The new US Secretary of State, John Kerry, honoured the UK with a visit at the start of his first diplomatic tour in the post and dished out a lesson in how it feels to be a small nation patronised by a superpower. There was ample briefing in advance that the focus of his discussions with the UK government would be Syria and the stalled Middle East peace process.
But he still took the time to comment on the increasing tensions between Britain and Argentina over the Falkland Islands. He refused to be drawn on the issue of next month’s referendum of islanders about their preferred nationality and explained that although Britain was the de facto ruler of the territory, the question of sovereignty remained unresolved as far as the US was concerned. “We continue to urge a peaceful resolution of this critical issue”, he said. The British people can consider themselves told.
As Mr Kerry mouthed this hackneyed diplomatic formula, I hope our own Foreign Secretary pondered how many times he has allowed similar words to trip unthinkingly from his lips, how many times the Israeli and Palestinian people have had to listen to such platitudes? Now we know what it feels like.
We are told that 2013 is the crunch year for the Middle East (or at least the most important year since 2012). The change of government in Israel at least opens up the possibility of a new approach and it is clearly the intention of the new Secretary of State to refocus America’s foreign policy on old priorities.
For the UK this also provides an opportunity to develop a new approach. Mr Hague has expressed his deep frustration at dealing with Benjamin Netanyahu over the past few years and the bruises will take time to heal. But in its approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict Britain was hamstrung by the disengagement of the first Obama administration. The appointment of John Kerry suggests this may be about to change. But this is not enough in itself.
The UK knows there needs to be a shift away from rhetoric towards action. William Hague has said he now believes the two-state solution is in the balance. But it is not just the Israel-Palestine conflict that feels it has come to some sort of crisis point. This year the international community will have to decide on an approach to the Islamist winter that has followed the Arab Spring. The forthcoming talks on Iran involving the permanent members of the UN Security Council, and Germany, will give an opportunity to judge the success of the present diplomatic approach to reining in Iran’s nuclear ambitions On this issue, 2013 really could be the crunch year.
As Mr Kerry’s words urging a peaceful resolution ring in our ears, we can only hope he finds a more sophisticated approach to the far knottiest problems he will encounter.