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Matrix of power Friday, 15 October, 1999, 11:01 GMT 12:01 UK
The Foreign Office
Robin Cook is guiding the UK towards a more interventionist stance
The Guardian's political editor Michael White found both enthusiasm and scepticism on the changing role of the Foreign Office under Labour for episode four of the Radio 4's Matrix of Power programme.

Ten days into the life of Tony Blair's new Labour government Robin Cook gave a hostage to fortune when he used an ambitious mission statement in the gilded Locarno Room of the Foreign Office to promise a new "ethical dimension'' to Britain's foreign policy.

That was quickly translated into an "ethical foreign policy''. Amid glossy videos promoting the change of tone the phrase raised hopes about what Blackadder's Baldrick predicted would be "a Britain to be proud of".

Mark Leonard, the 20-something director of a new FO think tank, the Foreign Policy Centre, said it would end the "iron curtain between foreign and domestic policy. We had one set of rules for behaviour at home, we were moral, we treated each other well. Abroad we were able to lie, cheat and rape....''

But, in an increasingly interdependent world, politically and economically, such conduct would no longer be possible.

There was scepticism over the change of direction, which was reinforced by the new foreign secretary's personal and professional problems.

These were dramatically highlighted by his private offer of "any help we can'' to solve the longstanding crisis over Kashmir during a royal visit to India and Pakistan.

Conservative MP, Crispin Blunt, an FO adviser under Malcolm Rifkind, said "the huge success since 1993 building up a special relationship with India. We watched it being destroyed overnight.''

Mr Blunt told the programme it was "grotesquely unfair'' to blame diplomats on the ground for politicians' errors.

Changing the elite

Sir David Gore-Booth, then high commissioner in Delhi, admits he was the victim of stereotyping in the Indian press as a hunting, fishing and shooting type. In fact he plays none of those sports.

Senior FO officials had already made changes to make the elite department more open to non-public school and Oxbridge entrants. Labour has focussed more on gender and racial minorities, even appointing a black barrister, Lady Scotland, as a minister.

Mark Leonard says it is also more accessible to "outside academic and community groups".

The point is confirmed by Ian Linden of the Catholic Institute for International Affairs. Development agencies like his have access to ministers which "would not have been possible under the Tories.''

And Labour's much criticised role in the East Timor crisis actually saw it with more influence than might have been expected for a state which was not the ex-colonial power.

Following the flag

It did curb arms exports, it did chivvy a reluctant Washington. Labour also promoted the trade dimension, though Sir Roderic Braithwaite, formerly our man in Moscow, recalls that historically "the flag follows trade, rather than the other way round".

He also defends the retention of Britain's magnificent embassies - always a social draw in foreign capitals, he says.

Ray Seitz, ex-US ambassador to London even defends the magnificence of the Foreign Office itself. Too grand for Britain's current role he says, "you could play frisbee'' in some of its rooms. But it would be sillier to deny the imperial past and move to a flat in Notting Hill, Seitz says.

In a significant contribution Lord Hurd, the former foreign secretary, says Labour has only changed "five to 10%'' of British foreign policy.

The rhetoric has changed, but "the basic givens remain'' - from Nato and EU policy to Russia and South Africa.

The special relationship

Robin Cook himself is heard extolling the familiar special relationship with Washington, even though he admits the first time the hotline on his desk rang it was a wrong number.

Britain followed the US lead in controversies like the bombing of Sudan.

But the close ties worked during the war for Kosovo.

And the international community represented at the UN has abandoned its old belief in non-intervention in the internal affairs of member states if fundamental human rights are at risk.

Tony Blair extolled the new doctrine of interdependence in a speech in Chicago last spring.

Sir David Hannay, formerly our man at the UN, explains that support for the UN Charter and Declaration of Human Rights is not "a western invention'' but is endorsed by all 184 member states, even if there are disagreements over the use of force.

But there is a danger of liberal imperialism and the belief that the world's problems can be solved by high-minded interventions.

FO officials have taken to reminding ministers against what one calls "hubristic risk.''

Tony Blair has shown an early, interventionist interest in foreign policy.

And it has achieved more in two years than its critics credit and could push Douglas Hurd's five to 10% change nearer to 25%.

But the new internationalism is fragile and body bags coming home could still crumple it.

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16 Oct 98 | Matrix
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