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Prime Time

How Gordon Brown will change Britain's foreign policy

Great Britain's Labour prime minister, wrote Dean Acheson in 1950, evinced "all the passion of a woodchuck chewing a carrot." Gordon Brown, who will become prime minister tomorrow, is by reputation fully the equal of that predecessor, Clement Attlee, in dourness and inscrutability.

Take Brown's views on foreign policy and our alliances. Brown has associated himself with Tony Blair's position on the two most divisive issues within the Labour Party: Iraq and a successor for Great Britain's independent nuclear deterrent. But, beyond these statements of collective responsibility, there are few clues to Brown's thinking. Commentators have little option but to cite--and most do--Brown's penchant for taking holidays in Cape Cod as a sign of his Atlanticism. What began as a journalistic non sequitur has now become also a cliché.

It may be more illuminating to consider the wider historical sweep. Anglo-American relations for most of the past quarter-century have taken historically exceptional form. Only three prime ministers have held office since 1979. Two of them have been world statesmen of the first rank who cultivated particularly close relations with the White House. The third, John Major, also enjoyed good rapport with the first President Bush; both understood and welcomed the inevitability of German unification after the fall of communism, as Margaret Thatcher had not. Only with an ignobly quiescent U.K. policy toward the dismemberment of Bosnia in the early '90s did Anglo-American relations deteriorate during Major's premiership.

Before the 1980s, the bilateral relationship was not--even when complicated by Great Britain's economic dependency--anything like as close as it has been since. Nor, indeed, was it the real "special relationship" in post-1945 Western diplomacy. That was the U.S.-German relationship; Britain by contrast was a diminished world power without obvious status or alignment. Transatlantic relations were notably bad during two Conservative premierships: those of Anthony Eden, responsible for the Suez debacle, and Edward Heath, who favored a diminution of transatlantic ties to emphasise Britain's European role.

In spite of occasional appearances (notably a politically suicidal anti-nuclear phase in the 1980s), the British social democratic left is traditionally Atlanticist. "The facts were self-evident," wrote James Callaghan, prime minister from 1976-1979, in his memoirs, explaining the need for joint U.S.-U.K. decision-making after 1945. But there is no precedent for Tony Blair's closeness to a Republican administration of near-impeachable insouciance in international affairs.

Brown has been more than the dominant figure in government alongside Blair for the past decade. He is a co-architect of Labour's metamorphosis into "New Labour." When Blair took charge of the party after the death of its admired but ineffectual leader, John Smith, in 1994, Labour had lost four successive elections. Political seriousness and electoral success required abandoning the socialist catechism of taxing, spending, and nationalisation. But New Labour had little to say about foreign policy. The party had developed contacts with the Clinton administration, but these were to do with organization and electioneering rather than policy. The manifesto that brought Labour to office in a landslide in 1997 made no mention of the United States, still less of the "special relationship."

Much has changed in the international order since then--or at least in our understanding of it. No longer is only one side in the struggle of theocratic fanaticism against Western civilization aware that battle has been joined. Blair's emerging ideas on liberal internationalism were exemplified in 1999-2000 by interventions to halt Milosevic's genocidal aggression in Kosovo and to protect Sierra Leone from hand-lopping rebels. They were reinforced by September 11 and have survived the gross mismanagement of the Iraq war.

Where does Brown fall on these questions? It is inconceivable that he'll repudiate Blair's legacy, for the practical reason that he is associated with it whether he likes it or not. The demeaning rationalizations of Hillary Clinton for supporting the Iraq war are as nothing compared with the tergiversations that Brown would have to undertake to escape from Blair's approach. He will not do it because he cannot do it. But he might in declaratory policy and military deployment stress operations in Afghanistan at the expense of Iraq. Troop levels in Helmand province in Afghanistan are scheduled to increase by 800 to 5,800 by the end of the summer. Fighting Al Qaeda and its allies, and upholding nascent constitutional government in Afghanistan and Iraq, will remain priorities. But extricating Brown's own political reputation from the wreckage of Bush's Iraq policy will take time.

Under Brown, it's safe to say that rhetoric will remain consistent with the Blair years but the heart will be lacking. Last January, Brown laid down free universal education and climate change as twin tracks of his approach to foreign policy. The subtext was that government must protect and intervene--but in the realm of soft power exerted through multilateral institutions. Brown is close to the Democratic establishment, well read in American political history, and the longest continuously serving chancellor of the Exchequer for almost 200 years: He knows the importance of the American diplomacy that created the Bretton Woods system and the associated institutions. He almost certainly believes, too, in the wisdom of the adjunct to that diplomacy: President Truman's willingness, after 1947, to engage in protracted (and electorally damaging) military commitments to counter totalitarianism. It's doubtful that Brown regards that type of intervention, by us and by our allies, as a model for his own premiership.

Brown's will be far from an isolationist government, but the uncertain diplomacy of the Tony Blair's lame-duck premiership is an inauspicious precedent. Iran's serial nuclear deceptions and abduction of British servicemen have secured propaganda victories and possibly worse for the mullahs and their puppet president. Incumbent British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett and Defense Secretary Des Browne are clearly neither competent nor knowledgeable about their briefs--yet they lack obvious successors.

Peter Beinart, in his book The Good Fight, worried that Democrats might "turn away from the very idea that antitotalitarianism should sit at the heart of the liberal project." Through diffidence rather than design, Gordon Brown's government may hasten the retreat from that principle on the Old Continent too.

By Oliver Kamm