David Cameron and the death of diplomacy

The PM’s Israel-upsetting, Pakistan-isolating world tour shows that celebrity-style badmouthing has taken the place of diplomatic nicety.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Politics UK

What’s up with David Cameron, blundering around the world, isolating the Israelis, irritating Islamabad? Is it simply that this fresh-faced PM, new to the Blairite job of pretending that Britain is still an important global player, hasn’t yet learned foreign-policy finesse? There’s more to it than that. Cameron’s foot-in-mouth syndrome captures how far the meaning and nature of diplomacy has changed, and the extent to which spouting fashionable prejudices in public has taken the place of calmly pursuing national interests in private amongst contemporary statesmen.

Last week, on his first major world tour, Cameron managed to annoy almost everyone. He raised heckles in Jerusalem after describing Gaza as a ‘prison camp’ during his official visit to Turkey. The severely short-termist thinking behind Cameron’s foreign-policy posturing is clear from the fact that he obviously said this to impress the Turks – who are angry with Israel following its killing of nine Turkish civilians on a Gaza-bound ship in May – but he thought little about what impact it would have on British-Israeli relations. He got what he wanted, with one Turkish newspaper describing him as ‘just brilliant’, but the Israeli-related fallout is ongoing: apparently Cameron’s minions have spent days trying to smooth things over with their Israeli counterparts.

Then in India, Cameron attacked Pakistan, accusing it of ‘promoting the export of terror’. Even someone with a ‘D’ in GCSE Diplomatic Studies (if there were such a thing) would know that this was not a good call. Firstly, for Cameron to lecture Pakistan about terrorism while in India – a country with which Pakistan has a frequently fraught relationship – immediately made this into a major incident. It generated puffed-up anti-Pakistan gloating amongst Indian officials, and it led Pakistani observers to claim, not entirely unreasonably, that Cameron was playing politics with terrorism, trying to drum up some juicy business deals with the Indians by having a pop at their enemies over the border. What’s more, Cameron criticised Pakistani attitudes to terrorism shortly after announcing that Britain would provide nuclear technology to India. Is this guy for real?

Secondly, to criticise Pakistan so stingingly on the eve of a visit to Britain by Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari, who arrives today, is an example of what older diplomats would have called ‘bad manners’ – code for ‘bad political judgement’. It means that a large part of the Pakistani president’s trip will be consumed by all sorts of defensiveness and apologetics. Already the British High Commissioner in Pakistan has been summoned for a dressing down, and just hours after Cameron made his anti-Pakistan comments, Foreign Office officials here in London were frantically sending notes to their Pakistani counterparts saying (I paraphrase): ‘Of course, we know that you really are trying to combat terrorism…’ What’s Cameron going to do next? Visit Seoul and publicly ridicule Kim Jong-il’s bouffant?

Observers are putting forward various theories to explain Cameron’s seemingly juvenile diplomacy. He’s new to the job, say some. In a new twist on the ‘Blair as Bush’s poodle’ argument, one foreign correspondent says Cameron is simply doing President Barack Obama’s bidding. He will have ‘rehearsed [these issues] with the president’, we’re told.

In truth, Cameron’s ally-upsetting jaunt highlights a problem that is not peculiar to him: the crisis of diplomacy and the rise of increasingly unhinged, frequently rude relations between allegedly friendly states. Rather than simply being the result of a lack of diplomatic education, this fizzling out of polite diplomacy and its replacement by an Oprah-style spouting of everything reflects some major quakes that have taken place in global affairs in the past 20 years.

A senior UK Conservative aide has explained Cameron’s ‘outspokenness’ as a reflection of the fact that, refreshingly, ‘what you see with David is what you get’. Yet Western diplomacy was never traditionally about ‘telling it like it is’. Rather it was about working out your national interests and then determining how best to pursue them in a calm, rational manner, even amongst allies with whom, behind closed doors, you had many disagreements, even a feeling of competition and bubbling-under-the-surface conflict. Today, it is not only Cameron who has ditched diplomacy in favour of agitation or indiscretion: in recent years US officials had massively public fallings-out with Germany and France over Iraq; a Canadian politician got into trouble after being overheard saying ‘Damn Americans, I hate those bastards’; a French official sounded off about that ‘shitty little country’ Israel at a dinner party; Jacques Chirac cancelled an Anglo-French summit in 2002 after Blair was ‘vaairy rood’ to him; and so on.

The decline of Western diplomacy springs in large part from the shattering of geopolitical arrangements following the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s. For the post-Second World War period from 1945 to 1990, when there was such a thing as a Western alliance stuck together with the glue of anti-Communism and American leadership, disagreements between Western states, and between Western states and their allies in the Middle East and Asia, would have been kept under wraps. A sense of common interest and purpose meant that when disagreements arose between allies – and there were many – they tended to be dealt with in an euphemistic, polite and, as much as possible, a private fashion. A sense of shared interest required the suppression of conflict and the rise of an era of friendly diplomacy.

Today, when Western statesmen and their foreign allies have little if any sense of being ‘in it together’, there’s little to prevent their political disagreements, their disgruntlement with each other and even their personality clashes from being vomited into the public arena. So the UK Foreign Office, lacking any clear idea of what Britain represents, who it stands for and against in the world, and thus what its National Interests might be, simply makes up policy as it goes along. Released from its one-time ethos of pursuing relatively clear interests in a recognisable international framework, today the Foreign Office is more like a spindoctoring machine, producing whatever policy pronouncement feels like the right one for a particular time and place.

This means that foreign policy can be swayed to and fro by fleeting fashionable prejudices. Once, as a spin-off of its higher purpose of boosting Britain’s standing in the Western alliance, the UK Foreign Office would have been insulated from everyday prejudices. No longer. Cameron’s comments in Turkey were clearly inspired, not only by the short-term desire to please Turkey by hammering Israel, but also by the utterly uniform view in Western dinner-party circles that Gaza is a ‘prison camp’. His attack on Pakistan for ‘exporting terror’ – when actually 7/7 and other attempted terror attacks in Britain were organised by British citizens – was dictated by the fashionable but ill-informed view that contemporary nihilism springs entirely from the badlands of Pakistan. And then, after Cameron publicly expresses these common prejudices disguised as a ‘foreign policy’, the Foreign Office immediately sets about troubleshooting the consequences.

The other impact of the dissolution of the old geopolitical framework is that sovereign-state equality is taken less seriously than in the past. During the postwar period, Western powers at least paid lip service to the UN value of ‘equal nations’, meaning that, diplomatically and in public if not behind closed doors, they would treat an Israel or an Iran (which was an ally up to 1979) as an equal partner. Today, when the ideal of sovereign equality counts for little, there’s nothing to prevent someone like Cameron from openly treating Pakistan as a minor, irritating partner and even Israel as a pest (giving the lie to the idea that the West still supports Israel to the hilt).

Some might say this is a good thing. Isn’t it better that our leaders say stuff in public rather than doing everything privately and in diplomatic lingo? Isn’t apparently honest conflict better than dishonest diplomacy? Not this kind. When Conservative aides say Cameron is ‘telling it like it is’, they are only trying to sex up the fact that Cameron doesn’t know what ‘it’ – as in Britain’s role in the world – really is these days; they are spinning Britain’s discombobulation, its tendency to define policy on the hoof and in response to passing prejudices, as something positive and edgy. In truth, the new dumbed-down diplomacy, the replacement of worked-out ways of doing things with a personality-fuelled, celebrity-like desire to blab your feelings about other nations, springs not from any new honesty, but from short-termist pointscoring. And it has a destabilising dynamic, potentially making world affairs a more volatile arena.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics UK

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