David Miliband was an outspoken member of the Labour Government in 2008 as his personal star strengthened and many looked to him as the post-Brown hope. However, 2009 has been a different story as the Foreign Secretary seems to have quietened – quietening political debate on important issues in international relations in the process. This change is important and this looks at possible reasons for the Foreign Minister’s shift.

Two conflict-ridden provinces in one of the world’s most unstable region are occupied by troops of another country and have the support of three states, of varying weight in the international community, in their push for recognition as independent states. Russia, Venezuela and Nicaragua have all, in the past year, recognised South Ossetia and Abkhazia as states independent from their previous master – Georgia. In the wake the dramatic Russia-Georgia War and the ensuing humanitarian crisis the British Foreign Secretary was not slow to make media appearances and take sides. But, as the crisis has returned to a ‘cold’ one, David Miliband, and the UK voice, has quietened even as the breakaway regions move towards independence. Why has this issue fallen out of political dialogue?

There are, I suggest, two embarrassing (for the Foreign Secretary and therefore for the Labour Government) reasons for the lack of dialogue in the past year on the issue. Firstly, David Miliband rushed to Georgia’s side, in the process condemning and alienating Russia. He reminded Russia that the Soviet past had “gone. And it’s good that it’s gone.” Pictures of Russian tanks entering Georgian villages had “brought a chill down the spine” of the Minister. Whether these statements were right or wrong is an important issue, but I am more concerned with the speed and timing of the anti-Russian language. It has emerged since that Georgia, not Russia, was largely to blame for the conflict – a European Union report into last year’s conflict stated that Georgia’s use of force on the night of 7 August 2008 was not justifiable in the context of international law. It could also not verify “Georgian claims of a large-scale presence of Russian armed forces in South Ossetia prior to the Georgian offensive on 7/8 August”. For a Foreign Secretary to make bold, biased statements and to be found wrong is embarrassing and therefore it is not surprising David Miliband does not want to revisit the issue. Secondly, it has been suggested that the EU’s, and the UK’s, swift recognition of Kosovo as an independent state was at least partly involved in the South Ossetia province looking towards independence. David Miliband, perhaps naively, argued that Kosovan independence was “unique”. The implications this language had for Georgia and the surrounding region has become a thorny issue for the Minister.

Whether he was right or wrong is again not my particular worry. It is the fact that the UK’s Foreign Secretary was keen on taking a position – one which has certainly not become the international norm – without due thought into what position he should take in regards to international implications. Most worrying to me is the possibility, indeed the likelihood, that David Miliband’s ambition was driving some of these statements. Separating the UK’s national interest from his personal interest in making sure the Miliband name is recognised nationally and internationally has perhaps been difficult. In response to the difficult positions he has talked himself into, David Miliband has reverted to silence. I cannot remember the last time the UK has taken a stance on international relations – the recent farce concerning the UN vote on the behaviour of Israeli forces operations in Palestine being a particular example – never mind discussing the uncertain futures of the inhabitants of Kosovo, South Ossetia or Abkhazia.

It illustrates the strength of government in setting the political agenda that suits itself, which often does not help those who are more directly involved. An effective opposition could, perhaps, probe the issue to re-awaken what is an important area of dialogue but the Conservative Party is now so immersed in electoral tactics that to risk a statement requiring a position is possibly too much to expect. Dialogue will have to be sparked by other actors because, sadly, our politicians and Ministers are busy looking after personal and party images.