David Miliband

By | Oct 12, 2011

Since Labour came to power in 1997, British and American foreign policy has run along the same track on the big issues: Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and aid for Africa. On issues such as the unpopular war in Iraq, being seen as the United States’ lapdog is not a good place when it comes to public opinion. “That is what brought Tony Blair down. He was seen as too slavish to American policy,” says Todd Endelman, a University of Michigan professor who specializes in Anglo-Jewish history. Miliband has faced criticism for his closeness to Blair, and as foreign secretary has spent considerable energy extricating British foreign policy from the compromises and possible illegalities associated with the war on terror. He has managed to get British citizens out of Guantanamo, yet at the same time has fought what looks like a losing battle against keeping secret the interrogation methods (torture) used on some of those citizens. His public avowals that this would compromise American intelligence and might lead to the U.S. withholding top intelligence from Britain seem mealy-mouthed to the more vocal critics of the “special relationship” between the two nations.

Climate change is one area where the British have been able to clearly differentiate themselves from the United States. Throughout the Bush Administration, the U.S. was not a player, and the Obama Administration, while more interested, is just getting its toes wet. The United Kingdom has made climate change a major foreign policy priority in recent years, led, among others, by Miliband’s brother Ed, who is secretary of state for energy and climate change. Last November, Ed Miliband helped usher in the Climate Change Act, which commits the United Kingdom to reducing carbon emission by 80 percent from a 1990 baseline by the year 2050. David Miliband has called for all governments, including Barack Obama’s, to make similar commitments, arguing, “This is too important an issue for conventional negotiation where everybody plays their cards close to their chest until the last minute.”

Oliver Kamm, an editorial writer for The Times of London and an Oxford contemporary of the foreign secretary, notes that Miliband has approached dealing with Russia and Iran differently than did Blair: “He’s been less prone to give [Russian Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin the benefit of any doubt. And he’s been strong on holding the Iranian leadership to account for their nuclear duplicity.”

Miliband has made it a priority to reach out to Arab and Muslim communities both outside and inside the U.K. In May, he declared that the West needs to “understand the Muslim world better. We need to hold fast to our values and support those who seek to apply them, or we will be guilty of hypocrisy.” “Miliband and his team within the foreign ministry were the first to realize that the term ‘the global war on terror’ ought to be shelved,” says Steve Clemons, senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

Miliband’s message of tolerance is important not only to an international audience but a domestic one. Britain is home to 2.4 million Muslims, a population that is growing 10 times faster than its others. Regarded as one of the most tolerant countries in Europe, Britain struggles with questions of integration, particularly the social exclusion of its Muslims, as well as the psychological aftermath of the July 2005 suicide bombings on London’s public transport system carried out by young Britons of Pakistani descent, which left 52 people dead and over 700 injured.

Britain has been a leading partner in attempts to lure Syria away from Iraq and into serious peace discussions with Israel, and Miliband has become a point person for these discussions. Shortly after Barack Obama’s election, Miliband visited Damascus, the first official visit by a member of the British government in nearly a decade. His meetings with his Syrian counterpart helped smooth the way for recent discussions between President Obama’s special Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, and Syrian president Bashar Assad.

On the subject of Israel itself, Britain has shown a greater willingness than the United States to criticize the Israelis over settlements and what some call the disproportionate responses to provocations from Gaza and southern Lebanon. (Jewish Labour MP Gerald Kaufman is among the most vocal.) Like his predecessors, both Labour and Conservative, Miliband has been unequivocal: “Settlements are illegal under international law,” he told Parliament last summer. “They are a major blockage to peace in the Middle East on the basis of a two-state solution.”

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