Q&A: Britain's New Foreign Secretary

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Philip Hollis for TIME

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband

Britain's new Foreign Secretary David Miliband has just completed his first official trip to the U.S. for talks with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and to join Prime Minister Gordon Brown at his Camp David meeting with President Bush. But Miliband's first long-haul destinations in his new job were Afghanistan and Pakistan, which he visited last week. TIME's London Bureau Chief Catherine Mayer accompanied the Foreign Secretary on his travels and spoke to him about his priorities, concerns and ambitions—and how he envisages relations with the U.S.

TIME: There's been speculation that your government won't be as close to Washington as Tony Blair's was.
DM: It's our single most important bilateral relationship. It's as important under this government as it was under the last government. There are certain shared values but also from our point of view the recognition that America is the world's largest economy, the world's largest military power as well, so in addition to our shared values, if Britain is going to be a global hub where politics and culture and economics and military power meet or pass through, then you have to be close to the global power. I think the U.K.-U.S. relationship is one that is developing in a way that is positive

You can see why people might anticipate a shift. One of your own ministers, Lord Malloch-Brown, the Minister for Africa, Asia and the U.N., predicted in an interview that the U.K. and the U.S. would no longer "be joined at the hip." The Secretary of State for International Development Douglas Alexander spoke of "new alliances" in a speech in America.
There's not a single anti-American in the U.K. government. The policy of the government is clear. We've had a stable and orderly transition of power, contrary to the predictions of many in the U.K. media. People find it hard to believe a government can renew itself after 10 years. Inevitably there's change and continuity: there's change of people, there's change of conditions, and equally we are people who've been associated with the policy of the government over the last 10 years in different capacities. My argument now is that the people who built the foundations of the house are the right people to build the next floor. You're building on the foundations, not ripping up the foundations. In our relationship with the United States we want to build on the relationship that exists and we see no need to rewrite the sentence of the Foreign Office's strategic plan that says "The United States is our single most important bilateral relationship."

America has figured large in your life...
I went to Bigelow Junior High School in Newton, Massachusetts and I was a graduate student at MIT where I got a master's degree. I have very fond memories of being a child in America. I got to appreciate that it's a continent, not just a country, massive diversity, massive energy.

How assimilated were you?
I'm not sure I ever had an American accent. I learned the rules of baseball. I even learned some of the rules of American football. If you lived in Boston you of course supported the Boston Red Sox but they failed to break their World Series duck while I was there. It'll be strange to go to the U.S. as foreign secretary of the U.K. rather than as a schoolboy.

You decided to fit in this trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan first. Why?
I chose this trip because Afghanistan embodies many of the foreign policy challenges we face. We're trying to help a government through a very difficult economic, social, political and security development. We're trying to do it bilaterally and multilaterally and multi-nationally — 37 different countries — it's a very poor country with a long history of adventure and misadventure. What happens in Pakistan will have a direct impact. We have a strong interest in Pakistan's stability."

Does this signal a greater focus on Afghanistan, even perhaps at the expense of Iraq?
It's wrong to put Afghanistan and Iraq in the same sentence, the same paragraph. We're there for reasons that are to do with each individual situation.

You've been described as a skeptic on Iraq, and also to have argued for an immediate cease-fire in the Lebanon war. This has also stoked speculation that you, in particular, won't be close to the Bush Administration.
I voted for the government on Iraq. I don't resile from that. Of course it's a judgment call. Of course there are many uncertainties in coming to that decision. On the Lebanon, I said what I said on the record, to the New Statesman [magazine]. I felt very worried because I didn't think that Israel was safer and stronger [after the Israeli military action] than it was before and I didn't think the prospects of a secure and just two-state settlement in the Middle East were closer. I'd discourage people from the Kremlinology of this. In the end it's going to be motivation and deeds that drive me on as Foreign Secretary and people will have to make their own judgment of that.

