Brown’s vision for the future? A new Cold War

The PM's expulsion of four Russian diplomats captures in pure, undiluted form his conservative, misty-eyed, dinosaurian tendencies.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

The Brown government’s first foreign-policy stunt – the expulsion of four Russian diplomats from the UK – captured in pure, undiluted form its conservative, misty-eyed, dinosaurian tendencies.

Tony Blair was known for his reckless disregard for the institutions of the Cold War. From his ethical foreign policy to his ‘Chicago doctrine’ (‘the principle of non-intervention should yield to the international responsibility to protect’), Blair saw it as his business to rewrite the script that guided international affairs in the Cold War era. It culminated in his disastrous cowboy bombings of Yugoslavia in 1999 and Iraq in 2003. Gordon Brown, by contrast, while clearly sharing Blair’s interventionist instincts, wants to breathe life back into the old East-West divide. He wants to pull old Cold War certainties around himself like a warm and familiar security blanket in unpredictable times.

spiked saw it coming. On the day Brown succeeded Blair as Labour leader and PM, we argued that ‘Brown borrows liberally from the political language of the Cold War because he is struck dumb by events today’. Brown talks about the battle against Islamic extremism as a ‘new Cold War’, showing, in spiked’s words, that he ‘clearly envisions himself as a new Kennedy figure taking on a new “Evil Empire”’ (1). Now, the first major act taken by Brown and his foreign secretary David Miliband on the international stage is the Russian expulsion. The Brown government ordered four diplomats who work in intelligence in the Russian Embassy in London to leave Britain. According to Miliband, the move was intended to ‘send a clear and proportionate signal’ to Russia of the seriousness with which Britain views Moscow’s refusal to extradite ex-KGB agent Andrei Lugovoi, who is suspected of playing a role in the murder of Alexander Litvinenko by polonium in London last year (2).

As a ‘signal’, an action intended to show how seriously Britain takes the investigation of Litvinenko’s murder, the expulsion makes little sense. Indeed, it smacks of phenomenal double standards. Russia is refusing to extradite Lugovoi because the Russian constitution forbids the extradition of its citizens. Britain, too, frequently refuses to extradite its citizens or guests to certain other countries – including Russia. As Russia’s deputy foreign minister pointed out yesterday, if a state’s refusal to extradite an individual can lead to the expulsion of four of its own diplomats, then Russia would be within its rights to expel 84 British diplomats. In short, Russia has 21 outstanding extradition requests lodged with the UK, including demands for the dodgy oligarch Boris Berezovsky and the Chechen terrorist/military commander (you decide) Akhmed Zakayev.

The Brown government’s action only makes sense as an international stunt – and a clumsy, self-defeating one at that. It reveals much about British foreign policy today. Since 9/11, Western governments, in particular America and Britain, have pursued patternless and unwieldy foreign policies. For all the claims that the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 were cynical wars for self-interest – for oil, or in order to kickstart a New American Conquest of the Middle East – in fact these conflicts are better understood as ill-thought-through PR stunts. They have been notable for their constantly changing war aims and their lack of strategic or tactical planning. The aim of the invasions was to provide a short-term moral booster injection to directionless and disarrayed capitals in the West. Indeed, it seems clear that, in the longer term, the wars went against American and British self-interest. The routing of the Taliban has left Afghanistan a divided and ungovernable mess. The destruction of the Ba’athist regime in Iraq, with little thought given to what might replace it, has left Iraq as a gaping wound in the Middle East, where there is a mounting tide of slaughter and barbarism.

In many ways, the contemporary attempt to rediscover, even recreate, the Cold War is a response to the instability wrought by this patternless post-9/11 foreign policy. Shaken by events in central Asia and the Middle East, and bereft of ideas, Western leaders are increasingly looking back to the Cold War days – to a time when there seemed to be a clear divide between good and evil, which acted as a moral framework for Western thought and action. Brown continually talks about his hero, Bobby Kennedy, and uses Cold War lingo to describe and justify Britain’s part in the scrappy ‘war on terror’. Now he has instituted a new cynical stand-off with Putin’s regime. Earlier this year, Washington clashed with Moscow over President Bush’s plans to base missile defence systems in former Russian satellite countries, including Poland and the Czech Republic. Washington’s claims that the missile defence systems are necessary to see off the threat from rogue states such as Iran are pretty see-through. In truth, its building of such systems in Eastern Europe is a political rather than a strategic act, designed to create a familiar-feeling stand-off with the old ‘Evil Empire’.

In political circles, many seem to have welcomed the return of ‘Cold War diplomacy’ with barely concealed glee. Following the death of Litvinenko, one commentator hailed ‘the start of a new Cold War’. ‘The question’, he said, ‘is how to win it’ (3). Another said there is ‘an increasingly hot peace’, and ‘Europe must remain united in the face of any intimidation from the Kremlin’ (4). British cabinet minister Peter Hain has said things are getting ‘frosty’ (another word for ‘cold’) between Britain and Russia, which he accused of launching ‘huge attacks on individual liberty and democracy’ (5). This embrace of Cold War language tells us a lot about the state of British politics. At a time when politics lacks oomph and urgency, some are reverting to old Cold War ways. They are looking for a fixed point against which they can define themselves. An old-fashioned stand-off with the Ruskies provides a rare opportunity for some black-and-white moral posturing.

This is a pale and shallow version of the Cold War of history. Britain and America may talk the language of the old East-West divide, but they cannot muster the kind of Western unity that was glued together (within limits, of course) by the anti-communist ideology of the 1950s to the 1980s. As one report says this morning, Britain has failed to win from Europe the ‘immediate, concerted solidarity’ it was expecting over its Russian expulsions. German officials say Britain has overreacted; the Portuguese said this is ‘a bilateral issue’ between Britain and Russia (6). Nor has the Brown government thought through its clash with Russia. A BBC reporter says that when she asked a Foreign Office official what the strategy was, he replied: ‘There is no strategy as such. We’re waiting for Russia to respond.’ Meanwhile, British diplomats and businessmen are concerned that the expulsions will harm British-Russian relations and possibly British political and business interests. In the name of scoring a few moral points in the international arena, and signalling its desire to recreate a new if inferior version of Cold War politics, the Brown government has possibly harmed itself more than anyone else.

Many are asking how Russia will respond to the expulsions. We will probably know later today. But in the meantime, let us focus on what the expulsions reveal about the new Brown regime: that it is intellectually vacuous, backward-looking, as keen on executing international stunts as the Blairites were, and reckless.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.

Previously on spiked
Brendan O’Neill argued that the death of Alexander Litvinenko was a murder mystery, not a Cold War thriller but Julia Svetlichnaja and James Heartfield, who were the last people to interview Litvinenko, found themselves caught up in a new Cold War. Julia Svetlichnaja criticised attempts to blame a ‘backward Russia’ while James Heartfield rubbished predictions of a forthcoming Russian revolution. Or read more at spiked issue Russia.

(1) See 10 reasons why Gordon Brown is not fit to be prime minister, by Brendan O’Neill

(2) Why expel diplomats, BBC News, 17 July 2007

(3) The one way to fight Putin’s menace, The Times (London), 27 November 2006

(4) Do not let ghosts of the Cold War impede history’s lessons, Financial Times, 25 November 2006

(5) Reid to brief Commons on Litvinenko, Guardian, 27 November 2006

(6) Europeans lukewarm as Britain tries to rally support in row with Russia, Guardian, 18 July 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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