Over-compensation

Douglas Alexander (source World Economic Forum on Flickr)

Who could possibly object to what Douglas Alexander said in his Washington speech last week? (Read it here.) He is the newly-appointed secretary of state for international development, and so naturally takes an interest in the wider context of international politics. It wouldn’t be possible to do his job properly if he didn’t.

And the interest he took is a good one. He said, for example, that:

“We need to demonstrate by our word and our actions that we are: internationalist not isolationist; multilateralist not unilateralist; active not passive; and driven by core values consistently applied, not special interests.”

Explaining that:

 “Multilateralist, not unilateralist, means a rules-based international system. Just as we need the rule of law at home to have civilization so we need rules abroad to ensure global civilization.”

These kind of views are broadly the consensus here in the UK. For most readers of this blog – and for the writer of this blog, too – he doesn’t really go far enough in discussing where those international rules come from, how they are discussed and agreed, and what are the mechanisms for enforcement. But all that can wait for another time. What is interesting today is the political and media reaction.

For Douglas Alexander’s speech was reported as a rebuke to the Americans, contrasting his preferred multilateral approach with the unwelcome approach of American unilateralism. And that’s where the trouble started. Gordon Brown had to react to declare that in no sense was this speech to be taken as criticism of the Americans, even if a reading of the words in the speech might suggest otherwise. Relations with America are a subject close to Gordon Brown’s heart.

I think it was Robin Cook who suggested that one of the problems that Tony Blair had encountered in dealing with George W Bush was that of over-compensation. He had been very close to Bush’s predecessor, Bill Clinton, for reasons of shared ideology as much as geopolitics, and Clinton himself had advised Blair not to allow the relationship with America to weaken.

As a result, Tony Blair was always worried that saying no to a request from the Americans might have been seen as an ideological decision rather than a geopolitical one, so he found it hard to do so. The consequences of this unwillingness to judge issues on their merits we live with today.

Gordon Brown appears to be over-compensating in the same way. Britain has got to be ready to tell the Americans when they are getting things wrong – Brown has no difficulty pointing such things out to the rest of Europe – a friendship isn’t worth much if we can’t give candid advice. Even Tony Blair came round to criticising the camp at Guantanamo Bay eventually, so it would be rather absurd if we ended up with a Brown government even softer on Bush that than of Blair.

More confidence, and a clearer political vision of his own, would make the transition to a new government so much easier. Until then, Gordon Brown appears to be reluctant to stand up for Britain.

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Another example of this over-compensation followed at the weekend. A story about the possible removal of Winston Churchill from the school history curriculum brought an immediate response from Ed Balls, new secretary of state for Children, Schools and Families. He wrote, in an op-ed piece in the Sun (which you can read here) how there was no risk to Churchill’s place in schools.

After all, he said, Churchill “taught us a lesson that is as relevant today as it was then: That Britain and America are always strongest when they stand together.”

This brand of nostalgia is what you might expect from the neo-cons in Conrad Black’s Anglosphere, not from a Labour cabinet minister. The world has changed a lot since the 1940s, and it would be better to teach children about modern circumstances than out-of-date ones.

But that does not mean ruling Churchill out altogether. He also spoke memorably of the need for “a kind of United States of Europe” and, on the occasion of the launch of the European Coal and Steel Community, declared that “the Conservative and Liberal parties declare that national sovereignty is not inviolable, and that it may be resolutely diminished for the sake of all the men in all the lands finding their way home together.”

Will these sentiments also find their way into the national curriculum?

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