Some people would like to see you use your influence in Washington and indeed in other capitals to deliver constructive criticisms.
The most important thing is to start by defining your own position. The Arsenal football manager Arsene Wenger says there are two types of football manager. There are those who decide their strategy on the basis of who's on the other team and there are those who decide their strategy on the basis of who's in their team. It's that latter strategy he uses. Focus on your own strategy and let the rest pan out. That doesn't mean you should be blinkered about your strategy. But we've got to define the British national interest for the modern world and we're not an empire any more. We have our most important bilateral relationship with the United States. We're members of the European Union, hopefully leading members. I feel that to be a very comfortable two sentences. We are Security Council members and members of the Commonwealth which is a network with potential. We are those things because it's in our national interest to be. It's important for the things that we want to get done in the world.

That doesn't rule out delivering criticisms, but perhaps you feel it's better to do so behind closed doors.
There's no one rule. The most important thing is to be straight with people. There's an image of foreign policy that you can say one thing to one group of people and another to another group of people and no one notices. I don't think that really works. There are some parts of diplomacy that are public and some that are secret and on any issue you have to make a judgment: am I better off exercising influence in public or in private?

So when you had your spat with Russia ...
... We said the same thing in public and in private. What we said was we want good relations with Russia, we want to work with Russia bilaterally and multilaterally. We want Russia to be a serious and respected member of the international community, but the right to be a member of the international community comes with responsibilities, co-operation on processes, especially in a very serious case. We remain committed to justice for Mr. Litvinenko. We've got a judicial system that we want to defend, whose integrity we have to defend. There's a discussion to be had with Russia about what role it's going to play in the international community. There are a range of issues — the [Conventional Forces in Europe treaty] for ballistic missiles, Kosovo, Litvinenko — where it's important that we understand Russia and Russia understands us.

Russia is also helping Iran to build up its military capacity. That's another country likely to preoccupy your thoughts in your new job.
On Iran I've set out a clear view, which is that Iran has every right to be a respected, wealthy country. It doesn't have the right to cause instability in the region. I think it's important we take forward that two-track policy. There's a very strong offer being made to Iran, I think, as well as a determination that there are incentives and sanctions.

You've argued during this trip that military power alone can't provide solutions.
I am a great believer that we're in a world where everyone's got an opinion so winning hearts and minds is very, very important and it's striking that many of the military that we met in Afghanistan and Pakistan should say again and again and again military force is important but not sufficient to bring stability. Economic, social, political, cultural development is essential, not in sequence following military action but as part of it. I think that's a very powerful and important message really and the fact that it's coming from the military is very striking.

If you could look forward to one achievement at the Foreign Office ...
One achievement? Improving my French. It's invidious really. There are big issues facing us. To say peace in the Middle East is more or less important than peace in Afghanistan...

Yes, that did sound like Miss World. But I meant in terms of transforming ideas.
Well, the central narrative of al-Qaeda is that we are prosecuting a war of civilizations. So the central challenge for us is to prove by word and deed that we're not. And since we're not, we should be able to do that. It's a pernicious threat, it feeds off grievances, some of them legitimate, some of them not, and we need to take it on in a serious and engaged way. In the end 99.9% of the people don't want to live under the Taliban; 99.9% don't want to be suicide bombers. We're working with the grain of human nature in saying we're trying to find secure enough ground that allows people to share the planet.

You and your brother are both Cabinet Ministers in this government, both architects of the New Labour project. What shaped your political beliefs?
Well they must come from a mix of family and experience and learning: seeing and hearing and reading and listening. My parents were refugees to the U.K. [from World War II Belgium]. We grew up in a political household, or a household that thought the state of the country, the state of the world, was important. We weren't really a boffinish [scientific or intellectual] household. My parents were worried that all I was interested in was playing football when I was small and the only pages of the newspapers I wanted to read were the sports pages but they later realized it had helped me learn to read so they minded less. Then one's experience is important, at school, university and beyond. Then how one as one grows up — one listens and watches. I'm motivated by a strong set of values, developed by my parents. I was 21 in 1986 and my dad was 21 in 1945, so when my dad was 21 he lived through the defeat of fascism, the horrors of communism had not yet become clear and war and when I was 21 I'd been to America, to school in Boston, and then to Oxford University and I was living in a different time, very much more comfortable. What I've always tried to do is think how do you apply your values to the times in which you live and the problems you face and with a sense of historical perspective, which is important, but you can't be trapped by it.

Funny that you say it wasn't a boffinish household. You have the reputation of being something of a boffin. Alastair Campbell helped by nicknaming you "Brains" after the Thunderbird character.
Square rather than boffinish is probably the truth.

