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What’s going on inside David Cameron’s foreign policy?

What’s going on inside David Cameron’s foreign policy?

A year ago I speculated on what a Tory foreign policy might look like. One thing that I didn’t anticipate is that it might look so much like David Cameron himself. That is, not content to delegate the national security portfolio to capable ministers such as William Hague and Liam Fox, Cameron has emerged as a major foreign policy player in his own right. Whether a distinctive "Cameron Doctrine" in British foreign policy might emerge remains to be seen. What appears so far is an effort to reassert the U.K.’s posture on the global stage through building new alliances, repairing old ones, bolstering British commerce, and generating headlines through "straight talk."

Cameron’s first weeks in office were heavy on domestic policy, marked by his proposed dramatic budget cuts and decentralizing National Health Service reforms. Although evoking outrage from the usual interest groups (especially public sector unions), such measures will be indispensable for returning the U.K. to fiscal solvency, restoring broad-based economic growth, and reigniting the U.K.’s moribund entrepreneurial sector. More recently, Cameron’s global travels from the U.S. to Turkey to India have been marked by a series of brash statements. Whether confident assertions of national interest (defending BP in Washington), shameless pandering (criticizing Israel in Turkey), or impolitic yet true criticisms (denouncing Pakistan’s ties to terror groups in India), Cameron is serving notice that he intends to be the main voice of British foreign policy.

Less noticed but equally interesting has been Foreign Secretary William Hague’s tenure. Hague and Cameron seem well-aligned on policy though divergent on style. True to form, Hague has been systematically laying out a vision for the U.K.’s role in what he calls the "networked world" through a series of thoughtful speeches. Fortunately Hague seems to have eschewed his previous declinist rhetoric about the U.K.’s global posture; perhaps with the responsibilities of office comes a renewed commitment to U.K. leadership.

Herewith a few questions and question marks on the Cameron government’s foreign policy:

  • Where are the LibDems? The story in the weeks before the May 4 election was the stratospheric ascent of the LibDems; the story since they joined the government is a plummet just as rapid. As Max Hastings put it, Nick Clegg’s plunge from a 72 percent approval rating to just 8 percent "makes Icarus seem a success story." On the other hand, Clegg’s leveraging of one golden campaign week in May into a perch as deputy prime minister looks now like perhaps the shrewdest capitalization on an inflated asset bubble since AOL merged with TimeWarner. Meanwhile, on the question of governing, the LibDems have barely been seen or heard on foreign policy issues. This may change if they take a stand against funding for full replacement of the Trident nuclear deterrent.
  • Whither Liam Fox? The potentially odd-man out in the Cameron-Osbourne-Hague leadership triumvirate is Defence Minister Liam Fox. Smart, conservative, and strong-willed, he is making his presence known but may have limited influence due to his distance from the Cameron inner circle.
  • Will the overtures to India bear fruit? The kerfuffle over Cameron’s Pakistan comments threatened to overshadow the significance of his visit to India. Leading a delegation of five Cabinet Ministers and numerous business leaders, Cameron made India the first and only Asian country on his itinerary — and made clear that the U.K. seeks a broad-based commercial, security, and diplomatic upgrade in its relationship with India. Ironically, amidst the Obama administration’s ongoing neglect of India, it may be the Cameron government that carries forward the Bush administration’s legacy of elevating the strategic partnership between India and the West.
  • What about Afghanistan? Cameron has tried to straddle fragile and diminishing public support for the U.K.’s Afghanistan deployment with the security imperatives of the NATO mission by announcing a withdrawal date of 2015. Even this, however, sends a signal of irresolution to British troops in theatre. In private conversations I had last week with several British Army officers, every one voiced frustration that a specified withdrawal date demoralizes their forces and encourages the Taliban enemy. (No surprise, they found the Obama administration’s July 2011 drawdown date even more indefensible). The Afghan question has major implications for other U.K. concerns as well. For example, as Walter Ladwig has pointed out, Cameron’s hopes for a partnership with India hinge in part on the U.K.’s sustained and successful commitment to a stable and peaceful Afghanistan.
  • What hath Brussels to do with London? (or, What about the EU?) During the decade-plus of the Tory sojourn in the political wilderness, pundits incessantly tut-tutted about how the EU issue would forever bedevil Conservative efforts to regain power, as the party was wracked by internal divisions between its Euroskeptic and Europhile wings. Now into the third month of the Tory government (in coalition with the Europhile LibDems), EU issues have been on the back-burner. Will EU concerns stay simmering along as second-tier concerns, or will they re-emerge in some way as a first-order threat to government unity?
  • And of course…what about the "Special Relationship"? Considering the various BP distractions, David Cameron’s recent visit to Washington seemed to go well enough. The rapport between Cameron and Obama is much improved over the flaccid Gordon Brown-Obama relationship. Relations between Hague and Secretary Clinton are likewise cordial. Press conferences and photo ops aside, the real tests will be whether and how much the leaders come to confide in and depend on each other on a regular basis. And even more, how they act in the eventuality of an international security crisis — such as a large-scale terrorist attack, or a military confrontation with Iran.