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June 02, 2010

The Coalition: Brendan Simms fear that - in terms of foreign policy - we may end up with Nick Clegg's brains and David Cameron's looks

Posted by Brendan Simms

Brendan Simms - Professor in the History of International Relations, University of Cambridge - shares his hopes and fears about the Coalition's foreign policy. Prof. Simms is concerned that the government may end up adopting what he believes to be the worst aspects of each Party’s approaches.

In an exchange usually attributed to George Bernard Shaw and Sarah Bernhardt (or Isadora Duncan, take you pick), but which is probably apocryphal, the playwright was invited to contemplate marriage with a beautiful actress. She says,

Just imagine, with my looks and your brains, we will have the most wonderful children!.
I have often thought of this story over the past weeks in the context of the unexpected shotgun marriage between David Cameron's Conservative Party and Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats. Will it be the bed of roses the coalition managers promise, uniting, so to speak, Mr Clegg's thespian good looks and Mr Cameron's brains?


From the perspective of Britain's place in the world one certainly hopes so. Both parties bring a lot to the table. Conservatives have remained steadfast in their support for the global defence of human rights and democracy promotion at a time when these have rather gone out of fashion on the other side of the Atlantic. The relevant part of the coalition agreement speaks of

standing firm on human rights in all our bilateral relationships, ... [and] strengthen[ing] the Commonwealth as a focus for promoting values and development
a clear dig at Mr Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

The Conservatives have also nailed their colours to the mast on Trident: Mr Cameron has even suggested with welcome frankness that it might be needed to deter China. The new Foreign Secretary, Mr Hague, has been a steadfast critic of the Mullahs in Teheran and their nuclear ambitions - much more so indeed than a Washington still bent on securing an illusory "grand bargain". The coalition agreement refers encouragingly to

support[ing] international efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
The Conservatives also support the robust prosecution of the campaign to stabilise Afghanistan. Finally, their insistence that Britain's entry into the fraught Eurozone, as it is currently constituted, should be ruled out for the lifetime the present parliament is surely wise, even if they are wrong in believing that it should be rejected in perpetuity.

Likewise, it is not hard to see what the Liberal Democrats might contribute to the national interest. Their instinctive pro-Europeanism reflects not only a determination to cooperate with our continental partners – something to which most Conservatives do not object - but a realisation that the Union could serve as an important force-multiplier of Britain in the wider world, something which Mr Cameron and the bulk of his party have yet to learn.

At the very least, one can hope that the presence of the Liberal Democrats will exercise a civilising influence on the subject of Europe. The coalition document speaks of "a leading role" for Britain "in an enlarged European Union".

More broadly, both parties have a genuine commitment to civil liberties - most obviously expressed in the joint agreement to ditch identity cards. The coalition agreement also affirms that it "will never condone the use of torture". These measures will lend credence to their advocacy of human rights abroad.

All this sounds promising, and perhaps it is, but there are grounds for concern. There could be trouble ahead on foreign policy. One can think of at least two issues with the potential to blow the coalition apart. If the United States were finally to confront the Iranian nuclear programme, with or without substantial international backing, the Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary and Defence Secretary would almost certainly back them. The Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, have a clear manifesto commitment ruling out war with Iran more or less under any circumstances, which may precipitate a crisis.

On the other hand, if the current Eurozone crisis leads to the creation of an effective European "economic government" which might form the basis for a revitalised Union, then the Liberal Democrats will press - in my view rightly - that London be fully involved in shaping the new project. Conservative obstruction should not prevent Britain from taking its rightful place at the head of a Europe which seeks to solve, or at least address, the pressing questions of democratic accountability and the provision of the security which the members states on their own cannot provide. There is no chance, however, of Britain being "present at the creation" of a new Europe under a Cameron premiership.

There is a broader concern. Anybody who knows the famous invitation from the actress with which the column began will also know the playwright's equally well-known reply. He responded,

Yes, but what if they have my looks and your brains?
What indeed? What if the Liberal Democrats block action against the Iranian bomb - the coalition agreement here will not survive contact with reality? What if the Conservatives lock us out of a truly effective Europe, while the Liberal Democrats deny the need for a robust European defence and security policy - a subject on which their manifesto was more than vague - and wrap us in meaningless Eurobabble instead? What if the Liberal Democrats take the statement against torture as licence to focus on allied motes, while ignoring the beams in Teheran's eye. What if Tory fiscal rectitude and residual Liberal Democrat pacifism eviscerate the military spending that keeps us safe (and the announcement that the Ministry of Defence is to lose a full quarter of its funding is hardly encouraging)? What if, in other words, we end up with Nick Clegg's brains and David Cameron's looks?

Dr Brendan Simms is Professor in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.


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Given the predelictions of Islamists to behead hostages on camera, I don't see what all the hoohah about torture is. In the quest to defeat savagery, perhaps we need to exercise some of it ourselves.

Posted by: Frugal Dougal at June 3, 2010 10:18 PM
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