Monday, October 29, 2007

Far-away lands of which he knows little

Last Friday David Cameron made a really bad speech in Berlin on foreign policy. It was intended as a rebuttal of “liberal interventionism”, which Cameron associated with Tony Blair but defined only as “the idea that we should just get out there into the world and 'sort it all out'”.

That’s the quality of his analysis. But of course it’s an ancient rhetorical trick to kick over straw men; no matter that nobody actually holds such a view.

He identifies the main global security problem as failed states:

Failed states not only fail to provide security for their own people, they threaten the security of others by serving as a launchpad for terrorism and violence. And failed states have a global, not just a regional impact.

Correct. But he goes on to explain (if that’s the word) two principles that underpin his own view:

My first principle may seem counter-intuitive: that to help protect international security, any state must put its own national security first.
My second principle is that we should replace the doctrine of liberal interventionism… with the doctrine of liberal conservatism… in the sense of a sceptical attitude towards the ability of states to create utopias.

Again, that states can create utopias is a view nobody holds (beyond perhaps a few lingering communists).

He does accept that:

‘National security first’ may sound like a perverse principle to adopt in an age of complex and globally linked security threats. Surely it is more important than ever that we put international security first? I don't agree. Every good military commander understands that no campaign will succeed unless you secure your home base first.

Oh my word. ‘Look at me, I’ve talked to some soldiers.’ Even as he tries to distance himself from any ‘war on terrorism’ outlook, he still buys into the way of talking about all global security challenges through a military metaphor.

But of course we know that he’s not really trying to refute a view that nobody holds; he’s just trying to disown the interventionist foreign policy of the Blair years. But the paucity of his analysis shows in the fact that despite his broader intent, he can’t say which of Blair’s wars – Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iraq – he might oppose.

As with grammar schools, Cameron seems to oppose military interventions – except for those that already exist.

So much for the intellectual quality. But his isolationist turn – reminiscent of pre-9/11 Bush – is a stinker of an idea in itself. Paul Collier, an Oxford expert on development policy, has an approach far better for combatting both global insecurity and poverty in failed states. A key element is that military interventions are – in severe cases – vital. He notes that:

…much of Africa faces high risks of internal insecurity from rebellions and coups. Partly this is due to decades of economic failure, and partly because the typical country is too small to reap security economies of scale. Africa needs a stronger international-security presence: prolonged peacekeeping in the fragile post-conflict situations, and "over-the-horizon" security guarantees elsewhere. Both of these should be conditional upon clear standards of governance which could be set by the African Union. The model is the provision of external security for Sierra Leone, about the most effective form of aid Europe has ever given to Africa.

Perhaps Cameron has succumbed to the pop-Whiggish view of British history that has (paradoxically) many Tory fans: that a country left to its own devices will naturally progress towards greater security, prosperity, freedom and democracy.

Some do; others do not. A thousand idiosyncracies shaped Britain’s development, and if we care about what happens in the political wrecks of the world that have their own unique situations, then external engagement is not utopian recklessness but a practical and humanitarian necessity. Sometimes this engagement will have to take a military form.


Andre said...

I thought intervention was something the Tories believed in? Or have they done a U-Turn on that too, just because Blair did it so much better? (what will they disown next, just because Blair did it better? the market? economic growth? international credibility?)

All countries where Blair intervened where a global threat and a regional threat - and would have continued being such a threat unless something was done. Sure there are problems in Iraq and Afghanistan - and terrorism will never stop - but at least it's not state-sponsored terror.

Tom Freeman said...

Well, they do seem to be backing off a bit from the market, with Cameron's plan (reheated from the 2005 manifesto) for national immigration quotas so that employers have to apply to the government for the migrant workers they want...

I'm not sure how Cameron's anti-intervention line would go down with those on his front bench who take a more activist view - Hague, Fox and Gove for three.