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Cameron Goes Global: Britain and the United States

On the anniversary of September 11th David Cameron gave the JP Morgan Lecture at the British American Project in London. What issues were keys to his thinking? What does he mean by a ‘liberal conservative’ policy? How does he interpret Britain’s junior partnership with the United States in matters of foreign policy?

Being Leader of the Opposition in British political life has never been easy. Whilst Cameron was busy delivering his speech, Tony Blair had already informed the British Trade Union movement that being in Government, however difficult, was so much better than wasting your time in Opposition. The Leader of the Opposition is always in the business of spectatorship, however informed, however active, however much in the political ascendancy, the post lacks power and the support and information and direct engagement with policy formation and direction that is the hallmark of power. The agenda for British foreign policy has already been set by Blair, even if it seems to be in disarray in so far as the British public is concerned. Cameron is in a difficult bind. Not only has he no direct engagement with policy, key elements of that policy, as set by the United States, have been developed by ‘neocon’ thinkers. Cameron finds himself having to distance himself from Blair and from ‘neocon’ ideas. For a conservative this is a hard project. Cameron, in a thoughtful speech, has tried to demonstrate new credentials whilst accepting that events unfold too quickly to develop specific policy. In doing so, he draws upon a Conservative tradition.

Cameron argues that ‘terrorism cannot be appeased – it has to be defeated’. However this needs something more than force. It requires also ‘separating terrorists from their recruiting base’ and ‘winning the trust of Muslim … communities’. Cameron knows that action in the Middle-East has fanned ‘the flames of anti-Americanism’ in Britain and around the world. In describing the present relationship with the United States he calls upon the images of Churchill, and Roosevelt; Thatcher and Reagan; Major and George Bush. He sees these relationships as balanced though Britain played the junior part. In his eyes Blair has supported uncritically. Uncritical support is in the context of complex problems, unhelpful and shortsighted. For the development of beneficial outcomes the junior partner needs to have a clearer and independently worked stance.

The two ‘crucial qualities’ that he finds lacking in the evolution of policy since 9/11 are ‘humility and patience’. His ‘liberal conservative approach’ would be based on understanding: the threat; that democracy cannot be quickly imposed from outside; that the strategy needs to go beyond military intervention; that there is still a significant role for a new multilateralism to tackle all aspects of global challenges; that moral authority is of huge importance. Cameron argues that ‘there are more tools to statecraft than military power’ and cites numerous areas in which British development policy can be brought into play. He does not detail where the ‘humility and patience’ comes in but it is implicit in what he has to say about the growth of democracy in societies where customs and manners dictates against democratic processes. Understanding such societies calls for both virtues. Multilateralism, based on institutions and on alliances, also calls for the two virtues to be exercised and agreement to be built. Even a superpower will feel constraints on what is possible without strategic and moral support.

Cameron’s wife was in Manhattan the day of 9/11. He followed events with horror and with his own personal concerns. He is in no doubt of the need to tackle international terror. His ideas are thoughtful and even interesting and they are far from radical. His suggestion, derived from liberal credentials that go back to Gladstone, that ‘we must be wise as well as good’ is no doubt sincere but it is hard to see in the hurly-burley of international developments, particularly of terrorist attacks, how these two virtues, however desirable, can in fact be maintained. The approach is mature but he needs to be tested in office or pushed a bit harder before gaining office, before the British public can be certain that there is a new direction for British foreign policy and a better (more evaluative and hence ultimately more helpful to all concerned) basis for the relationship with the United States.