Cameron shifts ground on foreign policy?


David Cameron chose the fifth anniversary of 9/11 to make his first major foreign policy speech as leader of the Conservative Party [1]. 


In it, he didn’t disown his predecessors’ unswerving support for the foreign policy pursued by Bush and Blair since 9/11 - on the contrary, he reiterated his support for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.  Nor he did acknowledge that these interventions have made Britain a less safe place to live in.  What is more, he endorsed the principle of continuing intervention:  “I support the aim of spreading freedom and democracy, and support humanitarian intervention”, he said.


That was the first half of his speech, in which he appeared to endorse the whole neo-conservative agenda.  But, in the second half, he was highly critical of how Bush and Blair have conducted foreign policy since 9/11, without mentioning them by name.  Thus he said:

”... I believe that in the last five years we have suffered from the absence of two crucial qualities which should always condition foreign policy-making.


Humility, and patience.


“These are not warlike words.


“They are not so glamorous and exciting as the easy sound-bites we have grown used to in recent years.


“But these sound-bites had the failing of all foreign policy designed to fit into a headline.


“They were unrealistic and simplistic.


“They represented a view which sees only light and darkness in the world – and which believes that one can be turned to the other as quickly as flicking a switch.


“I do not see things that way.”


This seems to recognise that the world is a complicated place, which is a welcome advance on Blair’s view of the world as a place where “sickness and evil” must be exterminated by Anglo-American military action.


Cameron then produced a rather clever sound-bite, describing himself as a “liberal conservative” rather than a “neo-conservative”:


“Liberal - because I support the aim of spreading freedom and democracy, and support humanitarian intervention.


“Conservative - because I recognise the complexities of human nature, and am sceptical of grand schemes to remake the world.


“A liberal conservative approach to foreign policy today is based on five propositions.


First, that we should understand fully the threat we face.


“Second, that democracy cannot quickly be imposed from outside.


Third, that our strategy needs to go far beyond military action.


Fourth, that we need a new multilateralism to tackle the new global challenges we face.


“And fifth, that we must strive to act with moral authority.”


On the threat to Britain:


“Part of the problem we have encountered these past five years is that the struggle has been perceived – as the terrorists want it to be perceived – as a single struggle between single protagonists.


“The danger is that by positing a single source of terrorism - a global jihad - and opposing it with a single global response – American-backed force – we will simply fulfil our own prophecy.


“We are not engaged in a clash of civilisations, and suggestions that we are can too easily have the opposite effect to the one intended: making the extremists more attractive to the uncommitted. ...”


This doesn’t recognise that the threat to Britain is self-inflicted and that, if we stopped interfering in the Muslim world, the threat would disappear.


On imposing democracy on states:


“The second proposition of a liberal conservative foreign policy is a recognition that democracy cannot quickly be imposed from outside.


“In part, this is because democracy takes time.


“The transformation of a country from tyranny to freedom does not begin and end with regime change and the calling of elections.


“Put another way, democracy is not the foundation of freedom.


“Democracy itself has foundations, without which it cannot stand. ...


“The ambition to spread democracy is noble and just.


“But it cannot be quickly achieved to suit a political timetable.


“Because it takes time, it cannot easily be imposed from outside.


Liberty grows from the ground – it cannot be dropped from the air by an unmanned drone. ...


“So in many ways the debate about whether Britain, or America, or any other external power, should engage in nation-building misses the point.


“You can't carry out nation-building unless the people inside a country want to build a nation. ...”


On taking military action:


“As I have made clear, there may be circumstances in which military intervention is the best way to deal with security threats: we should never shy away from that reality. ...


“But it is not military might alone which will deliver security to us, or freedom for the world.


“If we accept that democracy takes time; that it is founded on the institutions of society, and that it cannot easily be imposed from without ...


“... then we must put far greater effort into helping undermine dictators and tyrannies from within, and helping moderate regimes to move forward.


“Bombs and missiles are bad ambassadors.


“They win no hearts and minds; they can build no democracies. ...


“So force should be a last resort.


“Even in a technological age every war produces innocent civilian casualties.


“Every war, however skilfully conducted – and our own armed forces have shown unmatched skill in such conflicts – produces its quota of sorrow and anger, with consequences hard to predict.


“The prospect of war may attract too readily those who look for quick dramatic answers.


“Such answers often turn out to be illusory.”


And he ended by restating his criticism of detention without trial at Guantanamo Bay and of excessive periods of detention without trial in Britain - and of the “disproportionate Israeli bombing in Lebanon”.


Whether this heralds a major shift in Conservative foreign policy remains to be seen.  As yet, there has been no sign of a modification in the party’s blind support for the present British military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, both of which are getting British military personnel killed to no purpose.


However, this speech, made on the 5th anniversary of 9/11 and highly critical of the Bush/Blair foreign policy since 9/11, must signal a different approach to foreign policy, an approach that is likely to prove more acceptable domestically (and therefore profit the Conservatives at the polls) and may well be replicated in Washington now that the neo-conservative approach has been so obviously damaging to US national interests.


Neo-conservative commentators certainly believe that Cameron has sold out on the dream.  Listen to this from Melanie Phillips [2]:


David Cameron’s speech this week confirmed the worst suspicions about the trajectory of the new touchy-feelygreenyleftytrendy Tory party. It played to the gallery of the rampant anti-Americanism now poisoning British public debate. At such a time, with the forces of appeasement and prejudice against America and Israel on the rampage in Britain and threatening to bring about our defeat in the war being waged against our civilisation, there is an urgent need for a statesman to deliver the kind of leadership which can turn the nation away from the cultural cliff-edge towards which it is hurtling.”


“Instead Cameron’s speech - delivered in the most insulting manner possible, on 9/11 - blamed anti-Americanism on America itself. True, he condemned anti-Americanism as ‘complacent cowardice’ and ‘an intellectual and moral surrender’ - but then proceeded to blame it on America’s foreign policy. Well which was it - complacent and cowardly, or a reaction to America’s gross mistakes? Because it can’t be both.


And the Wall Street Journal said of his speech (quoted in [2]):


“We won’t soon forget David Cameron’s debutante performance. The 39-year-old Tory leader claimed Britain and the U.S. had become ‘uncritical allies’ and needed ‘a rebalanced special relationship.’ In a line that must play well with London focus groups, he said: ‘We should be solid but not slavish in our friendship with America.’ Though his party backed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Mr. Cameron vouchsafed that they now show that democracy ‘cannot quickly [be] imposed from the outside.’ Thanks for the Monday-morning generalship.


“On the day marking the worst terrorist atrocity in history, he even chided the U.S. for ‘stoop[ing] to illiberalism’ by running a prison in Guantanamo, where the men who planned 9/11 were just transferred and where no human rights abuses have been found. This Tory wants a ‘a new emphasis on multilateralism’ where the U.N. ‘confers the ultimate legitimacy.’ If these are the new Tories, we’ll take the French.”


(Interesting that detaining people indefinitely without trial is not regarded by the Wall Street Journal as an abuse of detainees’ human rights).


David Morrison

18 November 2006

Labour & Trade Union Review



[1]  See