Foreign Policy

Ruled Britannia

Blair or Cameron, a foreign policy still made in Washington


A Westminster version of Christ's passion has been unfolding in the United Kingdom, as Tony Blair lurches from humiliation to final crucifixion. Last week, the British prime minister was forced to set a departure date from office after junior members of his government resigned in protest against his refusal to announce such a deadline. If there was one person whom most people, fairly or unfairly, held responsible for this mortification, it was George W. Bush.

That Blair has often sided with Bush in foreign adventures, against his better interests, is undeniable. Only last month, Britain's ambassador to Washington sent a letter to the prime minister criticizing him for adopting the American view in the Lebanese conflict. The missive worked. After earlier agreeing with the U.S. administration to delay a ceasefire, in order to give Israel more time to weaken Hezbollah, Blair backtracked and called for an immediate end to the fighting. Given the mounting civilian casualties, he had taken a pointless risk, and last weekend Blair started a Middle East tour to salvage his credibility. Pro-Hezbollah protestors in Beirut were unimpressed, holding up signs that said things like, "Blair you killer, go to hell."

Blair is heading for what he, at least, must regard as the hell of premature retirement. But there is a broader message in his fate, and it was, rather ironically, highlighted by the prime minister's parliamentary opposite, Conservative leader David Cameron, in a speech to the British American Project on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks this week: It's that no matter how divisive Bush's foreign policy has been, no matter how unpopular with British voters, it is very difficult for both Labor and the Conservatives to deny its basic tenets. One can blame Blair for many things, but he was correct in presuming, particularly after 9/11, that the template of traditional foreign policy realism no longer easily applies.

Cameron's speech was his first major statement on foreign affairs as Conservative leader. His aim was to put space between himself and the Bush administration, while reaffirming the main tropes of the "special relationship" between the U.K. and the United States. What came out was an odd hybrid. Cameron described himself as "a liberal conservative, rather than a neo-conservative" (aping Bush's early promise to be a "compassionate conservative"); but in so doing, to quote from a tart leader in The Times, he "resort[ed] to a dash of chattering-class populism… [t]his 'libcom' positioning … calculated to appeal to those who believe that Washington's 'neocons' are responsible for every ill of the past five years."

Cameron's task is not easy. As a "pro-American" party, the Conservatives need to prove to a dubious electorate that a close relationship with Washington today benefits the U.K., but also that this can mean "we should be solid but not slavish in our friendship…" In a dig at Blair, Cameron noted, "Your newest friend will tell you what you want to hear, eager to please so as not to put the friendship at risk." One Tory provided this interpretation of what it all meant: "We had some classic rows [with the Reagan administration]. But that was within the confines of the special relationship. As I understand it, that's what Cameron is looking for."

Much of Cameron's speech involved bobbing and weaving between the foreign policy imperatives that Bush has embraced. It was a deft performance, but Cameron only ended up showing how much closer the Conservatives were, at least rhetorically, to the U.S. administration than they were to proponents of a foreign policy based on cold calculations of interests and the balance of power.

Cameron started by listing where he agreed with the neocons. "I believe that the neo-conservatives are right to argue that extending freedom is an essential objective of Western foreign policy. And I agree that Western powers should be prepared, in the last resort, to use military force … More than that, we and others are justified in using pre-emptive force when an attack on us is being prepared, and when all means of peaceful dissuasion and deterrence have failed. Furthermore, I believe that we should be prepared to intervene for humanitarian purposes to rescue people from genocide."

In disagreeing, Cameron set out his "liberal conservative" agenda. Since 9/11, the world, by which he plainly meant the U.S. and Blair's Britain, had suffered from an absence of "humility, and patience." To right this, Conservatives had to stick to five propositions: First, they had to fully understand the terrorist threat: "By positing a single source of terrorism—a global jihad—and opposing it with a single global response—American-backed force—we will simply fulfill our own prophecy. We are not engaged in a clash of civilizations." Second, democracy could not be imposed quickly from outside. Third, British foreign policy had to go "far beyond military action." Fourth, Britain needed to embrace a new multilateralism to tackle new global challenges. And fifth, it had to strive to act with moral authority, by which Cameron meant (demonstrating some literary proficiency), "we must not stoop to conquer. We must not stoop to illiberalism—whether at Guantanamo Bay, or here at home with excessive periods of detention without trial."

The problem is that most of these criticisms have, gracefully or not, been accepted by the Bush administration. The U.S. has behaved in a multilateral way on Iran's nuclear program; Iraq has proven that democracy cannot be imposed quickly, if at all; Bush may have been dragged kicking and screaming away from his initial special tribunals plan for terrorists, but the wind in Washington has probably shifted decisively behind those demanding an end to abuse and torture; and a trigger-happy American resort to military action is a thing of the past, given the monumental budgetary black hole that the Iraq war has become. In underlining the differences between his brand of conservatism and Bush's, Cameron actually showed how close he had to maneuver to the debate as framed by the U.S. And in the end the differences were not great.

But maybe the problem lies elsewhere. Maybe the unpleasant reality Blair has drawn attention to by siding with Bush so pervasively is that of British impotence. Can the U.K. still be critical and supportive of the U.S., as Cameron would like? Does the special relationship have any meaning anymore? Maybe Mark Leonard, writing in The Guardian, was right when he argued, "Cameron's speech tells us a lot about how British people want to think about themselves, and very little about how we will influence global events. It is more 'feel good' identity politics, than foreign policy strategy." Rather than stooping to conquer, Britain is craning to be relevant.