ONLINE ONLY: What is a Liberal Conservative Foreign Policy?

It sounds like a refreshing antidote to neoconservatism, but little is known about the Conservative Party’s foreign policy approach

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Of all the oxymorons currently doing the rounds, ‘liberal conservatism’ is one of the slipperiest. It is this phrase which forms the crux of the Conservative party’s approach to international affairs but about which we have had little in the way of concrete definition. It slips off the tongue but leaves us little the wiser as to the criteria by which a future Conservative government might intervene on the international stage.

David Cameron first launched the phrase in his speech on foreign policy and national security in the annual JP Morgan lecture at the British American Project on 11 September 2006. ‘I am a liberal conservative, rather than a neo-conservative’, he said. Liberal ‘because I support the aim of spreading freedom and democracy, and support humanitarian intervention’. Conservative ‘because I recognise the complexities of human nature, and am sceptical of grand schemes to remake the world’. On his recent visit to Afghanistan and Pakistan, he stuck largely to the same script.

While foreign policy was comparatively low down the agenda at the Conservative party conference in Birmingham, shadow foreign secretary William Hague used his speech to refer again to ‘our liberal conservative beliefs’. This, he ventured, was ‘the strength and purpose to keep our people safe today but also with the humility and patience to make them safer tomorrow’

Before Birmingham, in an interview with Fraser Nelson of The Spectator, the shadow schools secretary Michael Gove was characteristically honest about his own position, as an unrepentant neo-conservative. ‘If I say’, “Well actually I prefer to think of myself as a muscular liberal interventionist,” that’s running away from it. My view is: yes, I am. Let’s have a conversation about that’. But he was quick to add that he was not speaking for his leader, whom he saw also saw a ‘liberal conservative’. At this stage, there is no reason for such distinctions to precipitate a serious division in the shadow government. ‘If you look at what he said in the recent speech in Pakistan, or if you look at what he said in the context of Georgia’, Gove continued, ‘then what’s not to like?’

But what exactly is liberal conservatism? We can only begin to answer that by identifying where it comes from. Although Tory is another word one rarely hears spoken by Cameroons, the most obvious precedent for the liberal conservatism of today is the liberal Toryism of the 1820s. Lord Liverpool’s government, which ran from 1812 to 1827, was said to be divided between traditionalist Tories – often called ‘ultras’ – and a loose collection of individuals in the cabinet, later called ‘liberal Tories’, who leaned towards more progressive views, particularly on trade and foreign policy.

When one hears references to liberal conservative heritage in foreign policy, it is the figure of George Canning – foreign secretary from 1822 and briefly Prime Minister, before his death in August in 1827 – who looms the largest. On the international stage, Canningite is presumed to mean a number of things: hard-headed in the pursuit of the British national interest; liberal in sentiments; and circumspect in actions but morally consistent in conduct. A moral realist, if you will.

Nonetheless, it would be mistaken to assume that Canning laid down a clear set of foreign policy principles, or had a coherent theory of international relations. To be sure, he had instincts and guiding principles, such as a preference for constitutional governments over autocracies. But what is often assumed to be Canningite foreign policy was forged in response to the vagaries of realpolitik rather than some grand design. As foreign secretary, he was constantly forced to refine and readjust his existing position to changing threats, not least that arising from Tsarist Russia.

After the battle of Waterloo, the consensus position of British foreign policy was ‘non-intervention’ in the affairs of other states. This was an approach that Canning wilfully inherited from Lord Castlereagh, his much maligned predecessor, with whom he fought a duel in 1809. If anything, he was able to sidestep criticism from the Whig opposition more effectively than Castlereagh, because he was even more staunchly anti-interventionist. With some justification, Henry Kissinger once compared the makers of British foreign policy after Waterloo to American isolationists. There was clearly a strategic rationale behind the policy of non-intervention; Britain trained its sights on extending its empire and had no territorial designs on the European continent.