But you are also quite intellectual in your approach. Do you feel your politics emotionally?
No one could stand in front of that platoon going on patrol in Lashkar Gah and not have a strong sense of emotional intensity, or go to the funeral of the King of Afghanistan and look at the men from all the different tribes walking to the funeral and not be engaged. I don't think you can be avid if you're not engaged. I do think it's important to ask hard questions and to probe. Mitterrand once said that the most important quality in politics was indifference. That's very depressing. If politics is about being indifferent, then it loses its purpose.

Are you a conviction politician?
You should generally leave descriptions of yourself to others but yes, I think I am a conviction politician. I do believe ideas matter a lot in politics. Organization matters but if you don't have ideas you're completely sunk. Ideas do come from conviction. One of the things you learn in politics is that you should never glory in people disagreeing with you but you should never shrink from disagreeing with people. If you're disagreeing about what you believe and they believe, that's what politics is about.

Are you religious?
Both my parents are Jewish but we were a very secular household. My family history must explain some of the values I was brought up with, values of community and values of justice and responsibility, but it would be quite wrong for me to say anything other than that. It was a secular household.

So you were brought up an atheist?
My parents were always very good at saying you've got to make up your own mind about things. What was strange about my family is that both sets of grandparents were quite secular and they would have been born in 1900 or something. I never knew my grandfather on my mother's side and my grandfather on my father's side died when I was one. They weren't religious either.

But you're a believer in New Labour.
Throughout the 1980s there was a growing serious debate about ideas and the modernization of the progressive project. The Labour Party had been the sick person of social democracy in Europe for a long time and it's gone from being the party most likely to lose elections to the party most people bank on to win elections. To the extent that we've got strengths now I think they're founded on serious work that went on. If you think about the modern progressive project it's got very progressive roots: roots in John Rawls, Amartya Sen, then political applications and, on top of that, it's got a communications program. That's the problem the Tories are having in reverse: They've got a communications program in search of a set of policy ideas in search of a philosophy.

Labour has enjoyed big majorities for 10 years now. Do you think that's hurt the party?
No truthful politician wishes for stronger opposition and to be fair we're pretty self-critical, not to say maniacally anti-complacent. We put pressure on ourselves to always be going forward because if you're not going forwards, you're going backwards. I really do believe that about politics. It would be ridiculous to say we've created a land of milk and honey out of nothing, but we've learned a lot about how to govern and about what works.

But the competition between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown damaged Labour and sapped energies that might have been better directed elsewhere.
People used to say they were two wings of the airplane, Blair and Brown. You can't fly a plane with one wing. Gordon is the pre-eminent politician in the Labour party and he is a politician who can unite people behind him.

Now that Blair has gone, yes.
It's difficult problems one is dealing with. Fashioning a progressive government strategy is difficult. Fashioning any government strategy is difficult. You need edge. I suppose the edge can come from the outside or the inside.

You were one of Blair's favorites but managed to stay out of the worst rivalries. How?
There's no point in being self-preening about it, but I always try to keep open links. I always try to address issues on their merit. And also try to remember in the end we're on the same side. There's a terrible phrase: the opposition is on the other benches but the enemy is behind you. That's a terrible and ridiculous phrase. Politics is about which side of the fence you're on, and I've always been clear about that.

You were a back-room boy, a policy adviser from 1994 until you became an MP in 2001. How do you find life front-of-house?
You'll have to judge how comfortable I am front-of-house now. I'm still developing as a politician. I'm still slightly surprised to find myself where I am. There's a comfort in being back-of-house.

You look pretty comfortable. And also very young. Throughout this trip, people you've met have expressed surprise at your apparent youth.
There's nothing I can do about it, short of dyeing my hair gray. I've got a bit coming through now. Another couple of weeks and I'll probably be very white. In the end you have to take people on their merits and hope they take you on your merits. If you're young and arrogant people don't like you not because you're young but because you're arrogant. So don't be arrogant. There's a lot I'm trying to learn. That's why I ask lots of questions.

You resisted attempts to persuade you to stand against Brown for the Labour leadership. Do you harbor ambitions to be a future Prime Minister?
I think that was a wise thing to do. My ambitions are to be a very good Foreign Secretary.