Britain is now the nation of self-interest, Cameron tells world
In his barely-remarked upon speech to the Lord Mayor’s Banquet on Monday 15 November, David Cameron completed a century-long story arc for British foreign policy. The defining statement was this:
“pursuit of our national interest – has been at the heart of everything I have said this evening.”
Obviously this was not a wholly remarkable approach, and he did admit that this was what every PM said, from different perspectives. That, together with the way the speech was so comprehensively quoted in advance by the broadsheets, probably limited the commentariat’s response (I could find no comment on it in the FT, Guardian or Telegraph). But the speech was indeed gimlet-eyed about self-interest, and that is, I think, a new narrative. He made clear that, although there would be altruistic elements such as the welcome commitment to reach the UN target of spending 0.7% of GNI on overseas aid, and support for human rights (eg in Burma), the objective of UK foreign policy henceforth would be economic wealth and national security. Everything else will be a welcome by-product of that.
In the 19th century, politicians like Palmerston and Gladstone were keen to dress up naked self-interest as moral rectitude (like shielding the ankles of grand pianos for fear of causing offence). But as the 20th century proceeded, perhaps as a result of relative national decline, British governments started to talk more and more of “the national interest”. I don’t think this was just a journey towards honesty: as I say, it was more likely a response to national concern that we weren’t rich enough for grand gestures any more. The apogee was reached in the last Labour Government’s foreign policy. Robin Cook’s opening salvo as Foreign Secretary – his elaboration of an ‘ethical foreign policy’ – demonstrated clearly that that sort of thing was no longer fashionable. For the rest of Labour’s time in office, foreign policy was justified more and more by reference to the national interest. This reached its heights in the so-called ‘dodgy dossier’ with its underlying claim that invading Iraq was in Britain’s national interest, when it was – for Tony Blair at least – a moral crusade.
Now, however, David Cameron is absolutely forthright that nothing else matters than self-interest. His Government will judge every foreign policy by reference to those two key tests – does it make us richer or safer?
Many will welcome the robust openness (although this week that’s what did for Lord Young of Graffham!) but I would argue that it isn’t actually going to get us where we want to be, any more than a domestic policy based on the pursuit of self-interest would. Global solidarity is just as important as social solidarity, and more likely to float everyone’s boat than self-interest, which quickly descends into beggar-my-neighbour competition. So, pursuing national security through overseas development assistance will too often fail to address the causes of failing states because it is focusing to much on the outcomes of such failure. And seeking to put trade before human rights will lead to trading with people who don’t care how much their own people suffer which means their exports will be so cheap they undermine our few remaining industries, and their consumers too poor to buy anything we want to sell.
Of course, this is an exaggeration of where Government policy could lead us – for effect. But it is the trend on which we are now set, and we need to argue for a rebalancing of the foreign policy objectives, and criticism of any developments that take us in the wrong direction. One example of the latter was the lamentable lack of initiative and leadership that David Cameron showed in Seoul earlier this month where he merely observed as the G20 failed to get anywhere. Showing leadership doesn’t mean shoving other potential leaders out of the way (so Cameron may get a free ride next year with Sarkozy in the chair). But it does mean, as Gordon Brown showed when Bush failed to take the lead at the beginning of the new G20, that when no one else is stepping up to the plate, you should.