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December 20, 2005

David Cameron supports a neoconservative foreign policy - argues Brendan Simms

Posted by Brendan Simms

What are the foreign policy views of David Cameron? Brendan Simms - Reader in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies, Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society - argues that Cameron is much more of a neoconservative or liberal interventionist than a traditional Tory guardian of the "national interest". Dr Simms argues that the election of Cameron means that both main parties are now led by "liberal hawks, with a strong neoconservative colouring".

David Cameron was elected many have said "crowned" - as Conservative party leader by a thumping majority of the membership. This followed an equally convincing showing among the parliamentary party, which rejected the tried and failed Europeanism of Kenneth Clarke, the shining Eurosceptic right-wing path of the shadow foreign secretary Liam Fox and the long-time favourite, David Davis. What is less clear, is what they were voting for, beyond Cameron's evident charm, the powerful sense of dynamism emanating from his camp and the general hope, as Simon Jenkins put it, that "the force is with him".

It has now become commonplace to assert that Cameron is a completely unknown quantity. This is certainly not true for foreign policy, where he has views which will not necessarily win him votes. Cameron set out his stall right at the beginning of his leadership campaign in late August in a speech to the Blairite think-tank, the Foreign Policy Centre. In it Cameron spoke of the need for a foreign policy which involved the "consistent application" of the "shared values" of the nation. He defined these as "democratic" and "progressive [sic]". The challenge of extremist Islamist terror he saw as "at root ideological". It could not be "appeased" by concessions over policy in the Middle East. On the contrary, Cameron identified the origin of the challenge as lying in:

The corruption of many states in the Middle East [and] The lack of democracy.
For this reason, he concluded, Britain should help:
to promote change, reform and liberalisation [in the region].
In short, Cameron is a committed supporter of regime change in Iraq and the democratic transformation of the Middle East as a whole. All this makes him much more of a neoconservative or a liberal interventionist, than a traditional Tory guardian of the "national interest".

This is a distinction which Cameron himself acknowledged when he said that:

As a Conservative, whose natural instincts are to be wary of grand schemes and ambitious projects for the re-making of society, I had my concerns about the scale of what is being attempted.
His close allies and contemporaries, the new shadow minister for housing, Michael Gove, his shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, and Ed Vaizey all describe themselves as neoconservatives.

The new shadow cabinet is a clear sign of the way the wind is blowing on foreign and security policy. Some Conservative leaning observers had wondered whether Cameron might resile to classic foreign-policy "realists", such as the sometime foreign ministers Sir Malcolm Rifkind, and Lord Hurd. Both of them had strongly opposed the Iraq war. In fact, Cameron recalled the former conservative leader William Hague - who was and remains an unyielding supporter of the war - to the front bench as shadow foreign secretary. Rifkind thereupon resigned his shadow post as work and pensions secretary in a huff.

Cameron is no conventional "securocrat", or reactionary. Whatever his role in the last general election strategy, he now eschews "dog-whistle" rhetoric on immigration to rally the core vote. To be sure, he is critical of the kind of the state-ordained "multi-culturalism" within which radical Islamism has gestated. He speaks instead of Britain as a "multi-ethnic" nation held together by a common political culture of "freedom under the rule of law", not by some mythic racial or national bond. Unlike many Conservatives, Cameron opposes not only identity cards but large-scale increases in the length of time terrorist suspects can be detained without trial.

At the same time, Cameron has put environmental concerns near the top of his priorities. His chief advisor on these matters, Zac Goldsmith, has even floated the idea of increased airline fuel duties to reduce the amount of international travel and its consequent wear and tear.

Taken together, these policies may well appeal to many Liberal Democrats, and it is no accident that Cameron has sought to capitalise on the difficulties of their leader, Charles Kennedy, to suggest that he is the true alternative to Labour, even on some "left" issues. These liberals would, of course, have to hold their noses over Iraq and foreign policy, so the stratagem may not pay off. Perhaps more significantly, Cameron's national security policy means that the consensus on Iraq and the democratic transformation of the Middle East is now if anything stronger than it was at the beginning of the war. Both government and opposition are dominated by liberal hawks, with a strong neoconservative colouring.

In terms of the American party-political spectrum, all this places Cameron well to the "right" of most Democrats and many Republicans, who have gone cold on the Iraq war, but well to the "left" of the President himself. The closest match with Cameron is probably Senator McCain, whose staunch support for the democratic transformation of Iraq, and principled stand against torture makes him the least bland of American politicians. By contrast, the Democratic mainstream, and even its left-liberal grass roots, is now firmly "realist" in its scepticism about the democratic transformation of the Middle East. This means that if the British Labour Party goes the way of the Democrats, which is by no means certain, the best hope for progressives in foreign policy on both sides of the Atlantic will be on the (party-political) right.

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

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Mr Simms may or may not be correct in detecting a neocon strand in David Cameron's speeches (fortunately the quotes, above, are far too platitudinous to be indicative of anything). But if he's right, then that's just another sign that the Conservative Party is losing sight of its core values and is instead adopting postures and policies not because they are the right ones but because they are 'fashionable' or ape Blairism. If the party leadership had stuck to true Tory principles, recognised Bush's folly of building a democratic Tower of Babylon in the Middle East and cautiously distanced itself from the calamity that has since unfolded, it would have played a masterstroke that would have dramatically boosted its popularity amongst the electorate. The Tory party would now be seen as the prescient, principled voice of common sense and picked up many new votes, especially amongst the young. Alas, it's too late....

Roger Howard
Author of 'Iran in Crisis?' and 'Iran Oil: Petrodiplomacy and the Challenge to America' (IB Tauris, forthcoming 2006).

Posted by: Roger Howard at December 20, 2005 04:09 PM

I agree with Roger Howard. Specifically, I cannot follow this reasoning in the article:

Cameron is quoted as saying that he wanted "to promote change, reform and liberalisation [in the region]."

From this it follows that Cameron is a "committed supporter of regime change in Iraq".

While that could be true, the possibility that he might prefer other methods than force is also a realistic interpretation of the evidence presented in this article. Perhaps the author did not give all his evidence for this key conclusion.

Posted by: 16words at January 3, 2006 07:59 PM
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