DEPENDING on your political perspective, for good or ill the first six months of the coalition government have been defined by economic issues. The Great Recession may have been global in scope, but it has forced countries to turn inward, to focus on deficits and levels of
There has therefore been little opportunity for David Cameron to articulate a comprehensive foreign policy of the sort that Tony Blair introduced in the optimistic years of the late nineties. Instead, at his very core, Cameron comes across as a pragmatist, which is a fortu-
nate trait when he has to grapple with a global system within which Britain risks sliding into international mediocrity.
Britain’s defence and diplomatic budgets have been severely cut, which has not helped the sense of imperial decline. Cameron has invited the ire of military officials and some Tory back-benchers by scrapping the Ark Royal aircraft carrier combined to a shared defence deal with France, is an ultimate sign of austérité.
Along with economic issues, “hard-headed internationalism” as Cameron puts it, seems to be the coalition’s guiding ethic. When Cameron was recently in China, he raised the issue of human rights not for the sake of it, but to suggest that political freedom goes hand in hand with economic prosperity. He spoke to a room full of Chinese students at the same time as our students back home attacked his party’s HQ. An ironic contrast. Past conflicts also simmer below the challenged relationship, as the poppies worn by the British delegation caused some furore in reminding Chinese hosts of the Opium Wars some 150 years ago.
As for more traditional allies, the UK-US relationship may now be labelled “truly special”. However, Cameron and Obama do not see eye to eye on spending cuts, and the relationship certainly lacks some of the warmth which Blair enjoyed with both Presidents Clinton and Bush. But, this may not be a bad thing. Britain’s international standing has arguably been most tarnished by Blair’s close, abiding loyalty to Bush, as the recent release of Bush’s memoir recalls. However, when Britain has drifted away from America in the past, the focus has usually turned towards Europe. It will be difficult for Cameron to convince his largely Euro-sceptic party to support a more productive relationship with the continent, despite his recent partial victory over EU funding rises.
With American and European relations somewhat strained, attention has turned to other less conventional allies. Cameron led a large delegation to India in July which, like the Chinese visit, focussed on trade although the Prime Minister also made it known that
he supports India’s claim to a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
He also discussed the two countries’ shared histories, yet the modern Indian government probably cares more about
accommodating high-tech industry than it cares about its former position as the jewel in the crown of the British Empire. Perhaps this is the paradox that Cameron and Britain face on the world stage. In the annual Mansion House speech on foreign policy, Cameron last week
touted the beneficial legacies of empire: Britain’s language, her membership of key international organizations, the significance of the City of London, and even our time zone. Yet while the empire has given modern Britain useful assets, the shadows cast by empire can dim our modern perception of relations with other countries. Explaining our dealings with India in terms of colonial history makes little sense in a world where alliances are being formed on more firm and rational foundations,
such as the promising bilateral relations between Brazil and Turkey, or China and Africa.
Cameron has found some success through talking in more shamelessly economic terms than his predecessors, and clearly doesn’t desire any new and costly wars. But in the anarchy of the international system, single incidents can reverberate across the Earth. Tony Blair started his premiership with the same intended focus on public service reform. In the ensuing years however, global events – 9/11 foremost among them – redefined his leadership and his legacy. As Harold Macmillan famously stated, it is “events, dear boy,
events” that are a statesman’s greatest challenge. In his first six months Cameron has made a positive start in foreign policy, but he has been devoted to processes of trade missions, currency stabilisation, and defence spending reviews. Only when the big events rear their head will his statesmanship be truly tested and subsequently judged.