Tuesday, August 03, 2010


"Go east, young man! When David Cameron uttered this stirring slogan in Bangalore on Wednesday, he was following his own advice. And yet his eastern journey has not met with wholly happy results. Visiting India, Britain’s prime minister seems to have been ignored by Sonia Gandhi, the dynastic head of the Congress party, who cancelled a meeting. At the same time, he enraged Pakistan, which he condemned for trying to “look both ways”, as Islamabad affects sympathy for the west while elements of the Pakistani elite covertly encourage terrorism. Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan’s president, will have things to say about this when he visits London next week, assuming he still comes....

Since May, the coalition government has tried to fashion a new approach to the world. William Hague, the foreign secretary, gave a speech in which he formulated a “distinctive British foreign policy”, moving beyond an obsession with the “blocs”, the US, Europe and Middle East, to forge links with the emerging powerhouses of India, China and Brazil. That is presumably what Mr Cameron thinks he has been doing this week. He will no doubt gain goodwill in two of the emerging powers in the new international order and perhaps lucrative preferential treatment for British business. But he has also gained a record of flattering his immediate audience while giving offence elsewhere, and he has given the impression of making things up as he goes along. This series of interventions raises questions over whether his government has a considered foreign policy at all.

In Washington the previous week Mr Cameron did what he could to defuse American anger over BP and the Lockerbie bomber, and to strike a note of humility. But he over-egged it when he said that the UK was the junior partner in the Anglo-American relationship, just as “we were the junior partner in 1940 when we were fighting the Nazis”. As conservative commentators have reminded him to his cost, while the Battle of Britain raged the US was conspicuously and profitably neutral.

That was arguably a slip of the tongue. But his intervention in Turkey when he described Gaza as a “prison camp” was more than that. The view was unexceptionable to most Europeans but it would never have been heard on the lips of Barack Obama, US president, or any member of the US Congress. Does this herald a change of stance? It is unclear. It would however, have been braver if he had said it in Jerusalem – or Washington – rather than Ankara.

When he expressed strong support for Turkish admission to the European Union he was more than ingratiating. This was empty rhetoric. He must know Turkey is not going to join the EU in any foreseeable future. Whether it should is not the question. It won’t happen. Why pretend otherwise? Again, it would have been braver to have said that in Berlin or Paris, to Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy given their hostility to Turkish admission....

Now to cap it all, while telling businessmen in Bangalore of a new special relationship with India he denounces Pakistan. He could not have chosen a venue better designed to provoke resentment in Islamabad. We did not need the recent leaked documents to tell us about the links between the Pakistani intelligence service and the Taliban. But saying this in public – and in India itself – seemed a calculated insult to Pakistan just when the west needs its help.

Forging a new foreign policy has been one of the more audacious of the coalition’s aims. But it surely cannot be done on the hoof or off the cuff. At the very least, when he next ventures abroad, he should remember the saying “look before you leap”. And think before you speak".

Geoffrey Wheatcroft, "Flattery and false steps as Cameron looks east," 29 July 2010 in www.ft.com

"An aspersion upon my parts of speech! If I reprend any thing in this world, it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs!"

Richard Brinsely Sheridan, "The Rivals," (1775), Act III, Scene iii.

"Ignoranti, quen portum petat, nullus suus ventus est."

Seneca, Epistulae ad Lucilium.

In an ideal world, diplomacy would be fully in the hands of trained diplomats and elected politicians, no matter how intelligent and full of other positive qualities would be kept well away from foreign countries and foreign affairs. In the days of the 'old diplomacy', Prime Ministers rarely went abroad, and when they did, they were shadowed by Permanent Under-Secretaries, Foreign Ministers and the resident Ambassadors. Unfortunately, we live in a much more demotic, democratic, decadent and disruptive age. Hence, the diplomatic debacle we saw last week, from British Premier Cameron (for the consensus on this point see: David Blackburn, "Cameron lambasts Pakistan whilst on Indian trade mission. Bad move," 28 July 2010, in www.spectator.co.uk; Andrew Rawnsley, "An impressive start by David Cameron, but a start is all it is," 1 August, 2010, in www.guardian.co.uk; Max Hastings," Cameron is a leader to the manner born," 1 August 2010, in www.ft.com). An obviously intelligent and energetic man, nay indeed at this point a ultra-pleasing contrast to his mauvais ton & gauchiste predecessor, Gordon Brown, but, based upon the evidence from last week, and the comments made, simply out of his depth in trying to ad lib British diplomacy on the hop. Which is not to necessarily disagree with some of his comments, especially as they relate to say Pakistan and to a lesser extent with Israeli policy towards Gaza. However, the truth of his comments does not obviate the fact that it was diplomatic dynamite to say it openly. And, as I do hope that everyone will agree: the less explosions we have to deal with in either area the better. Hopefully, in the future, his able and intelligent Foreign Secretary, William Hague will chaperon him when abroad and prevent any dangers of Premier Cameron becoming a sort of modern-day Mr. Malaprop of British diplomacy.


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