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Cameron and Georgia

Dan McCarthy [1] points us to Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s criticism [2] of Cameron. Wheatcroft recalls a particularly troubling episode:

And Cameron’s sheer lack of judgement has been alarming. Only the week before last he flew to Belfast to strike a deal with the Ulster Unionists, a crazy mission. Worse still – the worst single moment in his party leadership – was the summer before last, when Cameron flew to Tiflis during the conflict between Georgia and Russia, and said that Georgia should be admitted to Nato immediately. Apart from the fact that, as plenty of us guessed at the time and has since been confirmed by independent observers, Georgia was not in the right, Cameron’s words meant, if he was serious, that he was ready to send the Coldstream Guards to fight and die for South Ossetia. Did he mean it?

The easy answer is that he didn’t mean it and was simply trying to get to “the right” of Brown during an international crisis. This was a case of the cheap, irresponsible hawkishness in which all opposition parties can and most center-right opposition parties do engage in, and calling for Georgian admission to NATO at a time when Georgia membership had obviously become politically impossible and insane was both foolish and also safely irrelevant. Georgia’s chances of joining NATO died in August 2008, never to be revived, which made what Cameron said little more than a piece of absurd but ultimately empty posturing. This was how many anti-Russian hawks in the West responded to the war in Georgia. Having failed to trap NATO into going to war wih Russia over disputed territories in the Caucasus with Georgian admission, the hawks lamented that not admitting Georgia immediately had “emboldened” Russia, when in fact the promise made in Bucharest earlier that year to include Georgia in the alliance was what emboldened Saakashvili to escalate the conflict and provoke the Russian response.

This is an important reminder that the foreign policy views of the Conservative front bench (and most of the backbenchers) during the last decade have generally been awful when it comes to foreign wars and NATO expansion. One of the great failings of the Conservative opposition to Blair and Brown was their unwillingness and inability to align themselves with public opinion against the reckless military adventurism of the New Labour years. They were only too happy to provide a British echo of foolish Republican arguments, and that helped to keep them out of power for several more years. Much of the discussion of the future of British foreign policy under a Cameron ministry thus far has revolved around the nature and degree of his Atlanticism and what Cameron might mean for the relationship with the U.S. and Europe, and as far as these relationships go Cameron has been taking roughly the best positions one could reasonably expect given the pressures within his party. That certainly doesn’t give him or his colleagues a pass on their terribly poor decisions in the past.

The good news is that being in government will probably make Cameron less reckless in the future. Like Cameron, Biden went to Tbilisi during the war, and he was going there in a more important capacity as the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, and after a short-lived brush with sanity Obama began mouthing all the predictable phrases about Russian aggression, but in practice the Obama administration has been fairly cool towards Saakashvili and mostly constructive in its relationship with Russia. The alternative to Obama/Biden was the truly crazy John “We Are All Georgians Now” McCain, and the Labour alternative to Cameron offered nothing better. Whenever I find myself getting discouraged by the shortcomings of the administration or the Conservatives in Britain, I have to remind myself how much worse it could be.

There is reason to think that Cameron will have enough on his plate at home and overseas in Afghanistan that he will have neither the time nor inclination for picking fights with Russia over NATO expansion, which has become much less practical in the last two years. There is not much to say in defense of Cameron’s overall foreign policy record, except that it is approximately no worse than the records of Obama and Biden on Georgia and other matters, and that it is probably as much as one could reasonably hope for from a Conservative Party whose leadership has been in the thrall of American and “pro-American” hegemonist and neoconservative ideas for over a decade. Cameron undeniably showed appalling judgment on Georgia, but in this he was unfortunately entirely representative of most Conservative and Republican reactions to the war. The consensus in the major parties in Britain and America in favor of NATO expansion to include Georgia and Ukraine, to which Obama also belonged, has been made outdated and irrelevant by events. There is some reason to think that Cameron’s pragmatism will allow him to recognize this and adjust accordingly.

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5 Comments To "Cameron and Georgia"

#1 Comment By Randal On May 18, 2010 @ 3:45 am

Good points. I suspect that Cameron’s crass behaviour over Georgia reflected ignorance of foreign affairs and the consequent excessive influence of the likes of William Hague, more than anything.

The problem is not so much Cameron’s ideas on foreign policy, but the degree to which his general ignorance and disinterest will be preyed upon by those in the party (like Hague) and around him in government who want to see Britain prancing around the world “punching above our weight”.

