Brown shows signs of changing style, tone of U.K. policy

Prime Minister Gordon Brown on Monday had his first meeting with U.S. President George Bush at Camp David.

Early indications are that Brown intends to change the style and tone of U.K. foreign policy. This raises questions about the impact on the substance of London’s policies on key issues.

The distinctive features of Brown’s approach to foreign policy, especially when contrasted with that of his predecessor, Tony Blair, are already becoming clear:

Tighter focus. Brown intends to spend less of his time engaged in international affairs than did Blair. His supporters believe that there is an inevitable opportunity cost involved in sacrificing prime ministerial influence over key domestic matters. He intends to concentrate on a comparatively small number of crucial issues but be less involved elsewhere:

To reinforce this, Brown chose David Miliband, the 42-year-old former environment secretary and rising star within the Labour Party, as his foreign secretary.

He also appointed Douglas Alexander, one of his closest political allies and again atypically young, to serve as international development minister, heading a department that grew in budget and stature while Brown was finance minister, and one that is likely to increase its status further.

‘Institutional’ approach. Brown intends to put less emphasis on the personal aspect of diplomacy, and more on the institutional dimension. Blair was perceived to have chosen close relations with certain allies — not only Bush but, in his earlier period, Russian President Vladimir Putin and later Spanish Prime Minister Jose Marie Aznar and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. This proved highly discomforting within the Labour Party, since the former prime minister:

•made his choice of allies from among the center-right; and

•behaved in a way that suggested foreign policy was driven by personal networks rather than national concerns.

Brown has sought to restore more formality to the operations of domestic political decision-making, and will seek to do the same in foreign affairs.

Subtle rebalancing. Brown plainly intends to effect a modest recasting of the content of foreign policy. The extent to which he can do this is limited, since the broader architecture of the United Kingdom’s place in the world has largely been set for him. Moreover, the difficulties he inherited (in Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran) are extremely hard for him to renounce even if he were so inclined (which largely he is not).
What he can do, at the margins, is press for a greater role for international economic cooperation in the construction of foreign policy (especially in developing nations) and attempt to retune U.K. foreign policy institutions to concentrate with more vigor on countries such as China and India.

Issues

Within these parameters are specific questions that Brown has to address:

Anglo-U.S. alliance. The initial weeks of Brown’s tenure implied a desire to place some distance between Downing Street and the Bush administration:

This was partly the result of appointing the then-Sir Mark (now Lord) Malloch-Brown, a former U.N. deputy secretary-general under Kofi Annan, to act as a senior foreign minister. Malloch-Brown had been a highly public and scathing critic of neo-conservatism.
The sense was compounded by a speech made by Douglas Alexander in Washington, interpreted as urging the United States to conduct its foreign policies through the State Department and not the Pentagon.

Media excitement at this shift embarrassed Brown and obliged him to stress continuity with Blair in his approach to the United States. While this is accurate, he will have less difficulty than his predecessor might have had in preparing for the post-Bush period in U.S. politics.

In the short term, his principal interest in dealing with Washington is Iraq — reaching an assessment on the likely direction and pace of U.S. troop deployments — and from there deciding how much faster he can accelerate the withdrawal of U.K. forces from southern Iraq (he would like to extricate virtually all of that contingent by the end of 2008 if that is remotely practicable).

EU. Brown approaches the European Union with little of the instinctive emotional sentiment for the project retained by Blair until the end of his premiership. Indeed, Brown’s principal foray into foreign policy while finance minister was to resist U.K. membership of the euro, which he in effect vetoed four years ago and has ruled out again for the foreseeable future. Brown has inherited the draft EU treaty negotiated by Blair, as well as the challenging task of convincing elites and electors that it is sufficiently different from the old EU constitution that a referendum is unnecessary:

Any such ballot conducted in the United Kingdom would swiftly move away from the substance of the issue at hand and mutate into one around the influence of the EU in general, and so would probably be lost.

Brown, who is seen as taking a closer interest in policy details than Blair, is therefore likely to be an active and forceful participant in the inter-governmental conference that will draw up the EU reform treaty. He will make it clear to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy that, without further concessions from them, it might be politically impossible for him to resist pressure for a referendum.

This will inevitably be a source of tension between the three, which Brown will attempt to alleviate by seeking ad hoc alliances with the other two leaders on different issues of mutual concern — economic reform with Germany and Africa alongside France.

Other areas. Beyond the United States and EU, which demand direct prime ministerial engagement, Brown is likely to be both deferential to Cabinet colleagues and highly selective in his administration’s interests:

•Aid. He has a strong personal track record in involvement with overseas aid, and the profile of this sphere of foreign policy will undoubtedly increase compared with military engagement (much to the relief of the Labour Party).

•India. He has also argued that London should be in a position to exploit its historic ties with India, as Delhi continues to take a larger role in international economic and politics affairs, to the mutual advantage of both nations.

•Afghanistan. Brown accepts that the United Kingdom has a long-term commitment in Afghanistan that, unlike Iraq, cannot be diminished.

•Russia. Relations with Russia will remain cool, at the very least until Putin leaves office, but most probably for longer.

•China. While closer ties with China will doubtless be pursued, change here will largely be incremental.

•Wider Middle East. Tony Blair’s appointment as the Middle East peace envoy means that Brown will probably take a lower-profile role in that region.

Oxford Analytica is an international consulting firm providing strategic analysis on world events for business and government leaders. See www.oxan.com.