Man on Wire

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David Miliband has had a mixed few years, and specifically, a mixed few weeks.  A few weeks ago he made a speech to the Labour conference (the graveyard slot) that most media described as unhinged, and that I heard one Labour member describe as brilliant.  This week he could be lauded as Europe’s saviour, or he could reverse the West’s recently improving but schizophrenic relationship with Russia.

Of all the decisions Gordon Brown has made in his short premiership, two stand out as almost uniquely successful.  Bringing Mandelson back into the Cabinet was one.  Elevating David Miliband to the foreign office was another. 

Miliband was the strongest candidate when Brown faced the prospect of a stalking horse after Blair’s departure.  When Brown’s premiership was on the rocks, it was to Miliband that first plotters, and then James Purnell turned to, as the last great hope.  Miliband betrayed both (persuaded by Mandelson to remain in the Cabinet), and as a result saved the government and condemned himself to be passed over for the Labour leadership.

But Miliband’s inertia within the Labour Party are only a part of the story of his decline.  As significant has been his confinement in the foreign office.  It is a position – perhaps the only one – that does not offer a weapon with which to consolidate support to use against Brown.  Instead, it offers one of the most difficult conundrums in British policy – one that can’t be solved by money, that offers no easy choices and no photo ops; how does Britain deal with Russia?

Miliband is an intellectual, not a conviction politician, which shows itself more in his Russian policy than in anything else.  This week, when Miliband should be making his pitch to be the EU High Representative of Foreign Affairs (the best way to restore his credibility in the Labour Party and ride out possible opposition), he has to walk the high-rope that is a diplomatic visit to Moscow.

Going, Miliband was optimistic.  On his Foreign Office blog he wrote,

“We don’t always see eye to eye with Russia, but we share the same global challenges and it is important that we work on them together.  And as we are both permanent members of the UN Security Council and members of the G8 and G20, there is a wide range of questions where, by working together, we really can make a difference.”

The implication is that Britain is giving up the passive resistance that has been the hallmark of Anglo-Russian relations.  Over the past three years, the Litvenenko affair, the British Council controversy and the Georgian war have been unprofitable.  It quickly became clear that Russia would not compromise, and that Europe did not have the unanimity to respond.

In recent weeks, Russian has shown some receptiveness to the American State Department’s re-setting initiative.  In return for the USA withdrawing its missile defence system, Russia made a vague statement on imposing sanctions on Iran.

I can only assume that Miliband’s visit is part of these developments.  However, it has hardly gone to plan.  The Litvenenko affair has been allowed to resurface, putting Miliband in an impossible bind. 

To be contrary, and go against the mood (very current, unsecure, but potentially powerful), or stand up for individual cases and abstract principles?  Either way, the issues are unavoidable.  Extending NATO or the EU to Russia’s borders could raise the chances of war (probably with Ukraine).  Too much emphasis on business means sacrificing the Russian civil society Miliband said he was keen to hear from to the dictates of the Kremlin.

Wittingly or not, Miliband’s visit has raised two uncomfortable debates at a time when they could least be afforded.  On the one hand, Labour faces a choice between a realist (dealing with the Russian government as is) or ethical (actively seeking to influence the internal balance) foreign policy.  Secondly, he raises the question of Europe’s approach.  Are European interests best served by trying to close the door on Russia, or by engaging with her?

The latter is the most immediate concern (the former is age-old, and still unresolved).  The Lisbon Treaty was designed to streamline European decision-making and maximise Europe’s collective influence.  The argument that Miliband seems likely to provoke could yet be good for Europe, but it is more likely to create divisions than to resolve them.  Britain will be seen as an awkward partner, or European countries simply will not be able to agree.

As for Miliband’s EU prospects?  They will not be helped, although Russia is not the most significant issue at stake.  Whether a diplomat can be an intellectual and still be effective is a serious question that was raised by Bill Clinton’s presidency.  Miliband may answer it.

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