European Affairs

Cameron’s choice of keeping the word “special” to qualify the UK-U.S. relationship was carefully made, and all the more striking for its indifference to clever punditry which dismisses the notion as a tenacious self-delusion of the British. But Cameron put his own spin on the phrase by calling for a “rebalanced special relationship.” That grabbed headlines and inspired commentators to proclaim that yet another Conservative orthodoxy had been stood on its head. Cameron’s speech in September to the British-American Project in London certainly provided some basis for this, with its insistence that “we should be solid and not slavish in our friendship with America;” its caution that “bombs and missiles are bad ambassadors;” its chiding of the U.S. over Guantanamo Bay; and its call for “a new multilateralism.” Important as these statements are in defining Cameron’s approach, his words need to be read, not as an echo of zealous anti-Americanism, but as a careful restating of British positions within a tradition of Anglo-American alliance.

There was obvious political advantage, in British electoral terms, in putting some distance between the Conservative Party and a Bush administration mired in difficulties. Cameron’s points were aimed at refuting the Manichaean geopolitics and strategic stark choices that have been posited by the neo-conservatives as the basis for foreign policy. Cameron’s own concept has a clear lineage within the three currents of Conservative thinking about foreign policy: the Atlanticist strand, the primacy of British vital interests, and a “conservative” reflex of caution about intervening around the globe.

The first of these, the Atlanticist strand, has enjoyed doctrinal primacy since World War II amongst the UK’s political leaders and policy-making elites. This primacy survived both the Suez debacle and Harold Wilson’s refusal to send troops to Vietnam, reached its apogee in the Reagan-gatcher years and has been pursued just as determinedly by Tony Blair.

The second strand is somewhat analogous to U.S. isolationism and is sometimes dubbed ‘Powellite’ (after the late Enoch Powell, a controversial and idiosyncratic High Tory who championed the full political integration of Northern Ireland into Great Britain). This doctrine eschews foreign interventions except where territorial sovereignty or the safety of British nationals is in peril. ge constituency for this view has been a small (though not negligible) one, mostly on the right of the Conservative Party.

The third strand invokes a conservative tradition of caution in the face of life’s complexities and the imperfectability of mankind; corresponding skepticism about grandiose projects for transforming the world; and fear of the law of unintended consequences. This last school of thought – coupled with reservations about the U.S.’s judgment, if not its beneficence – is well represented in an advisory council that Cameron has assembled which includes former Foreign Secretaries, senior officials from the Foreign Office and Defense Ministry and historians. Not all members of the council would describe themselves as Conservatives in the card-carrying sense. On security issues, they would range themselves at different points on the broad spectrum of Atlanticism that runs from enthusiasm for U.S.-led “coalitions of the willing” to pursuit of greater autonomy for Europeans within the Atlantic alliance. So the creation of the panel does not signal a particular direction in security policy. What it does signal on Cameron’s part is his willingness to draw on heavyweight counsel and experience – perhaps as a corrective to any perception that his own policy interests tend more towards domestic rather than geopolitical affairs.

Whether these adjustments to the idiom and process in Conservative Party foreign policy-making presage a recasting of Transatlantic relations under a Conservative government is unlikely, however. There are a number of reasons for this – some “political” in the narrow sense, others to do with a convergence of analysis in the face of threats confronted not only by the United States and the United Kingdom but by the West as a whole.

First, the domestic dividends from opposing the Iraq policy of the Bush administration are limited for Cameron. Of course, he was a supporter of the war and has not recanted – unlike his predecessor as party leader, Michael Howard, whose post-facto intellectual contortions over Iraq were not well received in the White House. But the present unpopularity of the war is visited not on Cameron but almost entirely upon Tony Blair, Bush’s co-initiator of the conflict. Blair will depart from the British political scene next year, and for that portion of the population for whom opposition to the Iraq war has almost totemic status – the liberal/left middle class – the obvious political home is not the Conservatives but the left-of-center Liberal Democrats: they have consistently opposed the war and are the only party committed to an early timetable for withdrawal.

