TOPICS : British parties ‘switch roles’ on foreign policy

Matthew Clark:

As the British campaign season heats up after PM Tony Blair’s call Tuesday for general elections on May 5, long-time supporters of the country’s major parties may be a bit confused as to which party’s foreign policies they agree with most these days.

Which staunch Labour supporter, for instance, would have thought ten years ago that his or her party leader now would carry the Conservative Party leader Margaret Thatcher’s torch for increased support of an aggressive US foreign policy? And which conservative Republican in the US would have thought that his or her party would have found itself promoting democracy-building projects in the Middle East and beyond?

The 9/11 and the decision to go to war in Iraq have caused major parties in both countries to essentially change sides on core foreign policy issues that have helped define them for decades. The war and its aftermath took centre stage in the US presidential election last fall, and is certain to play a prominent role in Britain’s election next month. If Blair’s Labour Party wins a third term, which most analysts expect, it would be despite his staunch support for the US-led war in Iraq, which has been deeply unpopular and led to a loss of trust among many.

Tony Blair and his foreign secretary Jack Straw say nice things about the American president George Bush that might make even Mrs. Thatcher blush. Half a century and more after Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt formed the “special relationship,” it is a Labour government that has kept it alive. The comings and goings indicate just how uncertain Britain really is about its place in the world. And so the pendulum has swung back and forth. In one decade, Labour is anti-Europe. In the next, it is pro. Come back in ten years and it might have changed again.

Europeans have heard of liberal internationalists, such as Bill Clinton. And they know about conservative nationalists such as Pat Buchanan or Ross Perot. But they have probably never heard of conservative internationalists. Indeed they might think, as many liberal Americans do, that the term is an oxymoron. Well, it’s not. Conservative internationalists exist in the American diplomatic tradition, and Europeans should recognise this school of diplomacy even if they disagree with it.

Suzanne Nossel, former Deputy to the Ambassador for UN Management and Reform at the US mission to the UN from 1999 to 2001, sought to explain the different forms of internationalism in a Foreign Affairs piece last spring. To advance from a nuance dissent to a compelling vision, progressive policymakers should turn to the great mainstay of 20th century US foreign policy: liberal internationalism, which posits that a global system of stable liberal democracies would be less prone to war. Nossel also asserts that conservatives have hijacked internationalism and misapplied it by relying too much on force. To reinvent liberal internationalism for the 21st century, progressives must wrest it back from Republican policymakers who have misapplied it.

Whether Britons vote for Blair on March 5 remains to be seen. But a few things seem certain: the Iraq war will be one of the most important issues, and, when it comes to foreign policy, the game has changed. — The Christian Science Monitor