TOPICS : British middle way may end in muddle

The British foreign secretary David Miliband cast a fresh and optimistic pair of eyes over some old and horny international problems at the UK’s ruling Labour Party’s conference this week. Progressive politics entailed an endless, forward-looking struggle for change, Britain’s youthful foreign secretary told his party’s annual conference. And by promising a “second wave” of Labour foreign policy, he suggested he was more than ready to break with the idees fixes of the Blair era.

That may be harder than Miliband thinks. As David Mepham and David Held say in their book Progressive Foreign Policy, such an approach differs sharply from the traditional emphasis of “realists” on the all-dominant national interest and from neo-conservative ideas about “exceptionalism” and “benevolent global hegemony” based on unilateral action or self-selecting coalitions.

Judging by a conference speech of lowered and limited foreign horizons, his boss, the UK prime minister Gordon Brown, is of the old pragmatical school — which could be a problem for Miliband down the road. And, as Barbara Stocking, of Oxfam, told a conference fringe meeting organised by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), changes of intellectual tone are all very fine, but only if they translate into actual changes in policy.

“Not a thing has changed so far on the ground for the women of Darfur despite all the speeches,” Stocking said, referring to Brown’s comments on western Sudan. A progressive policy meant challenging friends as well as foes. For foreign policy to be effective it had to be built on consensus, not diktat.

Miliband appears to have taken some of that on board, although he shows no sign yet of taking on the Bush administration. He stressed the need to rebuild regional and international organisations, to create “institutions which redefine the global rules for our shared planet”.

Miliband appears not to view an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities as “inconceivable”. Meanwhile, Iraq, Afghanistan, and perhaps an increasingly unstable Pakistan, will continue to dog Miliband. And while rightly recognising the depth of worldwide Muslim alienation, he has given little clue as to how re-engagement might be achieved.

The proof of Miliband’s progressive pudding will be in the eating. Ian Kearns, of the IPPR, wondered whether he would back Britain taking a lead in promoting a world free of nuclear weapons, instead of rehabilitating its own weapons amid cries of double standards. And Kate Allen, of Amnesty International, argued that a foreign policy successfully matching and balancing the national and international interest could only work if fundamental values were respected, notably rights.

These and many other gaps have yet to be filled in. After an encouraging start, identifying key issues, joining up the dots is Miliband’s biggest challenge. Otherwise his revamped middle way may simply end in muddle. As soldiers on the Somme discovered long ago, the second wave can find it even harder going than the first. — The Guardian