People of the political right seem always to be split between interventionists and noninterventionists in some form. The natural noninterventionists are the conservatives, who believe in minding your own business and in charity beginning at home, and who are viscerally sceptical about the efficacy or the moral acceptability of government action, whether in civil or military form. The interventionists are the militarists, the nationalists (as distinct from patriots), and ruthless idealists generally (democratists, zionists, whatever).

The problem we have is that in government the interventionists will generally have the advantage so long as the proposed action has no obvious short term negative consequences (risk of a direct military defeat or nuclear retaliation, for instance). This is because there are always people other than the parties to the dispute in question who will gain significantly from any intervention – the government civil and military functionaries and politicians who gain status and budgetary increases, the industrial groups who gain lucrative orders, whereas the only people with a real and direct material interest in non-intervention are the parties against whom the intervention is directed. The general gains to the people of the nation as a whole from non-interventionism are diffuse and longer term.

Essentially, interventionism gives rise to private gains whilst socialising or externalising the costs. Small wonder it’s a common tragedy.

I don’t know how much cynical calculation of this kind goes into forming the views of Tory interventionist militarists like William Hague, or how much they actually genuinely believe their rationalisations about policing the world, defending against hypothetical threats by preventive warfare, spreading democracy and human rights or whatever. But it is the malign influence of this wing of the Tory party that led to the Conservative Party’s fatal decision not to oppose Blair’s attack on Iraq.

#2 Comment By wufnik On May 18, 2010 @ 6:05 am

This has always been the concern about Cameron and Hague–their lack of good judgment in this area. Neither Cameron nor Hague are stupid–but Hague is an ideologue (which Cameron is not), and my fear has been that Cameron would just defer to Hague in these matters. Which is why being in a coalition with the party that vociferously opposed the invasion of Iraq, and which opposes the upgrade of the Trident missle defence system (assuming we can even afford it at this point), is probably the best outcome here. Hague, and perhaps Cameron as well, will undoubtedly continue to say silly things, but in pratice they won’t have a completely free hand.

#3 Comment By Randal On May 18, 2010 @ 6:28 am

wufnik: True about the coalition possibly holding back the new government from the worst foreign policy excesses. That, together with the budgetary issues that will hopefully force at least some military retrenchment, constitutes probably the best hope for British foreign policy for quite a few years.

#4 Comment By Giorgi Kandelaki On May 19, 2010 @ 10:39 am

This article gives a very unfair impression of David Cameron’s approach towards Georgia. Far from being opportunistic, the Prime Minister has a longstanding commitment to Georgia’s NATO ambitions. He set it out clearly in “Cameron on Cameron” by Dylan Jones, in interviews before the Russian invasion in August 2008, when he stated in reply to whether Georgia should be a full member of NATO : “I think it would be better if we were clear and straightforward and said yes”, noting “it is one set of difficult decisions where I have a very definite point of view”.

As I understand it, Cameron’s perspective on the importance of the self determination of the captive nations within the Soviet Union was shaped by a visit he made to the USSR as a young man. It is clear to me that his stance on Georgia was borne out of a longstanding belief in the right of states whose democratic development was thwarted by illegal Russian occupations at various points to pursue this path. Indeed, he sets it out further in the aforementioned book, arguing “those countries that want to look West, that want to be democracies, that want to be part of the democratic family of nations, ought to be allowed into NATO if they want to join it”.

Within the current leadership of the Conservative Party, the Foreign Secretary (William Hague) and Defence Secretary (Liam Fox) have both made clear their commitment to Georgia’s territorial integrity and support for eventual NATO membership. As I understand it, NATO will be the cornerstone of defence and security policy of the new coalition Government. They will not be granting Georgia any special favours, nor would Georgia expect this, but they rightly oppose any Russian veto on NATO membership applications.

It should also be noted that support for Georgia has come from across the British political spectrum. Shortly after David Cameron’s visit to Tbilisi in August 2008, the then Labour Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, came to show solidarity with the Georgian people.

As a Member of the Georgian Parliament, I can say with confidence that in Georgia we value our relationship with the United Kingdom enormously. We believe Britain is a force for good in the world and are confident this will continue under the new coalition administration. Secure, democratic and European Georgia is good for Britain, our region and Russia itself.

#5 Comment By Randal On May 20, 2010 @ 1:03 am

Mr Kandelaki:

This article gives a very unfair impression of David Cameron’s approach towards Georgia.

On the contrary, the article makes it quite clear that there are two possible explanations for Cameron’s stance over Georgia – cynical posturing or naive stupidity. That seems more than fair, as there are no other very plausible explanations.