This Isn’t the Time to Go All Wobbly

Neither David Cameron nor Barack Obama is interested in foreign affairs. This bodes ill for what's left of the special relationship

With Britain’s inconclusive May 6 election now behind us, Americans are watching carefully to see what David Cameron’s new coalition government does with his country’s foreign policy. To most Americans, Prime Minister Cameron is a blank page, a question mark, a cipher, especially regarding his international policies and his view of whatever remains of the “special relationship”. His post-election deal with the Liberal Democrats, creating Britain’s first coalition government in almost 70 years, looks very much like “sleeping with the enemy” in domestic politics. It thereby raises the question whether he will be sleeping around internationally as well. 

Britain’s new collective leadership inherits enormous difficulties. And in Washington, Cameron will face a cool, detached and basically uninterested Barack Obama. With few exceptions, Obama concentrates on restructuring US domestic life, and national security distracts him rarely, in cases such as Afghanistan, where it is unavoidable. In the few foreign policy issues where he has acted voluntarily, such as nuclear weapons, Obama has proved to be highly ideological, devotedly reflecting the Democratic Party’s Left. His attitude towards US allies has been stunningly inattentive. Had it come from George W. Bush, it would have precipitated massive media criticism. 

Moreover, America’s 2010 congressional campaigns are well under way, already foreshadowing the 2012 presidential contest. Obama is therefore concentrating on ramming through what he still can of his radical domestic agenda before his legislative majorities risk vapourising in November. Increasingly, Obama’s weak, naive and unfocused responses to the continued threats of international terrorism and nuclear proliferation have encouraged criticism of his inadequacies. For example, Scott Brown’s stunning January election to Ted Kennedy’s Massachusetts Senate seat rested not only on opposition to Obama’s healthcare proposals, but also on Brown’s strong anti-terrorism stance. Unquestionably, however, the President’s role in US foreign policy is constitutionally predominant, so little is likely to change before 2012. 

Therefore, looking at Cameron before May 6, US conservatives wondered whether, under his leadership, Britain could, in a sense, “hold the fort” until then. This is, to be sure, a Washington-centric view, but one shared by those who prize even a reduced “special relationship”. Margaret Thatcher certainly held the fort prior to Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980.

Whether Cameron has the slightest interest in playing this role, or any role in foreign affairs, remains to be seen. Like Obama, he too may view international policy as a distraction, and, given recent history, may see the US relationship as more of a liability than an asset. Cameron’s pressing political problems, leading a morganatic coalition government while positioning for another election to achieve an outright Conservative Party majority in the Commons, may mean America is a burden he simply does not need.

To understand how we arrived at this point, we must take a step back, and understand what happened after the 9/ll terrorist attacks. When George W. Bush was inaugurated in January 2001, speculation ran high that his relations with Britain and Tony Blair could not be nearly as close as Blair’s with Bill Clinton. After all, both Clinton and Blair were “third way” advocates in their respective domestic political environments, “New Democrat” and “New Labour,” close both politically and personally. Indeed, the first Blair-Bush encounters were hardly propitious.

But 9/11 changed all that, largely because of Blair. Bush knew what he wanted to do, which was find and defeat the attackers, and Blair rallied immediately to Bush’s side. Blair was with America on Afghanistan, with America on Iraq (with some differences kept largely out of public view, occasioned largely by British political and legal problems) and with America on the larger global war against terrorism. Even as opposition grew over Iraq, Blair never wavered. Nor has he wavered since leaving office, as his recent Chilcot Inquiry testimony demonstrated.

Moreover, Americans understood that Blair’s anti-terrorism convictions were emotional as well as intellectual. One US friend of mine who had long lived in Britain told me at the time about encountering Blair outside Saint Paul’s Cathedral following a memorial service for the 9/11 victims, just days after the attack. The Queen had asked to meet Americans in London upon leaving the cathedral, and Blair accompanied her. My friend thanked Blair for his strong statements immediately after the attack. Blair responded intensely and directly: “We are going to win this thing. We are going to see this through. We will prevail.” Few Americans saw this emotional level of Blair’s support so personally, but we all felt it. Accordingly, no one should be surprised that Bush and his supporters responded in like terms.

Blair’s Labour Party was not so stalwart, and many UK Conservatives were diffident. Perhaps because the Opposition’s duty is to oppose, perhaps because of lingering Tory Arabism, or perhaps for other reasons, many Conservatives simply recoiled from the unmistakable reality of the close Blair-Bush partnership. Indeed, there was a strange confluence between the Labour Left and some Conservatives on the subject of Blair being a “poodle” for Americans in general and Bush in particular. This characterisation was convenient for Labour’s anti-Iraq war crowd, and convenient to show both distance and a certain kind of nationalism among Conservatives. 

