Commentary Magazine

Blair's Foreign Policy

To the Editor:

In “Britain’s Neoconservative Moment” [March], Daniel Johnson’s comments about my book, Anti-Totalitarianism: The Left-Wing Case for a Neoconservative Foreign Policy, are so generous that I feel churlish in taking issue with the main point of his article. But I do not believe there is any serious prospect of a neoconservative movement in Great Britain comparable to the one that energized the Reagan administration or the post-9/11 foreign policies of the Bush administration. Nor do I believe it would necessarily be a good thing if there were.

My own advocacy of the neoconservative stance is, as Mr. Johnson notes, limited to its foreign-policy critique—that is, to its recognition of the weaknesses of a rules-based system of international norms against autocratic states that refuse to be bound by those norms. “Neoconservatism” is scarcely the ideal label for a liberal-democratic internationalism tempered by this view, but it is the term of abuse continually leveled at supporters of Tony Blair’s interventionist policies. We might as well accept a dero-gatory name and make a virtue of it, much as the early Methodists (or indeed the original neoconservatives) did. As Charles Krauthammer has noted in Commentary, neoconservative foreign policy “is no longer tethered to its own ideological history and paternity.”

Krauthammer had in mind specifically those foreign-policy realists who have come to see the intimate connection between national security and the overthrow of tyranny. But the point applies also to those on the Left who rue the indifference of cold-war realpolitik to the plight of small nations like East Timor and Tibet, deprecate the willingness of conservative governments in the 1990’s to acquiesce in Serbian aggression in the Balkans, and welcome America’s current stress, in President Bush’s words, on “defend[ing] the peace by fighting terrorists and tyrants” and “extend[ing] the peace by encouraging free and open societies on every continent.”

The problem in England, however, is that these principles have become a political liability for Tony Blair. This is unwarranted and worrying. The weakness in Blair’s foreign policy—a lack of a sense of priorities, comparable to his neglect of the fact that in domestic policy not all desirable goals are compatible—is less important than the central point the prime minister has gotten right. When the U.S. was attacked on 9/11, the proper response was to treat it not as a problem of law enforcement but as an act of war perpetrated by an aggressive totalitarianism with recognizable antecedents in 20th-century Europe.

If, despite the mismanagement and unpopularity of the Iraq war, the anti- totalitarian impulse is to remain central to British policy, it will need to be advanced by a political coalition as extensive and heterogeneous as the one that opposed Soviet Communism. That will not happen if (as with the American brand of neoconservatism) anti-totalitarianism in foreign policy is yoked to a critique of cultural relativism and the welfare state at home.

There are independent grounds for believing that the permissive society has been a net gain for civilized values, and that shrinking public services is neither possible nor desirable. But there is also an important pragmatic consideration for staying clear of American-style domestic neoconservatism: as the Conservative party has belatedly realized, political debate in the United Kingdom will marginalize those arguments.

The fundamental distinction in foreign policy today is between the advocates of openness—with the implication that we cannot overlook aggressive threats to liberal values from our declared enemies—and realists who advance an impossibly narrow conception of the national interest in informal alliance with an isolationist Left. Neoconservatism has a role in that debate, but also a limitation.

Oliver Kamm

London, England


To the Editor:

It was with a mixture of keen interest and concern that I read Daniel Johnson’s article on “Britain’s Neoconservative Moment.” The former stemmed from the fact that the organization I helped to found and now direct, the Henry Jackson Society, is at the vanguard of the nascent movement that Mr. Johnson describes. The society is, as he writes, “an umbrella organization for British Atlanticists and hawkish idealists of the Left and the Right.” My concern derived from Mr. Johnson’s alarmist subtext that the state of British politics today is such that proponents of interventionism here may require American bolstering, lest “the next generation of American leaders and thinkers [have] to ask itself who lost Britain.”

One of the prime reasons for the creation of the Henry Jackson Society was the belief that, given Britain’s own rich history in the field, there is a specific British contribution to be made on behalf of the interventionist viewpoint in foreign policy. Mr. Johnson himself acknowledges this by citing the MP Michael Gove, who argues that national self-preservation and the spreading of liberalism were guiding motives for the interventionist foreign policies of figures as diverse as Canning, Palmerston, and Churchill. As the Henry Jackson Society’s rise to public prominence and its garnering of support from across the political spectrum demonstrate, neoconservatism and muscular liberalism are integral parts of British tradition, history, and foreign-policy practice, rather than alien creeds transported wholesale from across the Atlantic.

