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Nick Clegg and British Foreign Policy

Following up on the previous post, I find it remarkable how quickly Clegg’s rise seems to be completely overtaking Cameron’s modest foreign policy re-positioning of the last few years. A few years ago, it was Cameron and his advisors who wanted to move away from a “slavish” relationship with Washington and spoke of their desire to have “lots of Love, Actually moments.” This referred to the scene when Hugh Grant’s Prime Minister dressed down the visiting American President and criticized him for bullying Britain. As Clegg complained back in March, the major parties basically abandoned distinguishing themselves from one another on foreign policy in the run-up to the election campaign. Now what seems to terrify some British and American conservatives (via Andrew) is that a government with Clegg in it might actually follow through on Cameron’s earlier rhetoric and perhaps go beyond it.

In his Chatham House address, Clegg said something that seems like simple common sense:

I do not believe that we can carry on in 2010, and beyond, thinking that the events of the 1950s and the place of America in it should continue to be the pivot around which we organise all of our foreign policy issues.

This view is a problem for the major parties in that it is quite reasonable and it is one that they seem absolutely unwilling to take seriously. It is much more of a problem for them when Clegg pairs this view with an affirmation of his own Atlanticism:

I’m an Atlanticist much like everyone else. I spent a happy time working in the United States. I think it is vital to our interests that we maintain a positive, strong and even uniquely warm relationship with the United States [bold mine-DL]. But it is not our only relationship and it mustn’t become a relationship that at every junction, every time a decision is made we have no choice but to follow the decisions made in the White House. And yet that seems to have been happening with greater velocity and frequency in recent years rather than less.

It is telling that his British conservative critics have to resort to denying Clegg’s Atlanticism. It is simply desperation when Tories are reduced to distorting Clegg’s position as an “anti-American” one. What Clegg protests against is the substitution of a reflexively “pro-American” stance for a foreign policy that serves British interests. The other problem for the major parties is that Clegg is telling a basic truth when he describes the relationship between Britain and America as “a lopsided asymmetrical relationship.” One can vehemently disagree with specific policy proposals Clegg makes, but his analysis of the quality of the relationship and his call for significant re-thinking seem correct. Obviously, I agree with this description, and I don’t see much evidence that there is a better way to describe it. It is a measure of how lopsided a relationship our governments have that the British party leader willing to describe it accurately is denounced as anti-American, and meanwhile the leaders of the two largest parties dare not even whisper this sort of statement for fear of receiving the same scorn.

Obviously, Clegg is an ardent Europhile, and I don’t sympathize with this view at all, but he delivers a very effective rhetorical shot at Tory Euroskeptics who feel compelled to back every U.S. initiative:

I’d like to see us repatriate our foreign policy interests so that we conduct a foreign policy which doesn’t just conclude that we have no choice in vital matters such as whether you go to war or not just because a vital strategic partner tells us we must. That is a loss of real sovereignty about which I never hear the swivel-eyed Eurosceptics worry about at all.

Remarkably, Clegg struck a far more defiant note verging on proud nationalism than many Euroskeptics themselves can muster when discussing how to balance the relationships with America and Europe:

It is in America’s own interests to have Britain standing tall in its European backyard. Acting not just as a bilateral bridge between Washington and London, but also as a leader of opinion and events in Europe as a whole.

Whether or not one agrees with Clegg’s entire speech, it is flatly dishonest to portray the views contained in it as “anti-American,” and it is misleading at best to say that Clegg is anti-Israel. Clegg will not be the next Prime Minister, but America and Britain would be much better off and would have a much stronger, more balanced relationship if the next Prime Minister paid attention to even some of Clegg’s ideas.

Update: Jerome Armstrong obviously has no idea what “neocon” means if he thinks I am one, and he certainly never bothered to read the post. One of the more significant obstacles to any left-right alliance against unnecesary wars and empire is the bad left-wing habit of assuming that they have some sort of monopoly on these issues.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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