By Paul Goodman
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If all one knew of foreign policy was gleaned from institutes, think-tanks, centres and specialist events, one might well conclude that it is shaped by theory – by rational people gathering together to apply grand designs to the world. It would follow that David Cameron's speech to the United Nations must therefore be seen in that way – as the product of the application of ideas to circumstances, judiciously weighed over time. So it's worth looking back at the history of the Prime Minister's engagement with world affairs, from which today's speech has emerged, in order to work out whether or not foreign policy emerges in this considered way.
Cameron was drawn deeper into it after his patron, Michael Howard, became leader of the party and leaned on his former special adviser for help. Iain Duncan Smith had backed the Iraq war enthusiastically. No weapons of mass destruction had been found. Tony Blair was in political difficulty as a result. The inclination of part of the party was that Howard should proclaim that Britain should never have fought the war; that of another to disagree; that of a third part to believe that it would look weak to first support the war and then oppose it. But there was agreement that the policy pendulum between isolation and intervention had swung too far towards the latter.
George W.Bush didn't care for this shift, and Howard was never received at the White House. The latter was thereby snubbed by a political ally, which he understandably resented. Cameron had been sceptical about the Iraq War as a up-and-coming backbencher, and the flavour of his foreign policy outlook as Leader of the Opposition was influenced by this fact, by Howard's treatment by Bush, by the political opportunities which Blair's plight offered, by the shift of mood against interventionism, by his relationship with both an older generation of senior Tories – of which his constituency predecessor Douglas Hurd provides the best example – and with his chief of staff, Ed Llewellyn.
Llewellyn is not an isolationist, having served as Chief of Staff both to Chris Patten in Hong Kong and Paddy Ashdown in Bosnia. And Cameron doesn't share Hurd's Euro-enthusiast instincts: if not Euro-sceptic, he is at the very least Euro-cool, regarding the EU and the controversies that spring from it as a menace to party management. But he shares with both men a temperamental calm and detachment very different from the passion and fever with which Blair approached Iraq – and, previously, Kosovo. The best-known line in a Cameron foreign policy opposition speech was about not being able to drop democracy out of an aeroplane at 40,000 feet. It caught the tone of his approach: politically adroit and interventionism-sceptic.
Some of his best political friends and other senior colleagues have never shared this view – George Osborne, Liam Fox and Michael Gove fall into one of these categories or both. What has been seen to shift the Prime Minister back towards their more activist vision of foreign policy has not so much been Afghanistan (where caution has won out) but Libya. Who knows why Cameron tilted so decisively in favour of intervention. Was his stance heart-led, a horrified response to impending massacre in Benghazi? Was it head-led, a colder calculation that, with the "Arab Spring" taking place, Britain would be blamed if it did nothing? Did he believe that Libya was more like Kosovo than Iraq – a case in which the consequences of not intervening would be worse than doing so?
We can all offer our own answer, and mine is: I doubt if he knows himself. But even I'm wrong, there is a moral in this history – that foreign policy isn't usually shaped by reflection built on theory, but by events, eruptions, happenstance, prejudices – above all, by that marvellously Burkean word, circumstances. The Prime Minister's text will be plundered in search of meanings it doesn't possess. New "Cameron doctrines" will be unearthed. New "Cameron worldviews" will be proclaimed. Sure, there is something there: liberal intervention, the U.N permitting – what emerged, as much by luck as judgement, from Libya – the policy of "it depends". But be certain that it will be qualified by events, don't be too sure it will last, and I mean the Prime Minister no disrespect by saying: don't take it all too seriously.