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.