As the frontlines in Libya have swayed back and forth, just as they did almost seventy years ago, so the advisability of David Cameron’s foreign policy adventure has ebbed and flowed. Before Cameron became Prime Minister, the Conservative Party was markedly cautious about an interventionalist foreign policy and said that their foreign policy would: “promote human rights, economic liberalism and political freedom, with humanitarian intervention when it is necessary and when it can be effective”. When he became Prime Minister Cameron continued in this vein and also suggested that, especially in a time of economic stringency, British foreign policy would have to be directed most at what was in the national interest. However, he also raised a few eyebrows by suggesting (accurately) that Britain was the junior partner to the United States today in foreign affairs but also that that was the case in 1940 during the Second World War (Pearl Harbour was in December 1941).
Cameron has managed a number of other foreign policy gaffes suggesting that Iran had a nuclear weapon, that China represents a nuclear threat to the UK and in whilst India, he managed unfortunate remarks about Pakistan facing both ways on terrorism. He may largely have assuaged Pakistani irritation with his latest visit there though at least some in India have latched onto the suggestion that his return visit is an apology trip.
Cameron has managed thus far to avoid the epic foreign (and domestic) policy disaster which was Tony Blair’s helping the American invasion of Iraq. Despite that the Conservative foreign policy fronted by Cameron and Hague has been anything but surefooted.
Foreign policy is always a colossally difficult issue with often random events or connections creating disasters or other times triumphs on the international stage. The Conservative Party, despite its pretentions otherwise, has a less than stunning record when it comes to foreign affairs.
Since the last World War, Tory governments have had many more years in office but have also managed to preside over most of the foreign policy disasters of the post war period. Anthony Eden was the Prime Minister last time Britain tried intervention in North Africa producing the total humiliation which was Suez (unmatched as a disaster until Mr. Blair’s time). Harold McMillan was somewhat more successful and was, with Kennedy, one of the great proponents of the “Special Relationship”. Ted Heath’s great legacy was getting Britain into the Common Market; which would for its supporters be one of the great achievements of post war British foreign policy but for its detractors (many of them Tories) one of the greatest errors.
Margaret Thatcher is often perceived as one of the giants of British foreign policy with her support of Regan and the Falklands War. What is often conveniently forgotten is that it was the Thatcher government’s defence review which resulted in the proposal to scrap HMS Endurance which, along with the foreign office ignoring the warnings about Argentine activity, spurred the Argentineans into invading. Had Thatcher’s defence review been followed through there would have been no aircraft carriers and as such no possibility of regaining the islands.
That, however, is one of the legacies which good luck, brilliant military (especially naval) inventiveness and the courage of British service personal managed to salvage. Thatcher’s problems with the Falklands were in large part due to her government’s aggressive cut backs to defence spending: cuts less stringent than the current government has introduced in defence (as elsewhere). The irony is that those very cuts indirectly led to her being heralded as the Iron Lady of Tory folklore. Whether Cameron can be so lucky remains to be seen. In foreign affairs Chaos Theory seems a reasonable mechanism for predicting outcomes.