The second political reason for continuity in Conservative support for the U.S. is the British party’s “sister-party” relationship with the Republican Party – in particular, with presidential hopeful John McCain. For Cameron’s centrist-oriented Tories, McCain is a conservative of a more congenial stripe than the current U.S. administration. McCain’s support for Cameron was expressed in person at the Conservatives’ party conference this fall (and warmly reciprocated by Cameron ), and that personal chemistry makes it even less likely that Cameron would move to a position of more outright opposition instead of his current critical but supportive stance in Iraq.

But there are deeper factors driving UK-U.S. convergence on security issues. They go beyond a common analysis of the challenges posed by international terrorism, failing states and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction – and the consequent need to devise tough and effective responses. For Cameron as for the U.S. administration, such responses extend to the use of pre-emptive force and also humanitarian intervention, sometimes in cases that challenge classic doctrines of national sovereignty.

It is a paradox (but not, perhaps, a surprising one) that since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, such concepts are no longer problematic for many of the world’s main actors, as not only the last two versions of the U.S. National Security Strategy, but also the European Union’s Security Strategy and the United Nation’s new “responsibility to protect” all testify. It is true that centre-right leaders like Cameron and McCain are moving to distance themselves from the more hubristic elements of neo-conservatism (without, it should be said, repudiating its central tenet of extending freedom, at least in principle). But even so, they have already crossed an intellectual Rubicon in the sense that, in future they could be ready again – political will and physical means permitting – to pursue new “ad hoc” coalitions of the willing. Assuming the case is well made about the threat and the scope and purpose of the mission are clearly defined, a future British prime minister, Conservative or Labour, would not necessarily have to expect to run into insuperable opposition from public opinion. For all the public disquiet about the deteriorating situation in Iraq, the British are still, by history and by instinct, inclined to the deployment of force where this can make a useful difference. Crucially, they have recent experience of campaigns and interventions (Falklands, Sierra Leone, Kosovo) that were persuasively presented as either national or moral imperatives and then prosecuted successfully. So whilst “effective multilateralism” will be Cameron’s preference, this does not mean that he would, as prime minister, put all his eggs in the UN basket; and whilst Cameron is undoubtedly sincere (and “European”) in preaching the virtues of “sof” power, greater cultural sensitivity and the need to win hearts and minds, he is not about to turn Britain’s traditional military activism on its head – any more than the next U.S. President is likely to repudiate an activist tradition of foreign policy which can be traced as readily to Wilsonian liberal universalism as to the interventionism of Reagan and the more contemporary neo-conservatives.

At a profound level, Cameron’s world-view remains resolutely Atlanticist and “pro-Western” – in contrast to a trend in which many Europeans have persuaded themselves that the U.S. has become part of the world’s problem rather than its solution. He has not minced words about the dangerous and misguided nature of this trend, which extends beyond such established America- baiters as playwright Harold Pinter and journalists John Pilger and Robert Fisk and now reaches into much well educated white-collar opinion. In his lecture to the British-American project, Cameron matched Blair in condemning such anti-Americanism as “intellectual and moral surrender.” One of the Cameron’s closest aides says: “pro-Americanism is written into his DNA.” Domestically, this stance is neither brave nor reckless: Cameron knows that the idea of the West, even in the post-communist era, still has sufficient purchase in the UK (and many continental European countries for that matter) to make notions such as Jacques Chirac’s call for a “multi-polar” world look both unattractive and unrealistic. Nor will Cameron, a pragmatic Euro-skeptic, give currency to the development of any European security and defense policy (ESDP, in the jargon) which could challenge the primacy of the Atlantic alliance and NATO.

But some caveats have to be entered. For one thing, the commonalities between Britain and the U.S. play both ways in the sense that both countries now face the reality of pressures to scale back military ambitions in light of budgetary pressures, physical over-stretch and growing public skepticism about foreign entanglements.

