So when it comes to the special relationship with America, Conservatives feel it, understand it and believe in it.

All Conservatives share this attitude.

I cannot think of a single Conservative member of parliament who does not think the same way.

That is a source of great strength for any Conservative leader in their dealings with America.

We do not have to worry about a divided party at home.

It is precisely this strength of feeling that gives us the confidence to speak freely to any American administration.

I believe that it is now vital for our strategic and security interests that we challenge anti-Americanism.

That means reviving the best traditions of the special relationship. ~David Cameron

The strange thing is that Cameron’s September 11 speech may be remembered as being a far more noteworthy and interesting speech than the one given by Mr. Bush, if only because it contains some new perspective that has been sorely lacking from the public debate.  His speech was also finely balanced to avoid the toadying approach to Washington of Blair while firmly rejecting the worst in reflexive anti-American attitudes.  He has hit just the right pitch for his domestic audience and should not give serious Atlanticists here in America anything to worry about.  Whether neocons will become hysterical at his criticism of what he describes as neoconservatism is anybody’s guess, though they will likely find anything short of full-throated endorsement an unacceptable capitulation to the forces of darkness.  His framing of constructive criticism of American policy as something that comes from a firmly and reliably pro-American position was very smart and protects him against the sorts of recriminations he may still receive from GOP hacks.  A constructive, candid relationship makes sense, as Cameron says here:

Your long-standing friend will tell you the truth, confident that the friendship will survive.

Your newest friend will tell you what you want to hear, eager to please so as not to put the friendship at risk.

We have never, until recently, been uncritical allies of America.

We have for more than half a century acted as a junior partner to the United States.

Churchill, though he found it difficult, was junior partner to Roosevelt; Margaret Thatcher to Ronald Reagan, John Major to George Bush Senior in the first Gulf war.

It is not an easy part to play, but these three prime ministers learned to carry it through with skill and success.

I worry that we have recently lost the art.

I fear that if we continue as at present we may combine the maximum of exposure with the minimum of real influence over decisions.

The sooner we rediscover the right balance the better for Britain and our alliance.

This is not anti-American. This is what America wants. As Senator John McCain has said: “not only do we seek European leadership, we believe it is necessary to make the world a better, safer place for our interests and our values. This means true leadership, not a group of countries that merely follows American directions, as some fear; nor a coalition that opposes American power simply because of its country of origin, as others suggest.”

It is not exactly encouraging to see Cameron quoting John McCain, but perhaps this was a bone thrown out to satisfy the more bellicose of the hegemonists over here.  Recapturing some sense of British independence seems to me to be the right course for Cameron to take, and it was unusually bold of him to make this statement on September 11 of all days. 

However, as with so many things Cameronian, once you move to specifics things begin to look less encouraging:

I believe that the neo-conservatives are right to argue that extending freedom is an essential objective of western foreign policy.

Why?  To what end?  Cameron does not say.  Worse yet, he endorses Kosovo-style interventions:

Furthermore, I believe that we should be prepared to intervene for humanitarian purposes to rescue people from genocide.

Cameron’s “liberal conservatism” winds up sounding a lot like New Democrat foreign policy with some recent Fukuyama modifications added in:

Liberal – because I support the aim of spreading freedom and democracy, and support humanitarian intervention.

Conservative – because I recognise the complexities of human nature, and am sceptical of grand schemes to remake the world.

A liberal conservative approach to foreign policy today is based on five propositions.

First, that we should understand fully the threat we face.

Second, that democracy cannot quickly be imposed from outside.

Third, that our strategy needs to go far beyond military action.

Fourth, that we need a new multilateralism to tackle the new global challenges we face.

And fifth, that we must strive to act with moral authority.

In the end, this “liberal conservatism” will be less than welcome to many Tories.  That Cameron says democracy cannot be “quickly” imposed from the outside still suggests that he thinks that it can and should be imposed more slowly.  This tells me that Cameron is basically someone in sympathy with neoconservative aspirations but one who is in less of a hurry.  

But Cameron is a curious one.  Almost as soon as you think he hasn’t a clue, he surprises you with strangely insightful things like this:

Our aim should be to dismantle the threat, separating its component parts, rather than amalgamating them into a single global jihad that simply becomes a call to arms.

Everyone who prattles on about Islamofascism will be sputtering with rage about this line, and it is encouraging that Cameron appreciates the difference between taking specific jihadi threats seriously and the folly of imagining a Cosmic Struggle where every militant group and regime is collapsed into one, all-purpose description.

He also surprises a little with his appreciation that there are many non-democratic things that pre-exist and serve as the foundations of any democratic order:

The foundations of democracy are the rule of law, including the freedoms of speech and association; civil society, meaning the network of independent organisations which sustain social life independently from the state; an independent and impartial judiciary; and a free economy, including the freedom to trade and to register property.

No bafflingly vague and vapid statements about “the shining age of liberty” or the “ideological struggle” are to be found in Cameron’s speech.  Yes, there are unfortunate references to the Gettysburg Address, but Cameron demonstrates some rudimentary awareness of certain conservative insights that have been MIA in the Bush administration since Day One.  It is strangely refreshing, even if it is not all entirely satisfactory. 

But regardless of all that, give a reward to the speechwriter who came up with this line:

Liberty grows from the ground – it cannot be dropped from the air by an unmanned drone.

Amazing–a Conservative leader who actually speaks in terms of the organic nature of political developments and society!  This is most welcome.  Then there are little signs of basic common sense breaking in, such as this:

You can’t carry out nation-building unless the people inside a country want to build a nation.

I say, for all its problems Cameron’s speech has more of these small, rather unremarkable but basically sensible statements that make you wonder what it might be like to have someone who is remotely conservative (or at least someone who could state some of the basic ideas) in high office in this country. 

Though I cannot share Cameron’s democratising goals, which I believe are fundamentally misguided and likely to lead to calamity if they are successful, he does at least demonstrate some sense of why the neocons are doomed to failure, which is a small start:

If we accept that democracy takes time; that it is founded on the institutions of society, and that it cannot easily be imposed from without, then we must put far greater effort into helping undermine dictators and tyrannies from within, and helping moderate regimes to move forward.

Bombs and missiles are bad ambassadors.

They win no hearts and minds; they can build no democracies.

There are more tools of statecraft than military power.

Intelligence, economic development, educational training, support for pro-democracy groups, international law, foreign aid, sporting and cultural initiatives can all play their part.

But perhaps where Cameron distinguishes himself most, and reveals the sad mockery of what passes for conservatism in the GOP today are these remarks about retaining “moral authority”:

That is why we must not stoop to conquer. We must not stoop to illiberalism – whether at Guantánamo Bay, or here at home with excessive periods of detention without trial.

We must not turn a blind eye to the excesses of our allies – abuses of human rights in some Arab countries, or disproportionate Israeli bombing in Lebanon.

We are fighting for the principles of civilisation – let us not abandon those principles in the methods we employ.

On this point, I can offer my almost unqualified support, since it mostly expresses what I think and what I was arguing most recently for the duration of the Lebanon war.  There may be a host of things that are indeed quite wrong with Cameron’s enthusiasm for democratisation and intervention–the invocation of Gladstone at the end is worrisome enough–but there is enough right with the speech that I will not declare him completely hopeless…at least not yet.

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