The prime minister vanished; the leader of the opposition materialised in Tbilisi. Britain had a bad war
HOLIDAYS in the BlackBerry era can be divided into two categories: “soft” (where the vacationer stays in radar contact and continues to exercise his thumbs) and “hard” (when he staves off divorce by switching everything off). David Cameron’s holiday was plainly in the soft category: one moment canoodling on a Cornish beach, the leader of the Conservative Party reappeared in Tbilisi, glad-handing Georgia’s embattled president. Meanwhile Gordon Brown, a prime minister famously, even worryingly, averse to relaxation, mostly sat out the Caucasian crisis in his holiday redoubt. Neither has distinguished himself.
“I don’t like abroad,” King George V once remarked, “I’ve been there.” Mr Brown is often said to have a similar attitude to, and aptitude for, foreign relations. He gets worked up about globalisation and poverty; but he evinces little interest in the sort of tough diplomacy and realpolitik that Russia’s gangsterism calls for. He apparently talked about Georgia with George Bush, Ban Ki-moon and the rest by phone, but let others do the face-to-face peace-mongering. David Miliband, the foreign secretary, was also inconspicuous at first, though he eventually made it to Tbilisi on August 19th, denouncing Russia’s “adventurism and aggression”.
There are some plausible reasons, beyond his own tastes and personality, for Mr Brown’s quietness. He may seem boringly parochial after Tony Blair, who would probably have got himself photographed straddling the gun barrel of a Georgian tank; but not all Mr Blair’s derring-do turned out to be wise. After his hyperactive messianism, a period of British humility might in some ways seem therapeutic. Another popular contrast, with Nicolas Sarkozy, is also misleading: after Jacques Chirac’s prickliness, France’s president urgently needed to re-establish his country’s reputation abroad in a way that Mr Brown did not.
In the specific case of the Caucasus, there was another possible reason for British reticence. Anglo-Russian relations are already toxic: as it has with Georgia, the Kremlin has fixed on Britain as a useful enemy. Mr Miliband has been robust in his dealings with Russia over the radioactive poisoning of a British subject of Russian origin in London in 2006; considering the trouble that BP, a British oil giant, is having with its Russian joint venture (and the already acute exasperation of Britain’s security services with the antics of Russian spooks), the government may have thought it prudent to remain low-key over Georgia. British advice to the Russians is anyway unlikely to achieve much—besides, maybe, irking them into doing the opposite.
For all that, the quietness is mistaken, and potentially costly. The main benefit of activism over Georgia would have lain not in the impression made on Russia, but in the impression made on everyone else. Energetic diplomacy does not merely satisfy some adolescent egomania or yen for macho posturing: it is a down-payment against a time when a country needs to form alliances and sway opinion in its own interests. The dynamism and charisma of a leader is especially important for a second-rank country such as Britain. For Mr Brown, achieving anything abroad during his premiership—such as, for example, the reforms of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund that he advocates—will require a high profile and co-operative friends. He has neither.
The uncomfortable reality, of course, is that when a government looks politically doomed, as Mr Brown’s does, it forfeits diplomatic clout: why cultivate a prime minister who may soon get the push? The lacklustre state of Britain’s economy, whose strength once fascinated other leaders, has also dimmed his appeal. But the decline in stature has been exacerbated by the continuing chaos in the Labour Party. It may not have helped, for example, that Mr Miliband is the main internal rival for Mr Brown’s job; the foreign secretary denied that there are “frosty relations” between his department and Number 10, but his counterparts may wonder how coherent British policymaking really is. Meanwhile Mr Brown—imperilled by Labour plots—has appeared preoccupied with his latest “relaunch”, and wary of seeming distracted from domestic concerns by faraway crises. The overall effect has been to make Britain look marginal and weak.
I capture the Caucasus
So there was a temporary hole where British foreign policy should have been—a political gap that Mr Blair would never have allowed to open—and Mr Cameron stepped into it. (A quip doing the rounds is that he and Mr Miliband have swapped jobs, with Mr Cameron behaving like a foreign secretary and Mr Miliband as leader of the opposition.) After Cornwall, the second, less advertised leg of his holiday was, serendipitously, to Turkey. He nipped into neighbouring Georgia on August 16th, three days before Mr Miliband. His avowed aim was to show solidarity with a fellow democracy; his implicit one was to project an aura of statesmanship, reassuring voters who doubt his gravity.
Mr Cameron is only a politician: to accuse him of opportunism is tautological. He has a right to his views, and to visit any country he chooses. Yet although the Tories say they liaised with the Foreign Office, there was something unseemly about his rush to Tbilisi—to the seat of a crisis in its heat—before an actual minister made it. What he had to say when he got there was also questionable. Emulating the tough response of John McCain, America’s Republican presidential candidate, Mr Cameron called, not very sensibly, for restrictions on British visas for ordinary Russians and for Russia to be suspended from the G8. There was an echo of the Tories’ determination, before the Iraq war, to out-hawk Mr Blair, a stance they came to regret. Mr Cameron would have done better to be serious, concerned and anodyne.
According to Russia’s sly foreign minister, there were no winners in the Caucasian war. That judgment may yet turn out to be correct on a global scale, but it was certainly true of Britain. Both Mr Brown and Mr Cameron had a bad war.
6 months ago