Moreover, in his re-orientation of the Conservative party towards the political centre, Cameron has taken up some positions which could yet be problematic for the United States if he is returned to power in 2008 or 2009. In his bid to seize for the Conservatives the moral high ground on climate change and curbing emissions (as audaciously as Arnold Schwarzenegger has done in California), Cameron has shown himself quite prepared to rube business opinion, traditionally the Conservatives’ most solid constituency. (Indeed, he has not been beyond resorting to anti-big business rhetoric to dispel the public perception that the party is a captive of corporate interests.) It seems likely that the next U.S. administration, Republican or Democrat, will lay itself as open to tirades against the military-industrial complex as the present one has done. But Cameron has already sounded a warning that the interests of the planet and future generations must take priority over economic short-termism. Similarly, the signs are that his position on other “soft” global issues such as the plight of the poorest countries will propel him towards a free-trade position which will not spare protectionism whether coming from the U.S. or the EU.

The most immediate challenge facing the Conservatives’ new leader will appear in the coming months as strategy towards Iraq and Afghanistan is reviewed on both sides of the Atlantic. The domestic terms of debate for Blair, for his immediate Labour successor (almost certainly Chancellor Gordon Brown), and for David Cameron have changed fundamentally as a result of Iraq. Henceforth, any British leader or aspirant leader will expect to be fully consulted by its principal ally and substantively involved in the shaping of military strategy. It will be Britain’s price for support whose political value is at least as great as its military one, and which British politicians will in future under-value at their peril.

Secondly, British politicians will henceforth listen more closely to the advice of the military. It is one thing for a Labour leader to be second-guessed by the professional military as happened to the Blair government this fall with the views proffered publicly and critically by the outspoken new Chief of the General Staff, Sir Richard Dannatt. Such a conflict could look too high a price to pay for a Conservative party leader. Cameron is politically astute enough to recognize the impact on the public mood of the recurrent campaign by the British tabloid press against alleged government indifference to the well-being and safety of “our boys.” The context of an apparently un-winnable war in Iraq is not the whole story, but it colors the future. Going forward, the sine qua non of British participation in foreign missions will be clarity about strategy as well as tactics (or, more accurately, public perception of clarity among decision-makers about the operation in question).

That is for the future. Currently, issues center on Iraq and Afghanistan and the policy to be worked out there in the short term between Washington and London (with the UK this time a more assertive interlocutor). In these situations, where British military personnel are already committed, Cameron is unlikely to be prepared to overturn the convention of political bipartisanship between the government and “the loyal opposition.” (The Conservatives’ support for an independent inquiry into the “lessons” of the Iraq war is careful political maneuvering that does not cut across this convention of bipartisanship since any inquiry would only begin after the start of a process of troop withdrawal: in any case, the government has been able to use its Commons majority to shelve the idea for now.) It is even more unlikely that Cameron would break ranks with the British position and call unilaterally for early withdrawal from Iraq: most British Conservative politicians would view that step as a blow to Western credibility, liable to inject momentum into radical Islam.

The bigger challenge in the next few years for the Conservative leader will be the test faced not only by Brown or Cameron and their U.S. counterpart but by the entire international community: restraining the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea within a UN framework – or outside it if the Security Council is rendered intellectual by Russia and China. The task of framing an effective Western response that goes beyond the usual “coalition of the willing” – i.e. one including, this time, France and Germany – will fall as much to London as to a newly multilateralist or realist Washington that emerges in the wake of the Iraq policy study led by former Secretary of State James Baker’s group. It will be a test not only of Cameron’s or Brown’s loyalties to the United States but also of their influence within the European Union. Either man will need to raise his game in Europe if he is to succeed. But the outcome could be the definitive verdict on Britain’s long-held self-defined mission to be a ‘”bridge” between the U.S. and the EU. With Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin and the strong possibility of “President Sarkozy” in Paris after May 2007, that kind of ambition looks less fanciful. For a British prime minister – New Conservative or New Labour – there can be no greater prize in troubled times than helping to ensure that the West holds together.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 7, Issue number 3-4 in the Fall/Winter of 2006.