For those of us who contend that the major issue, the over-riding issue, in world (and therefore British) politics is the global struggle against violent Islamism, the prospect of Tony Blair’s departure raises the question of how much continuity there is likely to be in British foreign policy under his likely successors.
Oliver Kamm says: None of us – probably not even Brown’s closest allies – can predict with any confidence the likely tilt of his premiership on foreign policy, but the indications are that he is an instinctive Atlanticist.
Melanie Phillips says: The crucial question at this point in world history is whether the British government post-Blair will be as staunchly Atlanticist as he has been. The Tories have become alarmingly flaky in this regard, although a fight to resolve this within the party has yet to take place. Gordon Brown is known to have stars and stripes in his eyes, although ominously he has also let it be known that he would ditch support for certain aspects of US policy. For all his faults, Blair has displayed astounding courage and clear-mindedness in never wavering from his support for American foreign policy, despite the fury this has engendered among the voters and the consequent damage this has done to his whole political career. The key issue now in British politics is whether his successor — whoever it will be — will do the same.
I beg to differ with Melanie’s explicit and Oliver’s implicit view that Atlanticism is the key matter in British foreign policy at the moment. It should go without saying that I agree that it has been to Blair’s great credit that in the face of rabid opposition from sections of his own party, large swathes of the media and mainstream ‘Middle England’ opinion, Blair has stuck firmly to support for the struggles against violent jihadism. He took the right stance over Afghanistan and Iraq and he refused to buckle for demands to take a softly pro-Hizbullah stance in the recent conflict in Lebanon.
Blair’s approach has involved support for the broad position adopted by George W Bush and this has, of course, been his major crime in the eyes of mainstream opinion (I refuse anymore to refer to this as mainly a problem of the left — the opinions of Max Hastings, Mathew Parris, Simon Jenkins, Douglas Hurd and the Foreign Office Establishment show that the mainstream right are just as guilty of getting it wrong) and it is ultimately what will be considered to have cut short his premiership.
But in the bigger picture, it is not being pro-US or pro-Bush that makes Blair right. It is the fact that he understands the nature of the Islamist threat and has an intelligent explanation of the best way to try and defeat it that makes him the most progressive of democratic leaders on this issue.
Bush has recently started to talk about the fascist or totalitarian nature of violent Islamism — Blair has been pointing that out for years. Bush has recently started to talk about the battle of ideas and the need to challenge the ideology of Islamism — Blair has been making that point for ages. Blair’s ability to link the struggle against Islamism with the wider struggles for human liberty, economic progress and the extension of global rights, has never been properly articulated by Bush’s administration. To find such arguments in the US one usually needs to search out articles by neo-conservatives — it is not part of the regular rhetoric of the White House.
But the fact that Blair is far and away more reliable and sophisticated than the Bush administration on articulating the nature of the threat and the way to defeat it is not my major point here. I am not going to suggest that Bush has been following Blair — merely that the British government has been ahead of the US in terms of being clear about the task ahead of us. But, having that understanding would have helped the US to avoid such obvious mistakes as Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Anyone who understood that there is a battle for hearts and minds above all a clash of values and morality would have been aware of the utterly self-defeating nature of such human rights abuses.
The real danger of seeing Atlanticism as the key test for someone’s soundness on foreign policy is, however, that US policy, which has been largely progressive and in some senses revolutionary under Bush, could easily change in the future. Bush himself may not change track by much but his successor – the man or woman that Blair’s successor will have to work with – could take a very different line. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that in order to maintain a progressive, anti-fascist foreign policy a British Prime Minister might have to a very different stance to the President of the United States. In which case maintaining the special relationship, Atlanticism, is no longer a progressive stance.
At the moment that scenerio does seem unlikely- but it is not impossible. Of course he US remains the major military power in the world and in terms of armed struggle, is at the vanguard of the fight against violent Islamism. Britain, in contrast, does not have the resources to lead the war. But if the US were to drift towards a more isolationist policy and turn their backs on many of the struggles taking place around the world, Britain and Europe would have to decide whether or not to follow suit.
Such a scenerio would of course be a tragedy, which is why it is right that Britain does all it can to ensure the US remains committed to an active interventionist policy. Darfur is a stark warning of what can happen when the US decides they aren’t going to actively engage in a situation. Yet one of the outcomes of the widespread opposition to the war in Iraq has been increased support for pulling back on humanitarian intervention – in short the Europeanisation of US and British public opinion.
My fear, which I will try to outline in more detail another post in the future, is that the widespread reluctance in western democracies to fight the battle that needs to be fought on all fronts — military, intelligence, propaganda, ideology and economic — could lead us to a sort of cold-war with the Islamic world. In that outcome, leaving the Islamists to do what they will do with Muslim populated societies would become the default position and foreign policy would be focused increasingly on merely defending the West’s immediate interests and securing it’s short-term safety.
Is it really beyond the realms of possibility that a Democrat or a certain brand of traditional Republican President in the US would adopt such a position or begin to edge towards it? It is, I think, still unlikely for a number of reasons, but it is certainly not impossible. That is why, the question to ask the future candidates for PM in the UK is not – are you loyal to the United States but – how do you see the threat from violent Islamism and how do you propose we respond to it?
There are other reasons why Atlanticism should not be the main criteria by which a future British leader is judged. For a start Europe is changing and new leaders are being elected. It is essential that any opportunity to win Europe to a more radical stance in the struggle is taken and Atalanticism has little to do with that issue. I want to know how Brown or Cameron or whoever else puts themselves before the people intend to try and win Europe to a progressive, anti-fascist foreign policy. It is logical that a change in Europe would lead to a change in our approach to the United States.
Atlanticism is a cold-war expression and we are in a very diffent conflict now. It was essential, from a western democratic perspective, in the cold war that Western Europe and the United States spoke the same language and took a united stance against the Soviet Union. This conflict is much more complicated and the next phases may well result in Europe being more radically effected than the United States. As the memory of September 11 fades, the temptation towards American isolationism, or at least disengagement, will grow. I fear however that we in Europe will not need particularly long memories to be aware of the Islamist danger.
Every effort should be made to ensure that Europe and the United States work in harmony but Britain’s unique position requires that we maintain a flexible stance towards both sides of the Atlantic. It is strategically vital that the UK state remains a stronghold in the struggle but that may require a much more flexible approach to the US and Europe than we have been used to.