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.