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Last Updated: Sunday, 15 July 2007, 07:03 GMT 08:03 UK
The subtle shift in British foreign policy
By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent BBC News website

Douglas Alexander
Douglas Alexander: signalling subtle shift
British policy towards the United States has got off to a confused start under the new government of Gordon Brown.

A speech in Washington by the British cabinet minister Douglas Alexander appeared to be part of a distancing of the new British government from the Bush administration, though there will not be a decisive break.

There was another instance of the distancing on Saturday when a new foreign office minister Mark Malloch Brown, a critic of US policy when he was at the UN, said that the US and UK would no longer be "joined at the hip".

However, Mr Brown reacted by trying to stop the impression of a break with the US. Cabinet ministers have been reminded of the importance of the relationship.

And the Foreign Secretary David Miliband took to writing an article in the News of the World, saying that there was no evidence that the alliance was "breaking up... and there won't be any."

However, the suggestion is not that the alliance is breaking up, but that it is going to get a little less close.

It is difficult not to conclude that there is a change of atmosphere. It is subtle and any idea that it is a major shift upsets the government, but it is surely there.

Mr Alexander, newly promoted to the senior role of Secretary for International Development, made a series of references to the need for an internationalist approach to world problems and at the heart of his speech were these two paragraphs:

"We need to demonstrate by our word and our actions that we are: internationalist not isolationist; multilateralist not unilateralist; active not passive; and driven by core values consistently applied, not special interests.

"Isolationism simply does not work in an interdependent world. There is no security or prosperity at home unless we deal with the global challenges of security, globalization, climate change, disease and poverty. We must recognise these challenges and champion an internationalist approach - seeking shared solutions to the problems we face."

No sudden detachment

However he did not criticise US foreign policy and he also made it clear that Britain under Gordon Brown is not going to suddenly detach itself from US policy in Iraq or Afghanistan. For he also said: "Today the UK stands together with the US in confronting international terrorism and confronting violent insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan."

We must recognise these challenges and champion an internationalist approach
Douglas Alexander
Douglas Alexander is close to Mr Brown (he has been appointed Labour's general election coordinator) and they are both Atlanticists, with an affection for the United States and its politics. Mr Alexander studied at the University of Pennsylvania and worked for a time as an aide in the US Congress.

It was significant that he chose as his audience the Council on Foreign Relations, a liberal-minded body highly critical of the Bush administration's policy in Iraq. It has just published a study by one of its senior fellows, Steven Simon, calling for a US withdrawal.

Mr Brown's spokesman denied that the speech represented criticism of the United States and said that it was not designed to send a signal to the US. Mr Brown himself said later: "We'll not allow people to separate us from the United States of America in dealing with the common challenges we face around the world."

The signals

The speech however has to be seen in the context of other measures for change taken by Mr Brown, including the appointment of Mark Malloch Brown.

Gordon Brown also stressed to the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, whom he met in London on Thursday, that Britain would always aim at multilateralism in foreign policy, though holding its options open for independent action in the final analysis.

That was perhaps code for - no more Iraqs.

So the signals are clear - British foreign policy is going through a subtle shift. The Blair era is over.

The implications

The implications of this are quite profound, because a distancing from the United States has coincided with a British refusal to give the European Union more powers in foreign policy. A free hand in foreign affairs was one of the British "red lines" in the recent treaty negotiations.

The Brown government appears to be aiming at acting as far as possible through international organisations (Mr Alexander's speech was full of this). As chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown favoured such policies in tackling global poverty and global warming.

But a Britain not as close to the United States and not willing to get closer to Europe leaves itself open to having less influence, for better or for worse.


And looming on the horizon is the problem of Iran. In his news conference in Washington on Thursday, President Bush drew together, in one prepared sentence, the developing, and much contested, US accusations against Iran: "The same regime in Iran that is pursuing nuclear weapons and threatening to wipe Israel off the map is also providing sophisticated IEDs [improvised explosive devices] to extremists in Iraq who are using them to kill American soldiers."

Would Britain under Gordon Brown support military action against Iran?

It is unlikely that Britain would join such action. It is not inconceivable that it would support it, but only as a very, very last resort, with incontestable evidence that Iran's nuclear weapon ambitions were real.


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