David Cameron: the ‘heir to Blair’ in Foreign Policy?

Joseph Perry


Photo source: The Guardian: Shaun Curry/AFP/Getty.

In 2005 David Cameron opted to cement his modernisation strategy by citing himself as the ‘heir to Blair’, kick-starting a journey towards the centre ground in Blair-like fashion. The ‘heir to Blair’ assertion has developed as Blair’s sofa style government and public service reform has largely been carried on. Furthermore, Cameron is earmarked as sharing a silver tongue with Blair as well as many charismatic and aesthetic features.

Does foreign policy follow suit? The Blair administration is a distinct period of British foreign policy represented by an apparent break from traditional realpolitik in favour of an ‘ethical dimension’, reshaping Britain’s image as a ‘good international citizen’ and being at the ‘heart of Europe’. These measures were short lived: 9/11 set in motion a reversion back to traditional instincts of the ‘special relationship’, global activism and Britain having a world role. Three years into Cameron’s premiership evidences a broad continuation within foreign policy. Specific variables have made paralleling continuity impossible. Additionally, Cameron has learnt lessons from Blair’s reign.

Blair’s foreign policy is often remembered for the invasion of Iraq whilst the ‘ethical dimension’ is often forgotten. Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, read out a Mission statement after New Labour’s landslide victory in 1997, essentially saying that this government would remould Britain into an influential, caring, and active member of the international community. ‘Rule Britannia was out, Cool Britannia was in’.

However, throughout this period rhetoric failed to match with any substantial action: beneath the spin little had changed. The underlying principles of British foreign policy remained the same, illustrated in the Strategic Defence Review. Britain would retain an independent nuclear deterrent, means to project force globally, and an emphasis on the importance of the ‘special relationship’ with the United States. Crucially Blair, like many Prime Ministers before him, refused to choose where Britain’s allegiance lay: Atlanticism or Europe. Instead Blair quickly laid out his belief that Britain was a ‘pivotal power’, a middle-ranking power with ties in both the US and Europe, and should use this to project influence in both theatres whilst acting as a go between.

Blair quickly acquired a taste for military adventure, unafraid to project British force, whether in alignment with his Chicago speech and the resulting ‘Blair doctrine’, or in the national interest. Global activism, to some degree, is based on Britain retaining great power status, safe-guarding its strategic and global economic interests, and continuing to ‘punch above its weight’, contrary to Cook’s Mission statement or the ‘Blair doctrine’.

Five times in six years British forces were used, becoming an iconic feature of his reign. The strain of two ground wars in Afghanistan and Iraq meant that Britain’s military flirted with apparent ‘overstretch’, accentuated by a peace time defence budget.

Iraq became the event which unravelled all that Blair previously stood for and had achieved. The failure to bring key European allies with him suggested that Britain’s role as a ‘pivotal power’ was exaggerated. The emphasis on being a good international citizen working within multilateral institutions was all but revoked. Additionally, Blair never recovered in the eyes of the British electorate: Iraq was clearly one intervention too far. It was a grave warning that in the 21st century global activism has to be legitimate, quick, and with a clear objective after the initial conflict.

Cameron’s foreign policy indicates no grand policy initiatives to mirror New Labour’s ‘ethical foreign policy’. Promoting British exports is one theme of importance to Cameron’s foreign policy, evidenced by trade delegations to India, Brazil, and the Middle East. Still, this doesn’t symbolise a paradigm shift in foreign policy. Overall foreign policy has resorted back to the advancement of the national interest. However, this inaccurately paints a picture of Britain quietly going about its business, whilst aiming to boost exports.

Cameron seems to share Blair’s view of a global outlook for Britain, following on from New Labour’s devotion to globalisation; Cameron now talks of winning the ‘global race’. There is a shared presumption that Britain should play an active role in the international arena. British forces have been used three times now, albeit Afghanistan is an inherited war and there are no combat troops in Mali. Nevertheless, Libya exemplifies Britain attempting to shape events rather than being shaped by them, in true Blair fashion.

Where Blair and Cameron converge is their reliance on Britain’s military to achieve foreign policy aims whilst underfunding or cutting it. Though Cameron has suggested that defence may be spared in the next round of budget cuts, one thing will remain: Britain’s armed forces will continue to operate above its means. Meanwhile the overseas aid budget has increased. Is this Cameron’s own method of implementing a moral dimension into Britain being a good international citizen?

Echoing Blair and ‘the War on Terror’, the Prime Minister has warned of a ‘generational struggle’ against terror, boldly stating in the House of Commons that “We must frustrate the terrorists with our security; we must beat them militarily.” Reminded of anyone?

Yet differences have stemmed from Cameron’s speech in 2006 where he called for a sense of balance, judgement and proportion in handling the complex and dangerous challenges of foreign and security policy in the 21st century. This is why Cameron has prioritised balancing the books instead of becoming involved in Syria or Mali. Restraint is something not inherited from Blair. Instead it is the lessons of Iraq. Consequently recent operations have been smaller and more controlled in accordance with European allies such as in Libya.

There are factors working against Cameron being the ‘heir to Blair’. The lack of a special ‘special relationship’ and a difficult relationship with Europe are restricting Britain advancing its national interest and influence. As the US pivots towards Asia showing little intention to engage in the world trouble zone, Cameron will find difficulty in operating as Blair did alongside a hawkish US foreign policy. Is there then scope for greater cooperation with Europe? Don’t count on it. Contrary to Blair, Cameron has the problem of his party’s attitude towards Europe. However, Anglo/French relations continue to show strength, rejuvenating the spirit of the St Malo agreement. Both powers initiated responses in Libya and Mali with the noticeable absence of the US, something Blair could never achieve.

Cameron has continued playing an active role in international affairs thus inheriting the title of ‘heir to Blair’. However, rather than a paralleling continuation of Blair’s reign there have been adjustments: restraint, opting for diplomacy, and acting legitimately with key allies within liberal institutional frameworks. This tamer foreign policy marks defence cuts, the growing reluctance of US activism, and lessons from Iraq. Trouble zones such as Syria and the Sahel provide tempters for British involvement. Cameron should stick to his current course of balance, acting in the national interest but also within Britain’s means.  Lessons will then have been learnt from the mentor, not just how to modernise a political party, but also how to conduct Britain’s foreign policy.

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