the unconservative foreign policy of the Conservative Party
Guest article by ALASTAIR PAYNTER
The reaction to the ongoing development of the so-called “Arab Spring” has demonstrated with abundant clarity that the Conservative-led coalition’s foreign policy is anything but conservative. In fact, the guiding philosophy behind its Middle Eastern policy appears to be the exact opposite of that to which conservatives used to hold. That it would be such was evident from the start. The 2010 Manifesto, chummily titled, An Invitation to Join the Government of Britain, boldly stated that Conservative Party policy was “based on a belief in freedom, human rights and democracy” and a belief in “humanitarian intervention when it is practical and necessary” (1).
David Cameron recently reiterated this position during a visit to the region. Visiting a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, he hailed forthcoming talks with Syrian rebel leaders as
“…an opportunity for Britain, for America, for Saudi Arabia, Jordan and like-minded allies to come together and try to help shape the opposition, outside Syria and inside Syria, and try to help them achieve their goal, which is our goal of a Syria without Assad.” (2)
Central to Britain’s pursuit of regional stability in the Middle East is support for the various rebellions against autocratic regimes throughout the area. In addition to committing British forces to the international effort to topple Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, the British government has repeatedly sided with the revolutionaries across the Middle East. First it was Egypt. Then it was Syria, although the once constant relay of media coverage of Assad’s latest atrocities has dimmed, perhaps due to Sino-Russian recalcitrance to commit to international ‘peacekeeping’ efforts and the fact that Syrian government forces have proved difficult to unseat.
Nevertheless, the official tone that is discernible in the speeches of David Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague is that the United Kingdom and the international community must continue to provide support for the burgeoning democracies of the region. In other words, Britain remains as in tune to Washington’s interventionist policy as the previous government was when George W. Bush was President.
On an ideological level, the level of continuity in policy in both Britain and the United States demonstrates how liberal interventionism and neoconservatism are just two sides to the same coin. Both ideologies presuppose that contemporary Western concepts of freedom and democracy are universal ideals and that it is the duty of the West to transpose them to less fortunate, benighted areas of the world. Now, it was entirely expected that Blair’s government should pursue such a revolutionary policy, given its domestic penchant for removing as much of the vestiges of tradition and the old order from public life that it could, all in the name of modernization. However, that a government led by self-described “Conservatives” should follow suit indicates the complete loss of principle which has occurred at the heart of British conservatism. A conservative foreign policy should consistently pursue the national interest, not act as a social service for other peoples thousands of miles away at the expense of our own. In early 2011, Mr Cameron attempted to distance himself from the neoconservative approach to installing democracy via military force, arguing instead for a “liberal conservatism” which supposedly supports the full range of institutions necessary for a viable democracy (3). In reality, that there was a significant difference between the two positions was questionable, as was the degree to which he really did have an aversion to military force, given that the RAF bombing campaign over Libya began about a month later.
Current Middle Eastern policy is fixated around the promotion of freedom, democracy, equality and human rights. In his speech to the United Nations in September, the Prime Minister reaffirmed his commitment to his “liberal Conservative” foreign policy vision by stating, “We in the United Nations must step up our efforts to support the people of these countries as they build their own democratic future” (4). Leaving aside the assumption that the peoples of the countries in question were and are seeking to embrace freedom and democracy, the attempt to usher in Western-style government in places with no actual history of such must be considered futile.
Philosophically, conservatism owes much to the thought of Edmund Burke. While his political place was amongst the Old Whigs, much of his anti-revolutionary thought found its way into the intellectual arsenal of the Tories, who were anxious about the spread of Jacobinism into Britain following the French Revolution. While the British government is not exactly reenacting the violent extremes of the Jacobins, the guiding vision of their Middle East policy does reveal some interesting parallels. Perhaps most notable in this global crusade for democracy is the sense that freedom and democracy are the necessary foundations of a new political order in the region. Such a concept would have been anathema to conservatives two hundred years ago who agreed with Burke that the replacement of settled bodies of law and custom with constructs that were based on abstractions was dangerous. Genuine social and cultural change occurs organically. It cannot be imposed top-down without disastrous results. The degree to which the government, and other Western powers, have offered Syrian rebels their full support, short of actually intervening militarily, seems to parallel the way some Whigs, to Burke’s abject horror, latched on to the French Revolution in its early stages as a positive development, believing the revolutionaries actually wanted a British-style constitutional monarchy rather than simply being bloodthirsty secular zealots desirous of rank power.
Regardless of Cameron’s stated opposition to the neoconservative model of democratization (which differs only in means rather than premises and objectives from his own “liberal Conservative” one), the fact remains that Britain and France under Sarkozy acted in full concert with Washington’s mission of regime replacement. In this regard, they have acted as handmaidens to what Claes G. Ryn has referred to as the “new Jacobinism” (5). The Western powers today have collectively acted as the vehicles by which the abstract ideals of democracy and freedom are to be exported to the rest of the world.
The fact that we have a Conservative-led government willingly exporting the ideals of the French Revolution to the Middle East indicates the extent to which the politics of the Right has taken a rather expansive detour throughout the Twilight Zone. Of course, most genuine conservatives and classical liberals alike already knew this. It is time for a complete re-evaluation of what the Conservative Party considers foreign policy. Unfortunately, such a reversion to traditional conservative principles is not likely in the short term, given that the Prime Minister’s self-description as the “heir to Blair”. It is time for less Blair and more Burke.
ALASTAIR PAYNTER is a Masters graduate in History. He writes about the intersection between current affairs and the ideas and events of the past
1. “A liberal Conservative foreign policy” from Conservative Party Manifesto, 2010 p.109
2. Telegraph Online, “David Cameron vows to work with Barack Obama over Syria”, 7 November 2012
3. Telegraph Online, “Democracy is route to peace in Middle East, says David Cameron”, 21 February 2011
4. BBC News, “David Cameron urges UN to step up Syria efforts”, 27 September 2012
5. Claes G. Ryn “A Jacobin in Chief”, American Conservative, 11 April 2005