Britain’s New Internationalism

TOLEDO, SPAIN -- With President George W. Bush’s grand strategy for the Middle East in ruins, his administration has, however hesitantly, begun to put greater emphasis on resolving conflicts by peaceful means. The settlement reached with North Korea, whereby it will dismantle its nuclear program, and the Annapolis conference for an Israeli-Palestinian peace – with the participation of Syria, a pivotal member of the region’s “axis of evil” – are two key examples of this trend.

The United States’ staunchest ally since 2001, Great Britain, has already gone down this path, divorcing itself from its servile alliance with a Bush administration that focused on war and confrontation. Though only a miniature version of America’s imperial predicament, Britain’s current policy, as its new prime minister, Gordon Brown, is defining it, may anticipate the direction taken by the next American president.

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Tony Blair’s endorsement of Bush’s Middle East designs showed that an imbalance of power in an alliance always causes the weaker partner to become subservient. Britain joined America’s Iraq adventure with the same inflated perceptions of its military capacity and diplomatic clout that trapped Bush. But Britain’s military contribution to the war effort was not indispensable, so Bush did not have to heed Blair’s advice. As a result, Britain could not serve as a bridge between a doubtful Europe and a belligerent US, as Blair believed, and Britain’s capacity to be a force for good on the world stage was severely damaged.

Like America, Britain has learned the hard way the limits of what sheer military power can achieve, and also the devastating implications of its misuse for its reputation in the Muslim world and beyond. The scope and virulence of anti-British sentiment in the Muslim world are now second only to that facing the US. Restoring Britain’s reputation in the region will take years of hard work.

Blair’s legacy has thrown Brown into a confusing oscillation between Britain’s transatlantic tradition and its European connections. No longer an independent global power, yet unhappy with the London-Washington axis that Blair forged, Brown’s government continues to waffle in its commitment to a united Europe. Indeed, Brown, for whom America remains “Britain’s most important bilateral relationship,” recently blocked his foreign secretary, David Miliband, from delivering a speech that he considered excessively pro-Europe.

But such uncertainty, common in times of transition, should not overshadow what the end of the Blair-Bush era in Britain holds in store. Unilateralism and pre-emptive wars are to be replaced by what Brown defines as “an agenda for a hard-headed internationalism,” based on cooperation with multilateral agencies and alliances – the United Nations, NATO, the European Union, and the British Commonwealth.

The new policy seems to shift emphasis to “soft power” strategy aimed at projecting Britain as a global economic and cultural hub. The City of London, the British Council, Oxfam, and the BBC are now expected to restore the prominence of Britain’s enduring values. Conspicuously, it is no longer the British, but France’s government under President Nicolas Sarkozy, that is carrying the torch of a possible attack on Iran’s nuclear installations.

But, for Brown’s policy to succeed, it must promote social change and political reform in the Arab world. That means abandoning Blair’s strategy of confronting the “arc of extremism” with putative “moderates” who, besides offering lucrative markets for arms sales, are in fact autocrats whose conduct has helped fuel the growth of radical Islam. The “extremists” versus “moderates” language has served only to revive colonial memories in the region and divide it even more deeply.

Post-Blair Britain is becoming a country for which wars that lack international legitimacy can only presage defeat and moral decay. Of course, international legitimacy can be a vacuous concept when not backed by the capacity to use effective force. Now incapable of intimidating anyone, Britain has opted for developing its potential to inspire.

Unfortunately, inspiration, too, requires the threat of effective military power to be an effective force for change. Notwithstanding its many setbacks in recent years, the US remains the only power capable of leading a global strategy that consists in balancing soft and hard power. May the next American president pursue this course.