If further proof were required of the historical influence of the interventionist imperative within Britain, next year will mark the 200th anniversary of William Wilberforce’s successful campaign to abolish the slave trade within the British Empire. Britain’s willingness to interfere with the slave trade, irrespective of territorial boundaries, was of course an early example of an ethical foreign policy, one driven, interestingly enough, by public pressure. The Henry Jackson Society’s forthcoming foreign-policy manifesto, The British Moment: The Case for Democratic Geopolitics in the 21st Century, aims to tap into this same popular feeling.

That this feeling still exists today is self-evident, and makes Mr. Johnson’s arguments seem defeatist in nature. How else has Tony Blair been able to avoid losing the confidence of the country—as opposed to that of the left-wingers in his own party—during his various overseas adventures? Why is it that his presumptive heir, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, can echo Mr. Blair’s foreign-policy approach—thereby inciting those very same left-wingers—and still expect to succeed to his party’s leadership? And how else could David Cameron, the new leader of the Conservative party, surround himself with a coterie of neoconservative supporters without risking a backlash from those responsible for the unprincipled foreign policy of Britain’s last Conservative government?

As Mr. Johnson reports, British interventionists are split as to whether neoconservatism’s domestic agenda has a relevance to Britain. Our organization takes no rigid, corporate view on the subject, believing that it is our role to unite rather than divide opinion. But it is notable that the attitude of bipartisan agreement on the interventionist agenda that we have sought to foster—and that “Scoop” Jackson deemed “too important to be left to petty partisan consideration”—remains solid, particularly with regard to Iran.

The next generation of American leaders and thinkers can therefore rest assured: while we welcome their support and partnership wholeheartedly, none need lament “Who lost Britain?” so long as the Henry Jackson Society and similar homegrown British advocates continue to fight the just fight.

Alan Mendoza

Henry Jackson Society

London, England


Daniel Johnson writes:

I am grateful to Oliver Kamm and Andrew Mendoza for their measured criticisms. I agree with Mr. Kamm that the likelihood is small that a powerful British neoconservative movement is about to emerge. But thereafter we part company. He thinks that such a movement would not necessarily be a good thing, because its domestic critique of cultural relativism and the welfare state might hinder the emergence of a broad, heterogeneous coalition like that of anti-Communism. I believe, to the contrary, that in order to re-create such a broad coalition we need to reaffirm the values of our Judeo-Christian civilization. It was this civilization that resisted and defeated the Nazis and that survived and eventually overcame Soviet Communism. Without it, I do not see how Europe can hope to resist that new form of political religion we call Islamism.

There is no reason, at least in principle, why a politician of the Left should not espouse Judeo-Christian values as vigorously as one of the Right. Nor have Conservatives historically enjoyed a monopoly on the kind of interventionist foreign policy that now goes under the banner of neoconservatism. But there is undoubtedly a tendency at present for the active promotion of democracy abroad to be associated with conservative politics. This was also true during the cold war, despite the undoubted significance of liberal anti-Communism in its early phase.

What Mr. Kamm rather quaintly calls the “permissive society” created a moral and intellectual crisis of relativism from which Western liberalism has still not recovered, and which has left it ill-equipped to resist the latest, Islamist manifestation of totalitarianism. One might almost say that a neoconservative today is a liberal who has been bombed. Mr. Kamm believes that the arguments of neoconservatives have been marginalized in Britain. I would say, rather, that they have never been properly tried. But this is an issue on which supporters of an interventionist, “neoconservative” foreign policy can agree to disagree.

Alan Mendoza chides me for the opposite failing: namely, the “defeatist” argument that interventionism in Britain rests on relatively weak foundations, and may require support from the United States. He points out that Tony Blair has been able to carry the British people, and that both his heir apparent in Labor, Gordon Brown, and his latest Tory opponent, David Cameron, share his foreign-policy outlook. Well, we shall see about that. Right now, Blair is virtually the only leading politician, not only in Britain but in all of Europe, who is prepared to make the case for a vigorous prosecution of the war on terror, even if it means taking on terror-sponsoring states like Iran. Both Brown and Cameron have yet to prove themselves under fire.

While I have great respect for Mr. Mendoza’s admirable Henry Jackson Society, it is by no means a power in the land. My point about American support was illustrated recently when Condoleezza Rice paid a brief visit to Britain this spring. Her eloquent advocacy made a striking impact, but it will require a much more concerted effort by the Bush administration to counteract the hostility of the British journalistic and political establishment. I am not defeatist, but I plead guilty to the charge of alarmism. There is plenty going on in Britain that Americans should be alarmed about.

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