Cameron throws down foreign policy challenge

Author(s):  Ian Kearns
Published date:  16 Oct 2006
Source:  Progress
Both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have delivered speeches heavy in foreign policy significance in recent weeks. The Prime Minister’s speech to the Labour Party Conference went beyond terrorism and the need to maintain support for the United States to highlight energy security and mass migration as new issues on the national security agenda. David Cameron, speaking ten days earlier to the British America Project, talked of the need for a new multilateralism and of the need to re-balance our relationship with the United States. Of the two speeches, it is Cameron’s that points the way ahead for progressives.

Both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have delivered speeches heavy in foreign policy significance in recent weeks. The Prime Minister’s speech to the Labour Party Conference went beyond terrorism and the need to maintain support for the United States to highlight energy security and mass migration as new issues on the national security agenda. David Cameron, speaking ten days earlier to the British America Project, talked of the need for a new multilateralism and of the need to re-balance our relationship with the United States. Of the two speeches, it is Cameron’s that points the way ahead for progressives.

This is true for two distinct but related reasons. First, Cameron is right to say that the foreign and security problems we face today can only be met through multilateral solutions. No state acting unilaterally, not even the United States, can manage the threat of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, of climate change, or of transnational terrorism and organised crime. The international community’s response to the North Korean nuclear test will be informative in this regard, since there is little the US itself can do in response. Meaningful sanctions, if they come at all, will come from China and South Korea. Cameron’s speech may have been motivated by political opportunism, and he himself may be politically incapable of seeing the EU as a pivotal part of the multilateralism now needed, but this should not distract us from the wider truth his speech identified: Security requires multilateralism.   

Second, the Labour government’s claim that there is no inconsistency between full public support for the current US administration on the one hand, and our stated desire to build effective multilateral institutions and regimes on the other, is no longer tenable. The neo-conservative view that the national security mission should determine the necessary coalition, rather than the coalition of states determining the mission, is fundamentally at odds with the approach required to foster the multilateralism we now need. It is one thing, against this backdrop, to say that effective multilateralism cannot exist without US participation and that we should seek to influence US policy in our direction. It is another thing entirely too publicly support US policies that undermine the more effective multilateralism needed to keep us safe. 

Given this, and given the domestic political price already paid by progressives for the government’s support for President Bush, a change in our approach to relations with the United States is now urgent. To be successful, this needs to include not only a subtle shift in policy but also some fresh analysis and a more mature understanding of how our relationship with the United States works.

First, we need to assert politically that it is possible to be serious minded on security without agreeing with everything the American administration does. In this regard, Cameron’s speech was extremely helpful.  It exposed as flawed the Prime Minister’s view that only two security policy choices are on offer, namely close support for the Bush administration on the one hand or the hopeless idealism of the far left on the other. There is a viable policy space in between these extremes and Cameron’s speech has made it politically easy for us to occupy it without being seen as soft on security.

Second, and to reinforce the credibility of this shift in policy, we need to conduct a strategic threat assessment to ensure our policy frameworks, alliances, and institutional architectures are designed to meet the challenges of the early twenty-first century rather than those of the last century. This threat assessment must consider issues such as the worrying amount of WMD related material and know-how going missing from sites in the former Soviet Union and Pakistan. It must consider the security implications of growing international pressure on natural resources such as oil and water and the possible re-emergence of multipolar competition among the US, China and a resurgent Russia. Finally, it must consider the long-term security implications of climate change, and the degraded power of formal state authorities to keep control of transnational terrorist and organised crime networks. Strategic assessment of these threats should underpin development and publication of a national security strategy for the United Kingdom, spelling out our interests and vulnerabilities, as well as the rationale for any policies intended to keep us secure.   

Third and last, we should develop some much needed maturity in our domestic debate on the relationship with the United States. It simply lacks credibility, for example, to claim that any public disagreement with a US administration on a national or international security issue would destroy the relationship. This has not been the experience of history, nor the experience of other European allies when they have failed to agree with US foreign policy positions. And if the claim were true, this would be a stunning assertion that our entire national security strategy is based upon the most fickle and unreliable of relationships.

It is equally unhelpful to claim that all disagreements with the US are motivated by anti-Americanism. As Andrew Gamble, the leading academic and author of Between Europe and America has pointed out, there is an identifiable Anglo-American presence in world politics. Ideological debates take place between Anglo-America and other entities internationally but also within the Anglo-American sphere itself. These latter debates are transnational in nature, dividing opinion within the US and UK in more important ways than they divide opinion between the US and UK. The neo-conservative view currently prevalent in Washington, therefore, is not the sum total of American opinion. Many credible foreign and security policy analysts in Washington disagree profoundly with the policies of the Bush administration. And when disagreement is allowed to be branded as disloyalty, either within the United States, or between allies across the Atlantic, we concede important ground to those who seek political advantage in constructing the debate in this way.

Moreover, if we treat, the views of the current US administration as a permanent feature of the landscape, we fail to acknowledge the obvious point that American politics is dynamic and cyclical. Neo-conservative foreign policies often struggle to show results abroad, and can suffer serious loss of popular political support at home. American administrations, in this context, use the support of allies abroad as important sources of political capital in the ongoing noise of domestic disagreement and debate. We will never know how a British government refusal to take part in the invasion of Iraq would have played on the American political scene but we should not underestimate how valuable our support can be to any American president about to undertake serious and risky military action overseas. 

There is then, more room for disagreement and influence in this relationship than many would have us believe. We share core values with the United States, including a commitment to an open international economy, good governance and universal human rights. More often than not, we will be standing shoulder to shoulder with the US in promoting a global order based on these values. But in a mature relationship there will sometimes be open disagreement. The challenge, of course, is to limit the disagreements and to know when to disagree, and why. The decision should be based on the contents of a well thought through national security strategy, not fear or unconditional loyalty.   

Ian Kearns is Deputy Director of ippr. Find out more about his work.