Friday 5 June 2009

Glenys Kinnock on rethinking the special relationship

In Glenys Kinnock, the government will have a Europe Minister who is strongly committed to making the public case for whole-hearted British engagement in the EU. That was sadly missing from Labour's European election campaign.

I suspect that this was not an appointment to the FCO that would have been made without the regime change in Washington, as Kinnock had made little secret of her opposition to the Bush administration's policy of "systemic unilateralism".

One example was the hard-hitting piece - What needs to change in foreign policy - she wrote for the Fabian Review ahead of our Next Decade conference in January 2007, where Gordon Brown was the keynote speaker.

Kinnock wrote:

2007 will bring a new Prime Minister, hopefully Gordon Brown. He will, I believe, give clear priority to issues of global importance. In doing that he will need to identify the links between human rights, human security and counter-terrorism. And he will also need to consider adjustments to foreign policy that, among other things, will mean stepping out the shadow of the special relationship and being prepared to courteously but candidly disagree with the US on Kyoto, the International Criminal Court, the Chemical Weapons Convention, Guantanamo, "extraordinary rendition" and much else. This is not merely important for regaining distinctiveness for UK policy; it is vital to the efforts to strengthen the common sense and common interest of multilateralism against the systemic unilateralism of the Republican administration.

We will not regain respect and proper influence for British foreign policy until we have a foreign policy that is seen to be authentically British. Tony Blair was no doubt sincere in believing that unflinching support for America after 9/11 was the best way to exert influence over the direction of American policy. The problem is that his support has been abused and not requited. The observation of one state department official about America's approach to Britain- "we typically ignore them and take no notice" - should not have come as a shock. It comes through the "Yo Blair" school of politics and it generates a global perception that will remain unchanged until it is understood that the special relationship, as currently conceived, is part of the problem not part of the answer.

Foreign policy adjustments also mean distancing Britain from the term "War on Terror".

She discussed the article at the conference, in a panel discussion with development secretary Hilary Benn and myself.

The conference made the front-page of The Guardian at the time as the first occasion when serving Ministers - Hilary Benn, Yvette Cooper and James Purnell - publicly acknowledged the need to acknowledge that mistakes were made over the Iraq war.

Current Foreign Secretary David Miliband set out a broadly similar, if slightly more diplomatically articulated, agenda in his own keynote speech to the 2008 Fabian New Year conference, one year ahead of the US transition which also focused on the progressive agenda for a post-Bush world.

Under Brown, the British government has indeed ditched the language of the 'war on terror' - as Kinnock and others advocated - while the Obama administration's highly positive shift of tone and content in advocating a fair Middle East peace settlement offers at least a glimmer of hope.

Perhaps the positive case for European engagement can yet be made as well.

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