Arise, Sir David Cameron-Hume. Whatever one thinks of Rishi Sunak’s decision to make the ex-Prime Minister the second David from the mid-2000s to return to our screens this month, those of us wanting to get a handle on the new Foreign Secretary’s geopolitical outlook at least have quite a bit of evidence to draw from.
Unfortunately for Cameron, like Anthony Eden with Suez or Tony Blair with Iraq, his detractors often summarise his premiership with a single word: Brexit. Nothing has defined the former Prime Minister’s time in office more than his leaving it. His critics would say this lets him off the hook for austerity; his supporters would say this unfairly overshadows his record of public service reform.
Looking beyond the 24th of June 2016, one is aware of a sense of whiplash. Cameron’s record hardly appears consistent. He entered Number 10 a critic of Blair’s interventionism but led NATO in bombing Libya. He made sure to be photoed with the Dalai Lama, but took Xi Jingping to his local. He likened Gaza to a “prison camp”, but was hailed as Britain’s most pro-Israel Prime Minister. The most Eurosceptic Prime Minister since Margaret Thatcher, some will never forgive him for backing Remain.
In Opposition, Cameron primarily treated foreign policy as an area in which to distance himself from the premier whose heir he aspired to be. As the mood hardened against interventionism post-Iraq, Cameron played the realist to voters weary of Blair’s messianism.
“We should replace the doctrine of liberal interventionism,” he told the 2007 Berlin Security Conference, “with the doctrine of liberal conservatism”. Cameron defined this as “a sceptical attitude towards the ability of states to create utopias”. He lambasted Blair’s attempts to fight two wars on a peacetime military budget, and promised to prioritise trade and stability.
His continual refrain was that “you cannot drop democracy out of an aeroplane at 40,000 feet”. He increased the aid budget whilst cutting defence spending. In early 2011, whilst drumming up business in the Gulf, the still-green Prime Minister told his hosts he was not a “naïve neo-con”.
Yet within weeks, he was leading the calls for a No-Fly Zone in Libya in response to Gaddafi’s crackdown on protestors. As our Editor highlighted at the time, one could not quite be sure what caused Cameron to be more comfortable with dropping democracy from 400, not 40,000 feet. But it did set a precedent.
He again sought to intervene against in Syria following reports that Bashar al-Assad planned to use chemical weapons against civilians. His efforts were scuppered by Ed Miliband’s attempt to prove that anything Cameron could do to repudiate Blair’s legacy, he could do better. But would get his wish to bomb Syria answered when he later authorised British airstrikes against Islamic State.
Cameron has since said he is proud of the UK’s role in Gaddafi’s overthrow. But the country has since descended into anarchy. Efforts to build a new democratic state after Gaddafi collapsed into civil war. Extremists, including Islamic State, proliferated. The lawless country became a primary hop-off point for those illegal migrants wishing to cross into Europe.
A report by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in the House of Commons would later suggest Cameron’s intervention “was not informed by accurate intelligence” and has led to “political and economic collapse”. Cameron’s hesistancy about nation-building had created the worst of both worlds: the Western overthrow of a regime in democracy’s name without the support to create one.
Nonetheless, it won’t be that part of his Middle East record that currently receives the most attention from MPs. His eye-raising description of Gaza mentioned above was matched by a willingness to call Israel’s response “disproportionate” after bombings of Lebanon designed to dismantle Hezbollah’s terror network, in another attempt to contrast himself with Blair.
Yet once Prime Minister, Cameron again showed a tendency to reverted back to the pro-Israel tendency of the modern Conservative Party. On a visit to the Knesset he called himself a “British minister whose belief in Israel is unbreakable”. His support for the country during its 2014 intervention in Gaza prompted Sayeeda Warsi’s resignation. He refused to vote to recognise a Palestinian state.
As such, one expects his appointment will mean little change in Britain’s line, even if backbench hesitations about Israel’s conduct in rooting out the butchers of Hamas might start to grow. Then again, those MPs hoping to criticise the former Prime Minister will have their ire trained in two other directions: towards his record on China and his opposition to Brexit.
Cameron’s critics can forget his attempt to encourage a “Golden Era” of relations with Beijing. The suggestion is that he turned a blind-eye to its various misdeeds in his hunt for investment. Early attempts to lecture China on the importance of human rights and democracy undermined trade talks; meeting with the Dalai Lama enraged the Chinese leadership and put relations between the two countries on ice.
Amidst a sluggish recovery, Whitehall undoubtedly prioritised investment over virtue-signaling. Soon Cameron was wooing China’s sovereign wealth fund, downplaying concerns about Chinese investment in British infrastructure, and rolling out the red carpet for its leadership. He has hardly distanced himself from China since leaving office: only a few weeks ago he was speaking in support of the Beijing-backed Colombo Port City project in Sri Lanka.
All this will curry little favour with the China hawks on the backbenches. But if there is one group more voluble amongst Tory MPs than them, it is Eurosceptics. Pulling out of the European People’s Party and vetoing a new EU treaty will count for naught in their eyes against Cameron’s cardinal sin of leading the Remain campaign. Is he really suited to batting for Brexit on the world stage?
Yes, actually. A senior government source informs ConservativeHome that Cameron “knows the world has changed since 2016”. The former Prime Minister is a clever man and a pragmatist. His record may have mixed results, but is guided by a willingness to respond to events, not impose rigid principles. Foreign policy is run predominantly from Number 10. Despite Cameron’s stature, John Bew will remain the most important person to look to for understanding Sunak’s geopolitical thinking.
Swapping an Oxfordshire shed for King Charles Street is hardly Cinccinatus returning from his plow. But it shows a welcome willingness on his part to use his experience in the national interest. In practice, this should mean nodding along at a few summits and eating the odd Ferrero Rocher out of Kay Burley’s sight.
Anything that imitates Douglas-Home is worthwhile in my book. One just hopes that he leaves the Foreign Office in a better state than Tripoli.