David Cameron’s globetrotting, self-proclaimed “jobs mission” was apparently intended to both reiterate Chancellor George Osborne’s message that Britain has reopened for business and embrace foreign secretary’s William Hague calls for a new diplomacy that reduced our overreliance on America and sought closer ties with the emerging powers of tomorrow. A new blunt diplomatic style has certainly emerged from the Prime Minister but it is questionable whether or not it shall prove fruitful for the nation’s interests.
In interviews over the course of the trip Cameron has admitted that in coalition it takes longer to get MPs from his own party on board. Perhaps this loss of immediate influence over Conservative MPs has encouraged the new Prime Minister to be more assertive and presidential in speeches, or “frank” as he puts it, so that he can exercise power elsewhere. What Cameron has hurriedly defended as honesty others see as risky brutality. In Turkey he referred to Gaza as a “prison camp” in a shameless attempt to please his hosts and has followed this of course with the more widely publicised criticism of Pakistan’s terror links whilst in India. Cameron appears to have been trying to score easy points with his host nations by verbally attacking their old enemies, whilst apparently forgetting the all seeing eye of modern media and the importance of the UK’s relations with Israel and Pakistan as well as Turkey and India. In the case of Pakistan his comments were particularly misguided as progress was being made and will only ever continue with close cooperation from the Pakistani government and military. Inflammatory comments likely to destabilise a fragile but necessary partnership in security will not serve Britain’s interests, even when the PM insists that his comments only referred to widely known truths.
Cameron’s defence of his behaviour has shown his naivety as a leader and statesman. Repeatedly he has insisted that he would not feel comfortable being dishonest and he sees no reason to not say what he thinks and point out the realities of situations. This sort of answer might please voters at home and indeed it seems that the Prime Minister is more comfortable as leader of the opposition, using his bluntness as a tool for political gain through his “Cameron Direct” meetings. The fact is that even though Cameron has merely stated the widely known reality of situations, diplomacy, particularly when you are seeking to gain from it, requires subtlety and the judgement to pick which issues you are blunt and firm about.
Given that Cameron insisted the whole huge trip, entourage and all, was about securing jobs for British people and markets for recovery, he has missed an enormous opportunity to take a worthwhile gamble instead of being reckless in other areas for reasons of image. I have examined the idea of a “New Politics” on my blog before and whether or not this is something Cameron truly believes in or simply a political tool his first foreign policy tour has been a failure. Firstly if we assume that Cameron uses the idea of a “New Politics” largely as a politic tool, which frankly I do, Cameron has blundered over Afghanistan as well as Pakistan. By committing to a withdrawal date in 2015 he has not only placed an unwanted burden upon the armed forces but started a countdown towards political suicide; in the likely event that the situation on the ground does not permit a total pull out in the time limit he has agreed to, mostly to appease President Obama. Secondly then, if we take the idea of “New Politics” seriously, Cameron missed a perfect, opportune moment to take an inspirational stand against non-renewable energy in the wake of the BP Oil spill and call for a new way forward.
Whilst in America Cameron made a lot of noise about not simply pandering to the Americans anymore, being realistic about the nature of the special relationship, calling us a “junior partner” but insisting he would get a better deal for the UK out of future relations. However what actually happened was that Cameron downplayed the significance of his own nation, abandoned the Scottish legislature, branding their decision to release Megrahi as wrong (whether it was or not, did he need to come down so hard on the Scots?), and failed to defend an oil company vital to thousands of Britons’ interests that is also full of American shareholders, executives and only exists because of the world’s richest nation’s unquenchable thirst for the black gold.
If Cameron was the prophet of “New Politics” he claims to be he would have expressed deep regret at the damage caused by the oil spill and agreed that it was right BP clean it up (whilst insisting it would do no good to destroy BP as a company). He would then have referred to President Obama’s previous description of the spill as a disaster on the level of 9/11 and recognised this as his moment to touch the hearts of the world as Tony Blair did in the wake of that attack and unite two nations across the Atlantic. He would have argued that the tough truth exposed by the spill was that our way of life was dangerous and destructive as well as unsustainable, and therefore required a more urgent solution. He should have appealed to America and Britain’s joint legacy of leading the world against new challenges and offered to support and partner President Obama in pioneering a new generation of renewable, clean energy sources that would provide jobs and investment in the short term and vital energy security in the long run. He would have pointed to his government’s commitment to deficit reduction to show that he believes in sustainability in all areas of government but also urged the President to set aside funds for replacing the dependency on oil with innovative, inspiring new technologies. He should have left America with this message for green jobs and carried it to his meetings with all world leaders as the defining aspect of his diplomacy and insisted green restructuring be closely tied to economic recovery as it continued. This universal, unifying message would have been far more suited to a Prime Minister on his first foreign policy trip and far more inspirational than cheap, undignified point scoring. It would also clearly state Britain was open for the right sort of business; green, sustainable business with jobs that would last, instead of empty promises alongside policies like the immigration cap that rendered them immediately worthless.
All in all Cameron’s first foray into international leadership reinforced some opinions I held of him before and during the election. As a competent government leader on the world stage he does not compare to the gruff efficiency of Gordon Brown and his ideological spending cuts are likely to alienate important economies rather than entice them. His apparent commitment to passionate, inspirational political ventures does also not extend to urgent challenges like climate change, which might just allow Britain to find a place in the world again. His hasty honesty and radical conservative policy are thankfully tempered, albeit loosely at times, by his Liberal coalition partners, but Clegg and co must be careful that crafty Cameron does not amass all the political capital gained by the coalition.