/11 changed the world. Beckett aparantly might have been a member of CND as late as 2000, but beleives now that the world is too full of threats for us to abandon the deterrant. Again the floppiness of the thinking is remarkable, afterall what changed on September 11th was merely that terrorism became a reality, not that the threat of terrorism became a reality.

Again Beckett's interview lacks a strategic sense of where the world is headed at the moment. The discussion of Iraq is within the confines of Ministerial orthodoxy- that things might be better than they seem and that we can't comment on US internal politics. The discussion of the prewar invasion is again merely orthodox. There is no discussion of what reaching out to Syria and Iran might mean- abandoning Lebanon, nuclear weapons? Furthermore there is no discussion of Palestine. The one serious important issue that Beckett raises is the need to avoid another Rwanda in Darfur- but the issue is again fudged. Does that mean the UK will press at the UN for troops to be committed? The Foreign Secretary beleives there is no point fighting in, all she can promise is sanctions- and again this reader was left frustrated. Sanctions seem to be the method of choice and yet sanctions were precisely what the Prime Minister told us couldn't work in Iraq to stop WMD or human rights abuses- will they work in the Sudan? The silence echoes.

This is an interview therefore as remarkable for what it doesn't say about British foreign policy as for what it does. One gets the sense that sending an old stager like Beckett, a woman who can keep foreign affairs quiet to King Charles Street, is the move of a tired government. How far we have come since Robin Cook vowed to have an ethical foreign policy in 1997? This is slightly unfair of course- Beckett is in a difficult position, with a policy in Iraq that is hard to defend. But we are still looking at a government whose foreign policy shall never be in the glad confident morning again, rather with this foreign secretary policy seems to be shrinking towards an evening of expectation with grand ambitions now turned into the common currency of every day survival.

The question for Gordon Brown is of course whether he can rejuvenate a government that is running out of steam and beggining to get so caught in the detail of defending its policies, that its losing a sense of direction- at least in foreign affairs- that question might be answered if his Foreign Secretary can answer questions better than the present incumbent in twelve months time.


Political Umpire said...

Great post. I've often thought her promotion was effectively an admission of defeat for any sort of idealistic foreign policy; she's just a holding operation and appointed in the hope things won't get any worse.

Ellee said...

This doesn't surprise me at all, she was equally as inefficnet at Defra. It beggars belief that she should have been given this top post.

Gracchi said...

There is lots that I agree with in both your comments- I haven't been that impressed with her as a minister anywhere she has been.

james higham said...

Yes, it was a great post and leads one to think that 'wishy-washness' is a prerequisite for a high governmental position. It is so Blair-speak it's uncanny.

CityUnslicker said...

The 'ethical' foreign policy was in itself a utter disaster. What scares me is the lack of understanding of international relations anywhere within the government.

Currently you argue that there is no guiding ideology, but I happen to think this is quite an effective strategy given the weak position of the UK in the world. Going along with the USA occasionally might make us feel big and clever, but it hides our weakened role. By making noise and war we make ourselves a target such that we encourage more terrorism here than across most other western countries. Without the resources of the USA we are bound to suffer more in our Isles.

It is a sad state of affairs; or perhaps a sad affair of state?

Gracchi said...

Cityunslicker I suppose ideology was the wrong word what I object to is no kind of visible thinking about what you are right is our weak position and the way we should best deploy our limited forces- there seems to be no consideration of that in MB's interview. No rational thought about it.

Which brings me on to Mr Higham and I have to agree- it is a wish washy foreign policy because there is no real sense of what is in British strategic interests or even capabilities to do.

towcestarian said...

Gracci - in the spirit of James Higham's call to read other blogs here I am spending a few minutes browsing in between my usual blog fare.

Some interesting points, but you fail to point out that between the EU and the PM there is bugger all left for a foreign sec to do these days. Essential pre-requisite is a a caravan and a visit booked in Plymouth to coincide with something "interesting" happening that the PM wants to deal with himself.

And I don't think you will find many UK farmers who think that Beckett is a "safe pair of hands". Under her reign DEFRA became known as the Department for Eradication of Farming Related Activities.

Gracchi said...

Towcestarian its interesting I agree with you about the PM concentrating on Foreign Affairs- but even so shouldn't a foreign secretary know why she is doing what she does.

As to the Agriculture department, I wondered about using those words- I suppose what I menat was that like Darling she is able to keep things out of the news, not that she is particularly competent.

Thanks for the comment.

Andrew Allison. A Conservative View said...

A foreign secretary should know why she is doing what she does, but Blair gave her this top job because he knew she doesn't know what she's doing. Jack Straw was pushed out because he began to question the Iraq policy and the order to fire him probably came through Downing Street from the White House. Margaret Beckett is just a figurehead without any real power.

Gracchi said...

Yes and the inability to tolerate people close to him who criticise his policies is one of the problems that Blair has and the reasons that we are in the mess we are in in Iraq (whether its the execution or the policy you disagree with, in my opinion we are in a definite mess)