British statesman? More like stuntmen

Rising tensions with Russia show that there is no crisis so bad it cannot be made worse by the self-serving intervention of a Brown or Miliband.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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As the tensions between Russia and the West have risen, two sides have staked out their positions and begun firing across each other’s lines. Yes, it’s the battle between UK prime minister Gordon Brown and his leadership rival, foreign secretary David Miliband, to see which best can exploit the crisis in the Caucasus to appear big and strong to British voters and Labour Party MPs.

On Sunday, Brown took his stand on the moral high ground in the liberal Observer newspaper to fire off an article denouncing ‘Russian aggression’. Meanwhile, Miliband marshalled his forces on the right flank, in the conservative Mail on Sunday, to launch a rhetorical salvo against ‘Russia the aggressor’.

This pathetic spectacle might be funny if it were not so serious. New Labour government ministers, and Conservative opposition leader David Cameron, have been working all-out to turn an international crisis into a platform for their petty games of one-upmanship and party PR exercises. The aim is to improve their image and make them appear like statesmen on the grand scale.

Instead they have succeeded in making themselves look like little boys in a big world, small-minded politicians who cannot see beyond their rating in the next opinion poll or by-election. Mixing up geo-political strategy with domestic political games in this way is a dangerous business. It is one thing to make up British policy on stamp duty or knife crime as you go along, with an eye on the media headlines. It is something else altogether to try the same trick in the middle of a real international crisis, and risk stirring things up with consequences that are beyond your control.

Brown’s widely-advertised Observer article was obviously more about trying to re-establish his authority at home than resolving problems with Russia; international diplomacy is rarely concluded successfully through the columns of Sunday newspapers. Just how far he has lost the plot on foreign policy became clear when he wrote about how Russia must understand that ‘with rights come responsibilities’, as if he was giving a typical New Labour moral lecture to some anti-social youth.

This was the prime minister’s response to the foreign secretary’s intense campaign of diplomatic self-promotion over the past few weeks. In a bid to throw off his well-deserved reputation as something of a weird, geeky dweeb, Miliband has been striking tough media poses over Russia and Georgia at every opportunity. He has somehow kept a straight face while making grand speeches about how Britain insists that ‘the rule of force does not replace the rule of law, and the territorial integrity of sovereign nations is to be respected’, as if he had forgotten that the invasion of Iraq and the war against the Serbs over Kosovo had ever happened.

Looking and acting more like stuntmen than statesmen, top British politicians have been helicoptering in and out of the Caucasus for photo opportunities dressed up as diplomatic missions. First off the runway was Conservative leader Cameron, flying into Georgia soon after the conflict over South Ossetia began to demand that Britain and the EU ‘show solidarity’ with the Georgians against Russia. Not to be outdone, Miliband was soon following the same trail to Tbilisi, where he announced that the UK and EU indeed ‘stood in solidarity’ with Georgia. Then, for reasons nobody could quite explain, Miliband went to the Ukraine to spread his message about the need for the EU and NATO (neither of which, of course, were in Kiev to hear him) to take a ‘hard-headed’ attitude towards Russia.

Some of the more excitable commentators appear to have got carried away with all this political showboating, apparently believing that Britain is really in a position to resolve the crisis and demanding firmer action. They seem to have missed the point that the only ‘action’ involved in the British rhetorical offensive against Russia has been standing in front of cameras and writing newspaper articles.

One senior columnist even bemoaned the fact that cuts in the Royal Navy meant Britain was no longer able to consider the sort of gunboat diplomacy it deployed against Russia in the Crimean War of the mid-nineteenth century! Even back then, almost at the peak of Britain’s imperial power, that overstretched military expedition – made famous by the glorious debacle of the Charge of the Light Brigade – proved such a mess that the government of Lord Aberdeen was forced to resign. The notion that today little Britain, now a true international light brigade, and its school prefect of a foreign secretary could bestride the globe and tame the ‘Russian bear’ is ludicrous. But in attempting to play the part of a great power, they can succeed in increasing international tensions and inflaming a real conflict in the Caucasus.

It is not only British politicians who have been exploiting the crisis for their own political purposes, of course. Other EU leaders such as President Sarkozy of France and Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel have also sought to inflate their own standing by flying around and making grand speeches, although their threats of firm action against Russia have amounted to little more than postponing a meeting.

The Russian-Georgian crisis has also been a feature of the US presidential election campaign. Russian prime minister (and still de facto president) Vladimir Putin was no doubt being his usual conspiratorial self when he alleged that the American authorities had created the crisis over South Ossetia in order to boost one of the presidential candidates – presumably the Republican McCain. But as analysed on spiked, Washington’s reckless politicking in the east did do a lot to create the problem in the first place (see Georgia: the messy truth behind the morality tale, by Brendan O’Neill). And both presidential candidates have since been using the Caucasus as a platform on which to try to appear strong while creating a distinctive statesmenlike image. Thus Barack Obama’s camp has attacked McCain as a dangerously outdated warmonger, and McCain’s people depict Obama as a naive advocate of toothless diplomacy, while in practice both are saying much the same thing about Russia. The consequences of domestic politic games in what is still the world’s superpower spilling over into international affairs could be far more dangerous than anything Miliband or Cameron does.

Whether the Western wannabe statesmen’s standing will benefit from their diplomatic stunts remains to be seen. What seems certain, however, is that they are playing a dangerous game that risks alienating Russia and inflaming and internationalising a regional conflict. In current circumstances there seems no objective reason for any ‘new Cold War’ with such a weak and conservative power as Russia. Yet our leaders have lost sight of such broader strategic considerations in pursuit of petty political gain and propaganda stunts.

Many in the West have missed the certainties of the Cold War years over the past two decades. As spiked pointed out when Brown became prime minister last year, and almost immediately expelled Russian diplomats, his ‘vision for the future’ appeared to be ‘a new Cold War’. Such Cold War posturing acts as a sort of comfort blanket for insecure statesmen in an uncertain and changed world. But as spiked also pointed out at the start of the Georgian conflict last month, ‘in an era of juvenile diplomacy and patternless foreign policy, Cold War talk can easily become Hot War horrors’ (see Why the West can’t kick its Cold War habit, by Frank Furedi).

There have been many occasions when Western statesmen have been accused of deliberately staging or exploiting small foreign wars largely for domestic political advantage, along the lines of the movie Wag the Dog; Ronald Reagan’s invasion of Grenada and Margaret Thatcher’s Falklands adventure spring to mind. But this is something different. There is no grand plot or plan involved. It is more a case of a purposeless, out-of-control political elite blundering into somebody else’s crisis in search of a cheap political victory. There are unlikely to be any winners when such a phoney war meets the real world.

Mick Hume is spiked‘s editor-at-large.

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

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