It doesn’t really get much better than this on the world stage for a British prime minister.
David Cameron pitched up in New York at lunchtime on Wednesday for the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly less than a week after an ecstatic reception on the streets of Tripoli and Benghazi.
With many leaders of the Arab world hailing Britain and France for their leadership on Libya, Cameron was love-bombed by Barack Obama in a 30 minute meeting on Wednesday evening. US presidents know they have to say warm words about the Anglo-American special relationship. But Obama was gushing as he said:
Obviously there is an extraordinarily special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom…I have always found prime minister Cameron to be an outstanding partner, so I am very grateful for his friendship, his hard work, his dedication and his leadership on the global stage.
To cap it all, relations could not be better with a traditional foe. Yes, France and Britain are enjoying a late summer romance after Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy led the way on Libya.
So, all in all, the contrast with Tony Blair could not be greater. It is true that the former prime minister had little difficulty in prompting gushing words from George Bush, particularly over Iraq. But he didn’t manage to win praise from the Arab world at the same time and keep relations with France on an even keel.
And yet Blair, who is also in New York as the Middle East peace envoy, will hover over Cameron (not literally of course) when the prime minister delivers his first speech to the UN General Assembly on Thursday. Minds will be cast back to Blair’s famous Chicago speech of April 1999, during the Kosovo conflict, when the former prime minister outlined what became known as the Blair doctrine of liberal interventionism.
The prime minister’s aides groan at the comparison with Chicago and they recoil at talk of a Cameron Doctrine. Cameron is, after all, a traditional Tory who does pragmatism, underpinned by his values. They don’t do ideology in Peasemore, he would say.
So is it fair to draw comparisons with Chicago? At one level it is. This will be Cameron’s most important speech on foreign policy as prime minister. He has known for a year that he would be delivering it after he despatched Nick Clegg to UNGA last year following the birth of baby Florence. He obviously did not know exactly what speech he would be delivering until events in Libya reached a (semi) conclusion last month.
As with Chicago, which was heavily influenced by Kosovo, Cameron’s thinking on foreign policy has been utterly transformed by Libya. His central message on Thursday will be that world leaders must be prepared to intervene if oppressive regimes slaughter their people. In contrast to the Blair-Bush approach, however, Cameron believes this must be done through the UN and with the approval of other countries in the relevant region. On most occasions, such as Syria, the intervention will involve sanctions rather than military action.
Cameron’s plea for the UN to be prepared to intervene again does appear to show an evolution in his thinking. In his most famous speech on foreign affairs before he became prime minister, Cameron indicated that he belonged more to the Douglas Hurd school of thought. The former foreign secretary famously rejected supplying Bosnian Muslims with arms on the grounds that that would create a level killing field.
Speaking in 2006 on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, Cameron caused great offence in the US when he said:
The ambition to spread democracy is noble and just. But it cannot be quickly achieved to suit a political timetable. Because it takes time, it cannot easily be imposed from outside. Liberty grows from the ground – it cannot be dropped from the air by an unmanned drone.
But Cameron would say that Thursday’s speech includes similar thinking. He will say:
Now the mistake we often make in the West is to think that because the people in this region [the Middle East and North Africa] want democracy, they will want it in the same way with the same outcomes that we do. We should not be trying to impose Western values or a single template on the region.
In his speech back in 2006 Cameron also said there would be times when it would be right to intervene:
I believe that we should be prepared to intervene for humanitarian purposes to rescue people from genocide.
On Thursday he will say:
You can sign every human rights declaration in the world but if you stand by and watch people being slaughtered in their own country, when you could act then what are those signatures really worth?
The similarities – and differences – between those two sentences show that the prime minister’s thinking has evolved in the past five years. There is a similar sentiment – it is right to intervene – though the conditions have changed. In 2006 he set the bar very high by citing genocide. Once genocide is declared countries have a duty to act under the Geneva Convention anyway. Now he talks of acting if there is a slaughter. Any slaughter is horrific, but that does not necessarily amount to genocide.
So Cameron will agree that his thinking has evolved on foreign policy, though he will say there is no great break with the past. But one thing is for sure. He will still agonise over foreign affairs. This is of course the man who sweated before eventually casting his vote in favour of the Iraq war in 2003.
Tags: Barack Obama, david cameron, kosovo conflict, leadership, middle east peace, minister, region, stage, United Nations General Assembly, USA, way
Categories: The Western Press