Banging on about Europe

David Cameron

David Cameron, speaking at the start of the Tory party conference this week in Bournemouth, called for people to stop “banging on about Europe”. Sorry, David, that’s not really me.

But, at least the man is consistent. He gave a major speech entitled “A new approach to foreign affairs – liberal conservatism” (which you can read here) and hardly mentioned Europe at all himself. The speech is all about the Anglo-American relationship and a disavowal of neo-conservatism. The project of remaking the world in the image of American capitalism has run into problems, he has noticed, and he would prefer a different approach.

He outlines five propositions that should form the basis of foreign policy in the future. They are:

(1) we should fully understand the threat we face
(2) democracy cannot quickly be imposed from outside
(3) our strategy needs to go far beyond military action
(4) we need a new multilateralism
(5) we must strive to act with moral authority

By the first of these points, he means Islamist terrorism. He has some vociferous neo-cons on his front-bench team so he has to say this to keep them happy. He says some scary things about the terrorists and their motivation, and calls for us “to be a little smarter” in dealing with them. Islamist terrorism needs a blog entry of its own, I think.

On the second point, he says, in a rather strange form of words which he surely did not write himself, that “democracy can flourish everywhere there are people.” You see what he means though: any country can become democratic, given the chance, but has to be allowed to do so at its own pace and in its own way. Fine, I’m happy with that.

The third point is trivial. Even the advocates of military solutions in the United States saw the use of force as no more than the means of overturning obstructive governments so that the full delightful attraction of American economics and culture can go to work.

The fourth point I will leave until last. Leaping ahead instead towards moral authority, he wants parliament to approve the deployment of soldiers on active service (in the case of Iraq, it did, both here and in America, so that doesn’t change much) and objects to Guantanamo Bay and excessive periods of detention without trial. He has to square that last point with his understanding of the threat, of course, but he is a skilled enough politician to be able to do so when the time comes.

I fear he may be assuming too much about morality on its own, though. In his discussion of fighting terrorism, he asserts that “We are today facing an enemy which ultimately will not be defeated by military force, but by moral force.”

However, in an earlier passage in the same speech, he notes that “We are dealing with people who are prepared to do anything, kill any number, and use suicide attacks to further their aims.” How exactly are these people to be defeated by moral force?

This is a tangent, though. Back to multilateralism, point four. It’s the most interesting one.

The biggest consequence of a multilateral approach is the need to work with America. He says so himself, and he’s right. He states that “We have for more than half a century acted as junior partner to the United States” and that “three Prime Ministers [Churchill, Thatcher, Major] learned to carry it through with skill and success.” It’s not often that John Major and Winston Churchill will appear in the same sentence, but let that pass. David Cameron then goes on: “I worry that we have recently lost the art.”

I’m not sure he needs to worry too much about that. Tony Blair has been the junior partner to President Bush quite happily enough. The problem is that being junior partner is, in itself, the wrong place to be. It is a role designed to “combine the maximum of exposure with the minimum of real influence over decisions.”

Now, these decisions matter and we need influence over them. How to exercise it? The answer is facing him across the Channel, as he goes for his morning bike ride along the Bournemouth seafront.

The countries of the European Union are waiting for Britain to join them in a new multilateralism that brings influence as well as partnership. If you want a “rebalanced” relationship with American, then our European friends are the people we should work with.

“We should not be naïve or starry-eyed about multilateralism,” he says. Damn right, multilateralism is hard work. It’s why the European Union has problems. It means accepting that other people in other countries look at things differently and that nevertheless you still have to find common solutions and get along.

But the people with whom we have most in common are the other Europeans: let’s start our multilateralism with them.

Sorry to bang on, David, but if you mean what you say about making multilateralism work, then Europe is the place to start.

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