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January 25, 2006

David Cameron's foreign policy: three steps forward, two steps backward - Brendan Simms asks, Is David Cameron returning to the discredited positions of the Major years?

Posted by Brendan Simms

Dr Brendan Simms - Reader in the History of International Relations at the University of Cambridge's Centre of International Studies, author of Unfinest Hour: Britain and the Destruction of Bosnia and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society - hoped that the election of David Cameron as leader of the Conservative Party would herald a decisive shift in the party's foreign policy thinking away from the "realist" positions taken during the Major years. David Cameron has made some positive moves on foreign policy, argues Dr Simms - but some of his actions are worrying.

Most importantly, the appointment of Dame Pauline Neville-Jones as chairman of the Policy Group on National and International Security suggests a lack of fresh thinking. Dame Pauline was closely associated with the "realist" policies of Douglas Hurd and John Major - she was strongly opposed to intervention over Bosnia and repeatedly clashed with the Americans over this. Furthermore Dame Pauline's much vaunted "experience" in intelligence matters has been greatly exaggerated - she chaired the Joint Intelligence Committee for little more than a month, and not the two years that is sometimes claimed.

The views expressed in this article are those of Dr Simms, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director.

During the Conservative leadership campaign it became a commonplace to say that David Cameron was a man whose views were largely unknown, and probably unformed. Some observers, including this author, thought this unjust, at least as far as foreign policy was concerned. For in a remarkable speech to the Foreign Policy Centre - viewed as a New Labour think tank and directed by Stephen Twigg - last summer Cameron had voiced strong support for a new approach to the Middle East to replace the discredited "realist" accommodations with dictatorships. For this reason, some criticised him as a "neo-con", others hailed him as an avatar of democratic transformation.

It is, of course, early days, but the most recent foreign-political signals from the Conservative leader have been both faint and mixed. So far, there has been no major speech on national security issues, nor any high-profile foreign visit. Last week, however, it was announced with much fanfare that Cameron was sending a "high profile" delegation, led by Liam Fox, the shadow defence secretary, or William Hague, the shadow Foreign Secretary, to the United States, in order to "mend fences". That is good news, surely, as Michael Howard's criticisms of the Iraq war had produced an irreparable breakdown between the previous Conservative leadership and the White House. But why is Cameron not going himself?

What was worrying about Howard's wobbles on Iraq was not any sense of lese-Majeste against Mr Bush, but the nagging feeling that he had somehow "gone cold" on the whole concept of democratic transformation. Improving relations with hard-boiled Republicans is therefore not an end in itself, and the Cameronian Conservative Party should not seek "forgiveness" from men such as Mr Cheney or Mr Rumsfeld; they should be endured rather than courted.

Instead, Mr Cameron should seek alliances with the vast middle ground in American politics which supports the principles underlying the removal of Saddam Hussein, but is in no doubt about the shortcomings of the administration which effected it. A major speech at, say, the National Endowment for Democracy, where many have received Cameron's Foreign Policy Centre speech with enthusiasm, would send an unambiguous signal. It would enable him to set out his stall not only on the other side of the Atlantic, but on both sides of the partisan divide as well. Men such as John McCain, who will certainly be a candidate for the Republican nomination in 2008, and the senior Democrats Evan Bayh and Joe Lieberman are Mr Cameron's natural allies.

Another worrying sign is the appointment of Dame Pauline Neville-Jones as chairman of the new Conservative Policy Group on National and International Security. This can only be described as an eccentric choice. Dame Pauline was one of the BBC governors who first accepted the corporation's assurances about Gilligan's allegations on the "forty-five minute claim" and then insisted on his resignation. This association is more likely to lead people down a rabbit-hole on WMD, rather than putting the focus on democratic transformation, where her stance is less clear. Senior intelligence sources also point out that she knows much less about intelligence than it appears, having chaired the Joint Intelligence Committee for little more than a month, and not for two years, as some accounts have suggested.

The principal objection, however, is that Dame Pauline is closely connected with the failed "realist" policies of Douglas Hurd and Malcolm Rifkind in the Major government. As Political Director of the Foreign Office, and a classic realist, she was strongly opposed to intervention against Serb aggression in Bosnia. After the war, Dame Pauline represented Natwest Markets in the negotiations with the Yugoslav leader Milosevic over the privatisation of Serbian utilities. The ethical implications of this move, much discussed at the time and since, are neither here nor there; what is worrying is the flawed judgment that Milosevic was a reliable partner to do business with. Scarcely eighteen months later, we went to war with him over the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo.

During the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession, Dame Pauline repeatedly clashed with the Americans over the appeasement of the Serbs; they dubbed her, perhaps a little predictably, "Pauline Neville Chamberlain". This makes her a poor ambassador for rapprochement with Washington.

Since then, Dame Pauline has claimed that she entertained strong doubts about the Major government's Bosnian policy and that:

there are bits of paper…inside the machine [to prove it].
If so, that would be greatly reassuring, and it would be in her interest and those of everybody else to make those concerns public now. Otherwise we will be forced to conclude that, on the face of it, Dame Pauline is intellectually deeply unsound, and unpalatable to neoconservatives and liberal interventionists alike. Mr Cameron has sought defining "clause four" issues on the domestic front. What a pity if in foreign policy, he should hint at reviving a tradition we thought we had seen the last of in 1997.

It may be that Dame Pauline is just a "sop" to the "realist" wing of the party, in order to balance Messrs. Hague and Fox. It may also not much matter in the end - the shadow foreign and defence secretaries may retain control, and the National and International Security Committee may remain an ineffective talking shop. All the same, one senses an opportunity missed.

The new committee could function as a kind of shadow "National Security Council" on the US model, in which a new Conservative strategic doctrine is developed and tested. To that end it must be intellectually coherent. At the moment, the effect is one of three steps forward and one step backwards. That is fine, so long as the direction and momentum are maintained. But it would be even better if Mr Cameron himself were to speak out to remind us how a democratic agenda in foreign policy sits perfectly with his stress on social justice and environmental protection at home.

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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David Cameron's current objective seems to be to send a series of signals to people inclined to back the Liberals. Now, that has been fairly successful and together with the resignation of Charles Kennedy and the revelations about Mark Oaten may be yet more so.

But the "Liberals", of course, are the most hostile of all groups in the UK (with the possible exception of George Galloway fans) to what is here described as "liberal interventionism". I'd guess Mr. Cameron is wooing them rather than pursuing a coherent strategy on foreign policy ...

... or anything else for that matter. Witness:

Of course, Cameron may reckon on doing the opposite of whatever he is currently implying he will do, if he gains power. After all, his "implications" to the Tory faithful during the leadership campaign were quite different. (He seems to be a man of implications rather than policies.)

So clearly, if he is showing the "real" Cameron now, he was showing a false one then. Further, if he was prepared to do that then, why not now? So I don't think anyone knows what he believes at all - if anything (except that he should have power). In this respect, he may be not unlike his role model, Mr Blair, although, to be fair, Blair while power-hungry and something of an opportunist, does show the occasional flash of genuine conviction.

Posted by: Mike at January 25, 2006 06:36 PM
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