The real lesson of the 1820s, however – not dissimilar to the realisation which has dawned on American isolationists in different times – was that the doctrine of non-intervention, while seductive and logical, ultimately proved to be finite and unsustainable.

In October 1827, in the battle of Navarino in Greece, Britain joined forces with the French and Russians to sink the joint fleets of the Ottoman Sultan and the Pacha of Egypt. The episode was the decisive moment in the Greek campaign for independence from Ottoman rule.

However, the British government had not wanted to intervene militarily on behalf of the Greeks, and certainly not for the sake of humanitarian reasons or the Philhellenism which had drawn Byron and other volunteers to the struggle. In reality, the British fleet had been sent to the region, and a deal struck with Moscow and Paris, to prevent the Russians intervening independently and gaining a stranglehold in the region. The battle of Navarino itself was an accident, sparked when the Turkish and Egyptian fleets had unexpectedly fired on the British and French, provoking the following. Members of the government were furious and believed a dangerous precedent had been set. The following year, the King’s Speech did not refer to it as a glorious victory in the name of freedom, but an ‘unfortunate event’.

Canning had died two months before the battle took place, though he had been instrumental in preventing unilateral action by Russia. In the years before his death, however, he had become increasingly aware of the limitations of British non-intervention. As he put it in 1823, ‘the course we had to pursue was on a path which lay across a roaring stream; attempts might be made to bear us down on the one side or the other’.

By 1826, speculating that the next war in Europe would be a ‘war not so much of armies, as of opinions’, Canning suggested that, if involved, Britain ‘will see under her banners, arrayed for the contest all the discontented and restless spirits of the age, all those – who whether justly or unjustly – are dissatisfied with the present state of their countries’. This was humanitarian intervention, but de facto rather than by design.

He was prepared to admit that the prospect frightened him somewhat: ‘The consciousness of such a situation excites all my fears, for it shows that there exists a power to be wielded by Great Britain, more tremendous than was perhaps ever yet brought into action in the history of mankind’. The best prospect, he believed was ‘to content ourselves with letting the professors of violent and exaggerated doctrines on both sides feel that it is not their interest to convert an umpire into their competitor’. But alongside this was the recognition that this ‘equilibrium’ might be impossible to maintain.

Circumspection and hard-headedness were not dispensed with. But here was the crux of the Canningite legacy. It centred not on first principles but on two realisations, made over the course of the 1820s. The first was that non-intervention, while the most attractive option, had severe limitations when diplomacy did not suffice in the face of a direct threat to British interests. The second was that once Britain became drawn into active intervention against less liberal powers, she was always likely to be drawn to the ‘liberal’ or ‘humanitarian’ side.

Even Castlereagh, never a slave to public opinion, had noted that ‘if embarked in a War, which the Voice of the Country does not support, the Efforts of the strongest Administration which ever served the Crown would be unequal to the prosecution of the Conquest’. This was ‘our compass, and by this we must steer’. In other words, if such intervention was to occur, it was impossible for the British government to proceed without the consideration of humanitarian principles.

Non-intervention was appealing in abstract terms; it fitted the instincts of both Castlereagh and Canning. Subsequently, it has also proved attractive at times of war weariness and economic downturn: in the cash crisis of the 1820s and the wake of the Napoleonic Wars; in the 1930s, with memories of the Great War coinciding with the Great Depression; and certainly today, with the credit crunch occurring at the same time as ongoing and exhausting interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Nevertheless, what dawned on the makers of foreign policy in the 1820s, as John Stuart Mill later put it was that, the ‘doctrine of non-intervention’, ‘to be a legitimate principle of morality’, as well as a successful strategy, ‘must be accepted by all governments … despots must consent to be bound by it as well as the free States’. ‘Unless they do’, he concluded, ‘the profession of it by free countries comes but to this miserable issue, that the wrong side may help the wrong, but the right must not help the right. Intervention to enforce non-intervention is always rightful, always moral, if not always prudent’.