Gordon Brown’s first foreign policy speech

Gordon Brown’s first foreign policy speech, delivered on Monday evening at Mansion House, was nicely drafted, well argued and competently delivered.  Its central argument: that “international institutions built [in 1945] for just 50 sheltered economies in what became a bipolar world … are not fit for purpose in an interdependent world of 200 states where global flows of commerce, people and ideas defy borders”. 

Although virtually all media coverage of the speech – Times, BBC, PA, Independent, Telegraph, New York Times, Melanie Phillips in predictable form in the Spectator, Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian – led exclusively either on Iran or on the relative weight accorded to the UK’s relationship with US and EU, this was really a speech about multilateral reform.  In particular, it was about reforming international institutions to equip them to deal with six new trends: “failed states and rogue states”; terrorism; global flows of capital, goods and services; the emergence of China and India; climate change; and “a new global competition for natural resources”, especially energy. 

(It’s  interesting, by the way, that he emphasised natural resource scarcity, rather than just energy security on its own.  To give credit where it’s due, Brown spotted that agenda well before most of his peers: the Treasury’s December 2004 paper on long term economic challenges for the UK, for instance, made the same point.  It’s also very interesting that Brown has instructed the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit to undertake a review of the UK’s food security, as reported in the Observer last weekend.  I’m doing a presentation for the Strategy Unit team in a couple of weeks’ time, which I’ll post here once I’ve written it.)

But as the New Statesman put it pithily in their leader this week, the real question for Gordon Brown’s multilateral reform agenda is “how will he succeed when others have failed?”.

Take, for instance, what he had to say on conflict in fragile states, where there was a strong call for moving from a reactive to a preventive stance on conflict, and for “the first internationally agreed procedures to prevent breakdowns of states and societies”.  Fine in principle – but hard to see how Brown will make much headway on this given that moves in 2005 and 2006 to arm the new UN Peacebuilding Commission with a prevention mandate quickly foundered in the face of ferocious developing country opposition. 

Similarly, there was a proposal for “Security Council peacekeeping resolutions and UN Envoys [to] make stablisation, reconstruction and development an equal priority”.  Again, this was a little unclear: no mention of the Peacebuilding Commission here either, or of the fact that one area where the UN has actually got much better is in integrated mission planning

But the really key section was the last one, on renewing multilateralism at the global level, where Brown argued the need to “judge success not by the number of initiatives in conference halls but by practical action for change”, and that “we need fewer rather than more international bureaucracies”.  So, he went on, we need:

  • A less introspective EU – “outward looking, open, internationalist, able to effectively respond both through internal reform and external action to the economic, security and environmental imperatives of globalisation”;
  • Security Council reform – where Brown noted that “permanent members do not include Japan, India, Brazil, Germany, or any African country”;
  • A broader G8 “to encompass the influential emerging economies now outside but that account for more than a third of the world’s economic output”;
  • A “new coalition of democracies and civic societies joining together as allies for progress, with leaders in politics, economics and civil society all pushing forward reform”;
  • A transformed IMF “with a renewed mandate that goes far beyond crisis management to crisis prevention”, with particular focus on early warning;
  • On environmental protection, a “strengthened role” for the UN and the World Bank becoming “a bank for the environment” as well as for poverty reduction.

It’s hard to argue against any of these ambitions.  But it’s also hard to avoid the impression that a lot of them were lifted directly from the 2004 High Level Panel report, as if the 2005 World Summit had not yet taken place (coincidentally, David Miliband chose this week to deliver a speech which revolved around a multilateral institution – this time the EU – being at a “fork in the road”.  Sound familiar?)

Nonetheless, what Brown has achieved here is to set out a pretty good framework – a ‘scaffolding’, if you will – on which he can hang fresher and more detailed foreign policy ideas in due course.  To my mind, there was just one key trick that he missed.  For all that Brown correctly identifies the emergence to global prominence of China and India as a game-changing development, what he doesn’t do in this speech is take the next step and ask: given that effective multilateralism will increasingly depend on Chinese and Indian buy-in, what do they want from it? 

Update: Daniel Korski at ECFR is annoyed that Brown didn’t mention enlargement.