Barely a fortnight after Russian troops crossed into Georgian territory last month, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband was in Ukraine to show solidarity with one more worried neighbor. He was unsparing in his comments: the sight of Russian tanks in action stirred memories of the crushing of the Prague Spring 40 years earlier, he said in Kiev. Russia needed to "change course" if it wanted "respect and influence." It was time for the West to examine the "nature, depth and breadth" of relations with Moscow. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had a "big responsibility" to avoid starting "a new cold war."
To the Kremlin, such tough talk—the toughest, perhaps of any European leader—was an example of British hypocrisy. But if the Russians were listening, so too were important audiences back home and in Western capitals. After all, Miliband is more than another European foreign minister. At 43, he has been tipped as the likely successor to the beleaguered Gordon Brown as leader of the Labour Party, and possibly prime minister. And as Brown's fortunes fall, media rune-readers scan Miliband's every statement for evidence of his political thinking and capacities.
Miliband publicly denies interest in the top job, insisting his boss is best equipped to lead the party into the next election, despite poll ratings in the mid-20s. Yet his views deserve a special scrutiny nonetheless. Powerful prime ministers with strong convictions—like Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair—have generally overshadowed their foreign secretaries. But Brown has taken a lesser role on the world stage than his predecessor, leaving Miliband more freedom to press his own agenda. It did not go unnoticed in London, for instance, that it was Miliband, not Brown, who publicly took the lead in speaking for Britain in the Georgia crisis.
So what does the Miliband foreign policy look like? To some extent, his record suggests little break from the Blair orthodoxy. He backs a two-state solution to the Palestinian problem, international moves to combat climate change and the long-term goal of admitting Turkey into the European Union. He also supported all four of Britain's military ventures under Blair—the highly unpopular war in Iraq, as well as in Afghanistan, Kosovo and Sierra Leone. His Kiev speech may have only confirmed the perception among many Russians that Britain is a mouthpiece for a hostile U.S. administration.
But he also seems to have a greater understanding of the limitations of force. "While we have won the wars, it's been harder to win the peace," he said in a speech at the Labour Party conference last year. "The lesson is that while there are military victories there never is a military solution." And while he is staunchly committed to the United States he has also recalibrated the tone with Washington from both Blair and his boss. The Blairite informality disappeared under the more austere Brown, but the brief chill that followed his arrival in Downing Street seems over, too. Miliband's support for Washington is far from automatic—he reportedly questioned the wisdom of Britain's support for Israel's foray into Lebanon back in 2006, which Washington supported—but in his first major speech after taking office last year, he plainly confirmed that the United States remains "Britain's most important bilateral relationship."
He is also more of a Europhile than Brown. In fact, he is such an enthusiast in the European project—perhaps because his father was born in Belgium, and his mother in Poland—that Brown reportedly intervened last year to tone down some pro-European sentiments in one of his speeches. In that vein, he's also a keen supporter of the United Nations and multilateral action, citing in particular the example of Afghanistan, where British troops now serve as part of a NATO operation involving more than 30 countries, backed by a U.N. resolution.
He is also "very popular" with other EU foreign ministers, says Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform, a London think tank. "He isn't rude, he isn't arrogant, and he doesn't grandstand." Indeed it is the prevailing view among the foreign-policy elite that Miliband's Kiev speech was less grandstanding than a recognition that how the EU responds to Russia now will define relations for a generation to come. It is "the moment," as he put it, "when countries are required to set out where they stand on important issues of nationhood and international law." Spoken like a prime minister in waiting.