The “poodle” analysis, however politically attractive, was always foolish, especially for Tories. Blair himself was no poodle, nor was any other British official. In the unlikely event that Blair ever gave an order to “go easy on the Americans”, it was unquestionably the least-obeyed command in British diplomatic history, as I can attest from my own personal experience. Conservatives should have seen, and many did, notably the then leader Iain Duncan Smith, that America’s war against terror and overthrowing Saddam Hussein were also Britain’s fight. Most of the party’s rank and file had no trouble understanding this convergence, at least at the outset. Nonetheless, many in the Tory political class, as time went on, choked on Blair’s enthusiasm for the fight. 

Whether inevitably or not, the controversy over Iraq and the war on terror led to more than a little distance between the Bush administration and British Conservatives, although not necessarily distance between US conservatives and their UK “small c” conservative friends. Ironically, many American conservatives were also busily distancing themselves from Bush for mistakes both domestically and internationally, so British separateness itself was not exceptional. But something else was also at work, at least viscerally. Perhaps because the growing ambivalence about Bush among US conservatives was neither well articulated from the American side nor well understood on the British side, the American perception in the past five years is that British Conservatives generally, albeit not universally, were drifting away from the US and the special relationship. 

As these positions and feelings evolved, they became embodied in Cameron, who was (at the time) not well known to US Republicans and/or conservatives, and seemingly quite uninterested, at best, in meeting or developing relationships with his natural American allies, and perhaps ambivalent on the “special relationship” itself. Once again, this distance was not reflected in visible hostility or explicit statements from Cameron or his close advisers or the Shadow Cabinet, but it was an attitude. Indeed, it was the absence of any visible manifestation of interest in the US that communicated diffidence and coolness.

Of course, that coolness doesn’t substantially distinguish Cameron from Gordon Brown, who remained consistently low-profile in the US, certainly compared to the likes of Blair or Margaret Thatcher. Brown’s desire to put clear blue water between himself and the increasingly unpopular Bush was politically understandable, but the PM made no particular effort to move closer after Obama took office, not even for the equally understandable reason of basking in the president’s global popularity. Give Brown credit for consistency. In fact, Obama’s coolness and diffidence was a perfect prescription for further, even more rapid deterioration in the transatlantic relationship. Certainly, bestowing on Queen Elizabeth an iPod already loaded with Obama’s own speeches seemed a major step in that direction.

Nonetheless, Cameron looked good to Americans compared to Nick Clegg, who revelled in being far more distant from the US, more pro-EU and more anti-Israel. (Many US observers would characterize Obama exactly the same way.) Clegg’s performance in the groundbreaking TV debate among the three major party leaders briefly made him a serious contender and therefore brought him his first major exposure in the US. Conservatives were appalled at Clegg’s exotic collection of beliefs. 

So, all in all, it appeared pre-May 6 that whichever candidate became PM, Anglo-US relations were not likely to pick up in the short term, and certainly not in personal terms among the leaders. Coolness at the top nonetheless does not and cannot obscure the underlying commonality of interests and values that forms the special relationship’s foundation. Where that foundation seemed to be cracking, however, was over the EU. Ever since Britain joined what we now only hazily remember as the Common Market, it has intensely debated whether its relationship with “Europe” should be primarily economic, or whether it is inevitably more political, an “ever closer union”. And make no mistake, that means less distinct nationhood for Britain. Like a cube of sugar in a hot cup of tea, we would see Britain disappearing.

It’s good to talk: Obama congratulates Cameron on the evening he became Prime Minister

Although the US-style party leader debates caused a stir about the Americanisation of British elections, their outcomes have actually become less about governance by Parliament and more about London’s relations with Brussels. Parliament’s function today is not so much to write British laws as it is to rubber-stamp EU legislation already negotiated by Eurocrats. In short, British elections are really to select the UK’s chief representative to the EU. Americans have largely ignored or misapprehended the implications of “ever closer union” for the EU. Too many bought the famous Kissingerian line about finding one voice at the end of the telephone line from Washington. The EU is remarkably close to that point, but it is not the strong Europe its advocates had predicted. Instead, almost the exact opposite is true: the EU is typically less than the sum of its parts. After incredible, interminable internal gyrations, the EU too often produces a consensus reflecting the weaknesses of its most timid members rather than the strengths of the boldest. If the latter were free to act in partnership with the US, the West would be far better off. We might not benefit from the full weight of a united Europe, but at least we wouldn’t find a united Europe in opposition, or so entangled in its own procedures that we were constantly burdened by Europe as a sea anchor.

Do the British wish to sink further into the swamp of Europeanisation, losing their statehood gradually, or perhaps more rapidly in the European project, or do they wish to remain sovereign? Although little remarked in the US, Obama is as much in favour of deeper EU integration as the most federalist EU advocates, a view in the long term deeply adverse to America’s interests. Here is precisely the point where a Conservative government in Britain could hold the fort until adult government is returned to Washington. 

But will Cameron do so? From Washington, the answer is far from clear. Cameron’s campaign tried to walk the fine line of being Eurosceptic within the Conservative Party while not making it much of an issue in the broader campaign, almost as if he were ashamed of the position, or ashamed of its Tory adherents. As a corollary, Cameron was hardly eager to appear enthusiastic about a close relationship with Washington. To be sure, many Britons argue that Cameron is a true Eurosceptic, but campaigns on the issue in a passionless way to avoid riling pro-EU voters who might vote Conservative. Even if true, this answer hardly inspires confidence. And everyone, endlessly, stresses how “pragmatic” Cameron is. One can only guess what that means.

