British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his foreign secretary, Robin
Cook, were all the quicker to congratulate George W. Bush on
confirmation of his election because they knew that they had a good
deal of ground to make up. For months Labour Party figures had
scarcely concealed their scorn for the Republican presidential
candidate. Blair's eminence grise, Peter Mandelson, then Northern
Ireland secretary, was even indiscrete enough to tell journalists his
opinions of Bush and his policies at a drinks party before Christmas,
and then had to issue a public retraction.
If the problem were simply the result of New Labour nostalgia for the
cozy relationship built up with the Clinton administration, it would
have little long-term significance. But its roots go much deeper than
that and lie not in personalities but in policies, indeed in
conceptions of the very purpose of Western foreign and security
policy. Even on the occasion of Messrs. Blair's and Cook's formal
felicitations, their words, consciously or not, contained more than a
hint of trouble to come. "President-elect Bush", said Blair, "is a
man who shares our values [and] wants Europe and America to stand
side by side." Still more significant, Cook looked forward to working
with the new President and to "keeping Britain as that unique bridge
between America and Europe" [emphasis added].
Policymakers in Washington ought to study and reflect on these
apparently anodyne phrases and the attitudes that lie behind them.
They need to ask themselves whether America really wants Europe to
stand at its side rather than to stand behind its leadership. And
they should consider and then articulate whether they expect Britain
to be a "bridge" ("unique" or otherwise), or whether they prefer the
traditional British role of highly effective and strongly committed
ally. These questions, which the Clinton administration was happy to
fudge, and the Blair government even more so, will sooner rather than
later have to be resolved.
Pivots and Policies
Tony Blair has a sense of the historic, if not exactly of history. He
wants, as his friend Bill Clinton ever more desperately wanted, to be
seen by posterity as having shaped events and bestrode them. In a
November 1999 speech at the Lord Mayor of London's banquet, the
traditional annual occasion for a British prime minister to review
foreign policy, Blair thus expansively reflected upon the legacy of
empire. Successive generations of British politicians from Churchill
to Thatcher had, he said, tried and failed to find for Britain a
satisfactory post-imperial role. He continued:
"However, I believe that search can now end. We have got over our
Imperial past, and the withdrawal symptoms. No longer do we want to
be taken seriously just for our history, but for what we are and what
we will become. We have a new role. . . . It is to use the strengths
of our history to build our future not as a superpower but as a
pivotal power, as a power that is at the crux of the alliances and
international politics which shape the world and its future."
This was vintage Blair. The passage has a self-confident, even
visionary assertiveness that smacks of Margaret Thatcher. At the same
time, it reassures the liberal media with its appeal to modernity and
internationalism. And, equally typical, it contains at its core an
embarrassing intellectual vacuum.
"Pivots" are, of course, in fashion. Paul Kennedy, for example, has
argued that a "pivotal states strategy" should be at the heart of a
realistic American approach to foreign and security policy. But
Kennedy's category of pivotal states was not one within which any
British prime minister would greatly wish to see his country slotted.
Such states are "pivotal" precisely because--like Mexico, Algeria or
Egypt--they face a precarious future, and because that future matters
to the West as a whole. Clearly, Blair was not talking about that
kind of pivot.
In truth, it is difficult to envisage why any state or any individual
would voluntarily act as a pivot. Pivots have no life of their own.
They are necessarilyrigid and static. Their value is simply as a
means of permitting movement by others.
This objection is not just pedantry. Such metaphors drawn from
engineering for use in political discourse--like engines, power
houses, gear changes--always belie a confusion of ends with means.
Blair sees that Britain is a nuclear-armed state and a permanent
member of the UN Security Council, that it has close relations with
America, that it is a leading power in Europe, that it has links with
Africa and Asia through the Commonwealth, and that it enjoys the
advantage of English being the language of international business.
But he confuses the possession of these undoubted geopolitical
strengths with possession of a policy to apply them. Does Britain, in
fact, currently have such a policy?
Out of Africa
Oddly enough, the beginnings of the answer may be found in a
downtrodden, poverty-stricken, blood-drenched corner of West Africa.
Blair may pride himself on exorcising the demons of empire, but his
government's approach to Sierra Leone strongly suggests the opposite.
Take up the White Man's burden--
The savage wars of peace--
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch Sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hope to nought.
Kipling's lament is particularly appropriate to Sierra Leone. The
settlement of Freetown was created by the British in 1787 for slaves
repatriated from Britain and the United States, and for others
liberated from the slave ships. It grew over time into a small,
prosperous and well-educated colony. But since independence in 1961
it has slipped from dictatorship to kleptocracy and from kleptocracy
to anarchy. It is as pointless to apply Western-style labels to the
individuals and factions concerned as it was to those in the old
Soviet Union--which, however, has not prevented the British Foreign
Office from doing so.
In truth, the one common factor in the tangled events of Sierra
Leone's recent history is that British politicians and diplomats have
managed to be wrong at every stage. The political struggles in Sierra
Leone and in neighboring Liberia are mainly about control of the
diamond business. Belatedly realizing this, Britain has persuaded the
UN to take measures to outlaw "conflict diamonds." But, of course,
the mere act of outlawing something, without any prospect of
enforcement, will not work in Sierra Leone any more than it has in
Angola, where civil strife rages unabated. Greed always finds a way.
And the story of Sierra Leone is one of greed on an epic scale. In
1991 Foday Sankoh, a former army corporal, teamed up with Charles
Taylor, then a militia leader and now Liberia's president, to
overthrow the government of Sierra Leone and seize the diamond mines.
But before they could finish the job, a military coup brought a
baby-faced young captain, Valentine Strasser, to power. Strasser was
initially much feted by the West as a "reformer"--until he damaged
his international reputation by having twenty-six of his opponents
taken out to the beach at Freetown and summarily executed. Britain
suspended aid, but later provided Strasser with a refuge when he was
ousted in 1996: he is now drawing social security benefits and living
in a modest house in north London.
Amid much international rejoicing, democracy was re-introduced.
Elections brought to power President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah. But it was
South African mercenaries who kept him there. Unfortunately, white
mercenaries--the traditional prop for black African governments--are
frowned upon in the global village. So the mercenaries were sent home
and the government promptly fell, overturned in another military coup.
At this point, the Labour government took office in Britain and Robin
Cook entered the imposing portals of the Foreign and Commonwealth
Office. Cook resolved to flex his muscles. He decided that
"democracy" must be "restored" in Sierra Leone. But how? The foreign
secretary's first error was to will the ends without being realistic
about the means. While pretending that Britain was adhering to an
internationally agreed arms embargo, the Foreign Office secretly
supported a mercenary effort to overthrow the military regime. That
regime was indeed ousted in February 1998. Nigerian troops were sent
in, but Freetown was extensively looted in the fighting.
The leader of the rebels, Sankoh, was now captured by the Nigerians.
He had one of the worst reputations for human rights abuses in
Africa. His forces' specialty was mutilation, as the piteous
photographs of limbless women and children begging in Freetown
testify. Sankoh was sentenced to death in absentia by a Sierra
Leonean court. But the foreign secretary now intervened. Cook, not
known for his tolerance of crimes when allegedly committed by
white-skinned former Chilean heads of state, pressed President Kabbah
to pardon Sankoh and to grant him immunity. The foreign secretary
also persuaded Kabbah to appoint Sankoh as his vice president and
minister for natural resources--which afforded the latter's men
control over the diamonds for which the whole struggle had taken
place. This was Cook's second, and egregious, error. Naturally
enough, Sankoh and his men exploited the new opportunity to the
maximum, and ignored all previous undertakings of good behavior.