Arab revolutions teach lesson in realpolitik

March 5, 2011 - 0:0

David Cameron’s journey from innocence to experience has been brutally short. A week ago Britain’s prime minister was touring the Persian Gulf selling arms to autocrats. Muammer Gaddafi’s violent repression put paid to that. Mr. Cameron is now rehearsing the language of human dignity and political pluralism.

He has some way to go to show the shift is more than superficial. Bromides about democracy are one thing. The ferment in the Middle East demands a serious foreign policy. In Britain’s case, it requires the casting off of shibboleths about what constitutes the national interest and about collaboration in Europe. Mr. Cameron has yet to show the aptitude for such an enterprise.
The prime ministerial notion that foreign policy could be reinvented as trade promotion was always naive. So too was a self-styled “realism” that said post Iraq and Afghanistan Britain should avoid all overseas entanglements.
The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and Libya are a reminder of how often foreign policy is shaped by someone else.
This has come as a rude shock in Downing Street. In so far as Mr. Cameron has shown an interest in abroad it has been at the head of trade missions. Even last week he insisted on pressing ahead on his commercial swing through the Persian Gulf states after officials warned that the timing was less than propitious.
To the extent that his government has enunciated a foreign policy doctrine, it has been in opposition to Tony Blair’s liberal internationalism. The prime minister’s brand of Toryism is rooted in a narrow view of national interest that eschews adventures in far-flung places.
The shortcomings of this approach were cruelly exposed during the early 1990s when the then Conservative government stood by as Bosnian Muslims were being slaughtered in the Balkans. Mr. Cameron, who served as an adviser in that administration, seems not to have learnt the lesson. Now, events, to recall Harold Macmillan’s famous aphorism, have forced at least a rhetorical change of course.
There are bigger states
There are bigger stakes, though, than the egg on Mr. Cameron’s face. He was not alone in misreading the Arab spring. France’s Nicolas Sarkozy has sacked his foreign minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, for her apparent support of the Tunisian regime at the start of the uprising. Paris, like Washington, has looked consistently flat-footed.
William Hague, Britain’s foreign secretary, was right when he remarked that the challenge (I would add opportunity) now facing the Middle East and the international community is as momentous as any since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
On one side of the ledger is the hope of an open, prosperous Middle East rooted in support for universal values – a valuable ally and partner for a European Union in desperate need of revival. On the other, lies the threat of chaos, rising extremism and uncontrolled emigration.
What is missing is strategic direction from Downing Street. True, Mr. Cameron pronounces himself in favor of freedom and democracy. He has voiced appropriate horror at Mr. Gaddafi’s murder of his own people. Whether this heralds a change of course, no one seems too sure.
We must hope so. Even on a narrow definition, Britain has a powerful national interest in a smooth transition to democracy in the Maghreb. Economics, energy security and immigration controls all point in the same direction.
If the region does fall to chaos, the impact will be felt acutely in Europe – and the Channel will not shield Britain from the consequences. Realpolitik and liberal internationalism, in other words, both pull in the same direction.
A strategy to match the moment has to reach beyond recognition that foreign policy is about more than selling things. It demands acceptance that if it wants to shape events Britain must work with, and through, its European partners.
This, of course, offends Mr. Cameron’s Eurosceptic sensibilities. There is, though, a precedent. During the second half of the 1990s, Britain promoted EU enlargement to bring in the new democracies of the formerly communist east. If Mr. Cameron wants to show he is serious about foreign policy, he should champion comprehensive EU engagement with the emerging democracies of the south.