Mr Hague goes to Washington

 … and like “Mr Smith” in the Capra film classic, he takes on the vested interests of the Washington political machinery and undergoes a personal transformation in the process. He comes back home a wiser, sadder man, but one who has demonstrated the power of individual conscience and the durability of American democracy.

OK, just joking with you there. William Hague is of course very nearly the spit of Capra’s everyman hero James Stewart but otherwise the reality is all a bit different from Hollywood.

Hague’s first trip to the US as foreign secretary is, according to the Times, very much about relationship-setting. Tone. Personal chemistry, all of that. I’m not a professional politician but I’m always a bit doubtful about this. The media clearly like a “personal relationship” story (Bush & Blair, Condi & Jack, David & Hillary). So much more visible and straightforward than policy detail. (Taken to an extreme this descends into “reading” body language – like the pretty ludicrous stuff in the Guardian today, where an expert decodes the position of the hands, arms and upper bodies of the new Conservative/Lib-Dem cabinet in the first press photograph. Hey, he’s got his arms folded – he clearly doesn’t like Cameron and will never agree to an increase in VAT….)

No, I’m with a US policy expert I heard on the Today programme earlier this week who said that with the US (as with every other country?) it’s actually always about what’s in the national interest (surprise, surprise), and as it happens Obama isn’t even fussed about personal chemistry stuff at the best of times.

The fact is, then, Hague is in Washington to talk seriously about UK interests as refracted through US interests. That’s fine, that’s diplomacy. But of course the national interest is a flexible concept and I’d argue that human rights are an important part of the mix. Whatever else will come to be said about the Bush and Blair years, “the two countries provided inspired leadership on key human rights issues to the entire world” will not, I’d wager, be a common judgment.

Hague is obviously going to be taking the temperature of current US thinking on important foreign policy issues like relationships with Iran, China, Russia and India. Fine. I’d simply say that Mr Hague needs to keep in mind that championing a human rights-centred approach to at least chunks of these relationships must surely be a useful compass-setter. Seeing that Iran, for example, is more than a “nuclear issue” but also country where smouldering human rights injustices could burst into flames with little warning, is surely sensible.

Meanwhile, I’d like William Hague to save his most Jimmy Stewart-like moments with Hillary Clinton and her team for discussions on Afghanistan. In particular he should emphasise the need to safeguard Afghan women’s rights in any future peace deals with the Taleban. It would, as Amnesty’s Kate Allen has been making clear this week, be an absolute travesty if women’s rights in Afghanistan were traded away to the very groups that subjugated a whole generation of Afghan women in the 1990s.  And, before the obligatory handshake and the arms-around-each-others’-shoulders pose for the cameras, I’d also say Mr Hague should use his DC trip raise the issue of Shaker Aamer, the UK resident imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay. If he succeeds in getting Shaker out of GITMO I think someone should make a film about it.

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