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Monday, 17 May 2010

Cameron's Foreign Policy: Neoconservatism in Disguise?

Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative-Liberal coalition government’s foreign and national security policy team may be inexperienced, but their ideological record is not unclear: the team is made up of a mixture that may prove quite lethal in terms of overseas interventions behind a ‘renewed’ and ‘re-balanced’ ‘special relationship’ with the United States.

David Cameron has denied being a ‘neo-conservative’ in foreign policy terms; he claims to be a ‘liberal-conservative’. Interestingly, this was well before he’d ever dreamed of a coalition with one he once described as the best joke he’d ever heard (Nick Clegg). On those grounds, Cameron had supported the Iraq War and, in 2010, restated his commitment to that course of action. He had also, showing poor judgement, wrongly criticised Russian “aggression” against Georgia in 2008, calling for robust US/NATO responses. Nick Clegg (and his party), on the other hand, opposed the Iraq War (while in opposition and with no inkling that it would ever get into 10 Downing Street), is a convinced ‘liberal interventionist’ who believes that Britain should stay the course in Afghanistan and be ready to intervene again in future similar situations. Both had previously condemned Tony Blair’s and Gordon Brown’s “slavish” devotion to the United States, with Clegg accused by Brown (somewhat gratuitously during the second election debate) of ‘anti-Americanism’.

Since then, of course, Clegg has dropped the scrapping of the Trident nuclear missile system from the core policies of his party, the price of coalition government; Cameron has received ‘warm’ endorsement and a personal invitation to visit Washington, DC, from President Obama, and (last week) dispatched William Hague to pay homage to his American counter-part, Hillary Clinton.

Cameron outlined his interventionist plans at a speech at the influential think tank, Chatham House, back in January 2010. There is nothing original in his national security ‘strategy’s’ goals: he wants Britain to intervene before potential threats become actual threats: “we need to do much better at stopping wars from ever starting and that means really focussing on the causes of conflicts and then joining all that together to make sure that DfiD and the Foreign Office deliver a really tight, tied-up, progressive approach.” I think he may want “joined-up” government that is tough on conflict and the causes of conflict – sounds familiar. Cameron promises to restore “trust” in national security strategy and provide a “guarantee against dodgy dossiers” on the road to opening a wider front against terrorists, pandemics, energy crises, water stoppages, and cyber-attacks.

In 2006, Cameron told an audience at the British-American Project that 9-11 style attacks represented a kind of “terrorism [that] cannot be appeased – it has to be defeated”, and called for increasing the size of the security services. He wanted to take elements that were best in the British neo-conservative approach (i.e., what Cameron attributes to Tony Blair’s approach) – appreciation of the scale of the terrorist threat, the centrality of “the leadership of the United States, supported by Britain… to the struggle”, the correctness of “extending freedom…[as] an essential objective of Western foreign policy”, and commitment to the use of military force, including “pre-emptive force” and for “humanitarian purposes”.

As a liberal, Cameron supports “spreading freedom and democracy,” but as a conservative he remains sceptical of “grand schemes to remake the world”. Cameron’s is a call for ‘realism’ in light of what’s happened since 2003 in Iraq and Afghanistan: greater multilateralism, exploring military and non-military options, including winning “hearts and minds”, development aid, public diplomacy and strategic communications.

At the same time as calling for multilateralism, Cameron argued that the United Nations may not always be the best vehicle for decisive international intervention; “So we may need to fashion alliances which can act faster than the machinery of formal international institutions.” This sounds suspiciously like ‘coalitions of the willing’ assembled ahead of the Iraq war.

In the struggle to defend “civilisation”, Cameron told the British-American Project that Britain would be “moral”, that its foreign policy (quoting Victorian era prime minister, WE Gladstone), “should always be inspired by a love of freedom”, and that its methods match the morality of its goals.

This may not be full-blooded neo-conservatism, hubristic before the chastening experience of Iraq. It may not be full-blooded conservatism, eschewing grand schemes and ideas on a global scale. Cameron’s views, which are now central to his coalition government, merely serve to remind us that the post-9-11 Anglo-American story was not a neo-con hijacking: it was the fusion of several tendencies that had previously been in tactical disagreement – liberal interventionism combining Gladstonian and Wilsonian morality, with a wounded (American) conservative nationalism, in a language and terminology so skilfully developed by groups of neo-cons previously known as ‘the Crazies’.

That post-9-11 fusion was institutionalised in the US by the passing of power from Republican George W. Bush to the Democratic Obama; and now in Britain by its passing from Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s New Labour to the Conservative-Liberal Cameron.

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