While Clegg’s Europhilia is appalling, one wonders if Cameron is temperamentally inclined to do anything other than go with the flow. Their written agreement not to transfer new “sovereignty or powers” to Brussels in this Parliament makes the agreement simply to review past transfers or other mistakes, of which there have been far too many, implicitly a commitment to do little to reverse them. This uneasy compromise is almost certainly unsustainable over time. And with Clegg constantly whispering in Cameron’s ear, who knows what will happen next that mere words on paper cannot prevent? 

Greece’s financial crisis, the European Monetary Union’s attendant difficulties, and the fissures in “ever closer union” thereby recently exposed mean that further British loss of sovereignty to the EU is unlikely in the short term. Indeed, continental Europeans may have begun realising that having a currency without a state has turned out badly. Nonetheless, EU history has been consistent that every problem with European integration has simply amplified calls for “ever closer union”. No one ever seems to step back, or move in the other direction. If the past is any guide, continental Europeans will respond by calling for a more powerful EU government. Inevitably, and soon, Britain’s choices about its relations with Europe, and therefore the US, will be more consequential, not less so. 

Moving beyond Europe, there are a host of issues where Obama’s foreign policy may make it easy to mask distance and problems between London and Washington. Continuing US withdrawal from Iraq along the previously agreed schedule without regard to political or strategic stability within the country, withdrawal from Afghanistan beginning in summer 2011, as Obama promised in his West Point speech last year announcing Nato’s increased efforts there, and weakness in dealing with Iran’s nuclear weapons programme are all issues where Cameron will probably feel very comfortable with Obama’s declinist view. The real risk is that, to avoid the “poodle” comparison, Cameron will be arguing publicly for weaker policies than Obama, thus giving Obama ample cover as he retreats and withdraws. These are precisely the issues where Margaret Thatcher would be telling Obama not to go all wobbly, and that is exactly what conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic need Cameron to do until Washington can resume its traditional centre-right posture. 

There is simply no reasonably foreseeable answer about what Cameron will do, based on the existing evidence, not least of all because he has no governance experience. Politicking and campaigning is altogether different from governing, as the Obama example demonstrates, unsettlingly. The pressure of real decision-making, as opposed to the posturing of campaigns and debates, shapes and matures different politicians differently, and Cameron has not been in the kiln before. 

His first governing responsibility, trying to form his own government, has already drawn mixed reviews to say the least, both within and without the Conservative Party. There are basically three outcomes to political negotiations, whether international or domestic: a good deal, a bad deal, or no deal. To those concerned primarily with substantive policy, the “bad deal” alternative is usually the worst outcome. To those concerned with power and process, the “no deal” alternative is almost always the worst outcome. Unfortunately, the post-May 6 negotiations have, probably for the first time, publicly revealed the real Cameron.

In sporting terms, Cameron made a number of “unforced errors”, mistakes that were purely his own responsibility, not caused by smooth-talking Lib Dems. He looked too hungry for a deal. His own negotiators said publicly and from the outset that they rejected the possibility of going it alone, and forming a minority government. He gave away too many prime Cabinet seats. Worst of all, having drawn a red line against compromising on Lib Dem demands to move towards proportional representation, Cameron compromised, perhaps starting a long, slow suicide for his own party. None of these are comforting auguries for strength on foreign policy in the months ahead. Weakness is never pretty. A bad deal is not necessarily irreparable, but some of this deal’s defects seem inherent in Cameron’s political DNA. 

In more normal circumstances, Cameron should welcome new elections quickly, and quietly radiate confidence that his incumbency, popular goodwill for a new PM, and perhaps a few early victories, would propel him to a clear majority in the Commons. Unfortunately, his agreement with Clegg almost certainly precludes such a strategy, as do repeated statements about “strong and stable” government. Agreeing to a fixed-term Parliament and, even worse, having five Lib Dems in the Cabinet only further demonstrate Cameron’s aversion to going back to the country soon. If, however, contrary to appearances, Cameron is quietly aiming for a swift second election, few doubt that politics will dominate everything, even in national security. Neither scenario bodes well for a vigorous, active Britain in foreign affairs.

Is it possible for Cameron to be less of an international presence and more distant from the US than Gordon Brown? That seems highly unlikely, given the low bar for comparison. Is it possible for Cameron to have the international presence and closeness to the US of Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair? Sadly, that too seems highly unlikely. It is precisely because Cameron’s record is so sparse that predictions are hard and perilous. Nonetheless, the most likely prospect for the next several years is more decay in the special relationship, and perhaps even death through apathy. American conservatives may try to resurrect the relationship if we are successful in 2012, but on the present record we will not look to 10 Downing Street for aid and comfort in that effort.

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