David Cameron has just addressed a conference of the CDU/CSU in Berlin.  He has used the speech to distance himself from the liberal interventionism of Bush and Blair.   The speech should not come as a surprise.  David Cameron has not visited Washington since becoming Tory leader and has ridiculed the idea that “you can drop democracy out of an aeroplane at 40,000ft.”

There are good sections in the speech.  There is a reasonably strong statement on Afghanistan.  David Cameron announces a new security dialogue between Dame Pauline Neville-Jones and the German interior ministry.  He emphasises border protection and greater integration between domestic and foreign security policy-making.

But the speech is confusing overall.  First of all is Mr Cameron’s promise to put national security first.  This, he says, is a change from Tony Blair: "To help protect international security, any state must put its own national security first."  This, surely, is a false choice.  Every sensible state will always do what is necessary to protect national security (clamp down on extremist groups, police the borders, invest in the intelligence services etc) but why does that have to be in tension with international security efforts?  Distancing the Conservative Party from Blair and Bush may be good politics but what does this ‘putting national security first’ really mean?

Those who are willing to believe that Cameron is not shrinking away from external threats can take some comfort from his commitment to "apply sanctions which really target Iranian financial institutions and trade."  There’s not much else to go on, however.  The speech is most notable for what it doesn’t say.  There’s no commitment to increase investment in our armed forces.  There’s no words about Saudi Arabia’s export of subversive propaganda.  Nothing on missile defence.  There’s no commitment to reform of the United Nations.  Instead we get a commitment to increase the size of the Security Council which only risks making the UN more unwieldy and less likely to intervene in places like Rwanda and Darfur.

Cameron says that he is against "liberal interventionism":

"We should replace the doctrine of liberal interventionism, famously
propounded by former Prime Minister Tony Blair in a speech in Chicago
in 1999, with the doctrine of liberal conservatism – conservatism not
in its narrow party political meaning, but in the sense of a sceptical
attitude towards the ability of states to create utopias."

All of us are wiser about nation-building after recent years but my overall view is that interventionism is often necessary, although sacrificial.  Many, many more people have died when we have not intervened (Rwanda, Darfur, Srebrenica) than when we have (Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Iraq, Afghanistan).  I am not in favour of the kind of badly-prepared interventions that characterised the Bush and Blair years but more responsible leaders – McCain, for example, said from pretty much day one that many more troops were needed in Iraq – would have avoided the situation that Petraeus is now beginning to redeem.

The loss of life and chaos in post-Saddam Iraq has rightly horrified the world although the situation may finally be turning around.  I emphasise "may".   What we cannot afford, however, is for the world to be blind to the situations in Pakistan, Iran, Syria and other nations.  There’s plenty in Mr Cameron’s speech that points in the direction of a more isolationist Britain but the text is confused enough for liberal interventionists like myself to still have some hope.

Other key statements from this afternoon’s speech to the Berlin security conference (full text here):

  • "Today, what happens in Asia has become as important to us as
    what happens nearby. That is why it is right that NATO is on the front
    line in Asia as well as in Europe. And I believe there is no more
    important commitment than that being shown today by NATO in Afghanistan"
  • "I know that overseas military commitments are not always popular.
    But real leadership is about doing what’s right, making the argument
    and leading public opinion. NATO must deliver the means as well as
    willing the end."
  • "British Conservatives and German Christian Democrats may not agree
    on everything. But there is far, far more that unites us than divides
    us. For example, the need to tackle climate change. The need to fight
    terrorism. And the need to expand prosperity through the free market."
  • "In the modern world, I believe there are four types of security
    that any successful state needs to provide: institutional, cultural,
    economic and physical."
  • "This requires action on a number of fronts that have been
    dangerously neglected in recent years. Promoting national cohesion and
    clamping down on people and organisations that undermine it."
  • "Modernising our machinery of government to end the division
    between domestic and foreign security policy, instituting a new
    national security approach."
  • "In the long-term our objective must be to help all states,
    everywhere, to become strong, self-confident nations that contribute
    to, rather than undermine, international security."
  • "Liberal interventionism – the idea that we should just get out
    there into the world and ‘sort it all out’ was the right impulse; was
    morally correct, but failed to strike the right balance between realism
    and idealism."
  • "I think the right balance can be found in what I believe in:
    liberal conservatism. Liberal – because I believe civil rights,
    democracy, pluralism and the rule of law are the source of progress and
    a key component of lasting security.But conservative too: because I
    recognize the complexities of human nature, am sceptical of grand
    utopian schemes to remake the world, and understand that you have to be
    hard-headed and practical in the pursuit of your values."

5pm: James Forsyth says it much better than me: "
The sound bite from today’s speech is ‘national security first.’ Leaving aside the unpleasant historical associations
that the phrase has, it is so intellectually outdated as to be
meaningless. We can’t have national security—even in the very narrowest
sense of the word—in this country, while foreign-funded religious
institutions try to convert young British Muslims to a perverted form
of faith that sees opposition to the British state as a religious duty
and British citizens are being given terrorist training in Pakistan."