‘Britain and America may soon be governed by eloquent speakers whose attitude to foreign affairs is self-aggrandising posturing’

A poll taken before the 2004 American election asked voters which of the Presidential candidates they would rather have a beer with. Ignoring the fact that George W. Bush shouldn’t actually have a beer, 57 per cent of undecided voters polled said they would rather have a drink with the teetotal guy than with John Kerry. Apart from what that says about Kerry, the interesting thing about the poll was that people thought the trait in question might be useful in deciding on a president.

Personally, I put amiability during beer-supping some way down the list of what I’m after in a candidate. I can think of some tremendous leaders who would fail to be a riot in the pub. Experience, knowledge, empathy, coping in a crisis – all would beat the bottle issue. But not much further up the list would be the ability to make pretty speeches.

David Cameron now leads the Conservative party because he has the ability to speak without notes. From the first time this memory trick was used, at the 2005 party conference, the party was awed. Myself, I’m not much sold on it. Whenever anyone says how impressed they are by Cameron speaking for 50 minutes without notes, I wonder if they’ll have to replace him once they find someone who can speak for 55 minutes. Where’s your nirvana on this one? Is a good memory all you’re after in a leader?

The current over-emphasis on public-speaking ability is baffling. Soundbites aren’t bad, but they’re no substitute for sound policies. Besides, if you’re assisted by a team of writers, it’s not hard to come up with the slick phrases. For instance, the British Government’s counter-terrorism strategy, known as “Contest”, is, in the Home Office’s own words, “based on a policy that can be summed up in four words: Prevent, Pursue, Protect and Prepare”. What, one wonders, would the Home Office do if something important in their strategy didn’t start with a P? What’s the object here – alliteration or policy?

I ask because on either side of the Atlantic we have politicians whose phrases can be lovely, but in both cases reek of emptiness. Neither stands up to a single follow-on question. Take Barack Obama’s speech to the people of Berlin. In an emotional high point he asked: “Will we give meaning to the words ‘never again’ in Darfur?” For anyone who cares to inquire, the answer to this question is “no”. If Obama were serious about policy he would tell us, for instance, how he will pull troops out of Iraq and where and how he will put them into Sudan. His failure to describe any such thing, and the certainty that he will risk no such action, is typical of this new generation of posturing, parading quietists.

So it is with Cameron. In the first week of September, in what must be the lowest point of his positioning since he decided to pick the 2006 anniversary of 9/11 to criticise America and Israel, Cameron turned up in the questionable democracy of Pakistan to question whether we should “export” democracy at all.

He explained that we “should accept that we cannot impose democracy at the barrel of a gun”, continuing: “We cannot drop democracy from 10,000 feet.” Given the current direction of British defence spending I’m not certain that our armed forces will be able to drop anything from 10,000 feet soon.

In any case, I hope Cameron’s audience were too distracted by the sound of straw men being hit to hear the next statement. Because this is what he said: “And we shouldn’t try.”

“And we shouldn’t try.” It’s a sentiment that lets slip more about the incumbent transatlantic mood than Cameron can have intended. No straw man neocon has ever argued that democracy can be imposed at the barrel of a gun. But it’s pretty hard to get rid of a dictator without one. What Cameron and Obama’s posturing now shows is that the doctrine of the international community which Tony Blair set out in Chicago in 1999 and which held sway for a decade is being buried by the successors – in America and Britain – of Jimmy Carter and former Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd.

Like Cameron, his Parliamentary successor in Witney, Lord Hurd also believed that “we shouldn’t try”. During the Bosnian crisis the Foreign Secretary was so concerned that British government help in arming the Bosnians would create a “level killing field” that he ensured the Bosnians got his preferred option: an utterly uneven killing field. It is a position summed up as “moral quietude”: don’t do anything, don’t attempt anything, talk big and trust that people will believe your hands are clean.

Britain and America may soon be governed by people who are accomplished at speaking without notes. But their attitude to foreign affairs is self-aggrandising posturing. Behind their take-it-or-leave-it showmanship, what these slick “progressives” are beginning to demonstrate are the most depressingly reactionary foreign policy attitudes we have seen for a generation.

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