The Daily Star
Friday May 21 2010
By Michael Glackin
The new coalition government in the United Kingdom, including the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, is in place. Such governments are rare in British politics and this one, the first since World War II, has promised a sea change in the way the country will be run, a change that will “take Britain in a historic new direction.”
To this end, Foreign Secretary William Hague traveled to Washington last week for some tough talking about how the UK would conduct its foreign affairs while pursuing this “historic new direction.” On arrival Hague warned US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton that the days of Britain’s being America’s poodle were over. Hague told Clinton he wanted a “strong but not slavish” relationship with the United States.
Well that much was new. Unfortunately he then went on to sound more slavish than Mr Burns sycophantic assistant Smithers in the Simpsons.
He hailed Britain’s “unbreakable alliance” with the US and praised Clinton as “an inspiring example to other foreign ministers and aspiring foreign ministers around the world.” He didn’t quite kneel down as some feared he might after praising the “sheer warmth of the welcome” his government had received from Washington. However, he confided that he had traveled to the US especially quickly in order “to show we reciprocate that warmth.”
When it came to practical politics, Hague insisted that his government would not deviate from the strategy of its predecessor on Afghanistan, adding that Britain’s 9,500 troops would stay in the country until “their job is done.” He also supported the US on the need to pursue vigorous sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program through the United Nations Security Council. Hague even promised to pressure Britain’s “European allies” into imposing the type of economic sanctions on Iran that the US already has in place.
You could be forgiven for asking yourself, “What’s new?” In reality, Hague’s embarrassing trip to Washington showed that nothing had changed, a reality confirmed by Foreign Office sources this week. Even the tougher British stance on Iran was not what it seemed. Iran’s nuclear ambitions are due to be aired again at the United Nations in the coming weeks and it’s probable that the previous British government would have indulged in the same tough rhetoric heard during Hague’s trip to Washington, in order to show a united front to Russia, China and Tehran ahead of a new sanctions vote.
Even Hague’s promise to pressure Britain’s “European allies” over Iran was a continuation of policy started by the Gordon Brown government. Up to now, however, this has been derailed within the European Union by Germany, which has trade links with Tehran.
Hague’s hastily arranged trip was a rather clumsy attempt to publicly display that the new British coalition was firmly behind the US. It was also to allay fears in Washington that the Liberal Democrats, who have called for more distance between the two nations, will be in a position to call any shots in the new government’s foreign policy.
In addition to confirming that it is business as usual with Washington, the trip underlined the Conservatives’ antipathy to the European Union in that Hague chose to visit the US before European capitals. This was deemed necessary because the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, has advocated closer ties with the European Union than with the US. He recently said that Britain needed to release itself “from that spell of default Atlanticism,” and warned of the “dangers of a subservient relationship with the United States.”
More worryingly for Washington in the short term is that Clegg has also declared his firm opposition to military action against Iran.
However, Clinton was right to dismiss fears that foreign policy differences between Washington and London would cause problems in the pursuit of their shared objectives. The Liberal Democrats have little sway on foreign affairs in the coalition, beyond a consultation role, and the official policy of the new government toward Iran is unequivocal: It does not rule out military action if Tehran fails to fall into line over its nuclear ambitions.
But business as usual is only likely to be sustainable in the short term. There are a number of pressing issues in the government’s in-tray that will demand fresh thinking in the coming months.
A fresh strategy on Afghanistan is unlikely to be contemplated until both the US and the UK assess the results of the massive military operation planned later this year for Kandahar, a city the Taliban have successfully held throughout the war. But it is clear that fresh ideas are needed. This is already visible in Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s peace conference, or jirga, scheduled for this month, which is intended to secure a consensus on how to reconcile with the Taliban.
Also in the government’s in-tray is whether the UK will be more forceful in helping produce a commitment from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to start meaningful negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.
So far the “historic new direction” of this British government doesn’t appear to include any new answers.
Michael Glackin is former managaging editor of Beirut based newspaper The Daily Star