Bagehot's notebookThe crisis in Libya
Aug 25th 2011, 15:25 by Bagehot
..THIS week's print column looks at the first leg of the Libyan crisis, and asks what lessons can be drawn about David Cameron's Britain, and how it sees its role in the world. Here it is:
WHAT sort of Britain stands revealed by the fight to topple Muammar Qaddafi, the first armed campaign begun on David Cameron’s watch? Compared with the country that Tony Blair led into four wars—let alone the Britain of the Falklands era under Margaret Thatcher, who sent a naval task-force 8,000 miles to biff Argentina—this new Britain is poorer, wearier and warier. Yet wariness should not be mistaken for defeatism. Despite the pain of austerity, including big defence cuts, Mr Cameron’s Conservative-led coalition has put a lot of thought into how Britain can count in today’s chaotic world.
With the shadow of Iraq hanging over British politics, the coalition has stressed its legal mandate from the UN to protect Libyan civilians. That mandate may have been stretched at times, and Tory backbenchers would probably rather see money spent on policing British streets than on helping a far-off uprising. But to date there have been no parliamentary rebellions, and public opinion has grudgingly accepted Mr Cameron’s insistence that the Libyan campaign is “necessary, legal and right”.
By instinct, Mr Cameron is not as far from Mr Blair as some Tories might wish. Since the Arab spring began the prime minister has publicly called for greater Arab freedoms. In private he is said to betray frustration that some regimes, such as Syria, are widely deemed too-big-to-topple. Against that, Mr Cameron is his own strictest counsellor, sometimes answering his own question—why cannot more be done?—before officials need to speak.
In other ways, the Cameron government marks a big break with the recent past. Mr Blair sometimes seemed to see Britain’s global role as a bridge between American hard power and the more herbivorous soft power of the European Union. Today’s ministers, such as William Hague, the Conservative foreign secretary, dislike talk of a world divided into formal blocks. Their diplomacy puts its faith in nurturing a much wider range of bilateral ties, which—when properly managed—lend Britain clout in a “latticework” of overlapping alliances and networks. These might include everything from the UN and NATO to loose groupings of countries that support greater free trade, or that simply agree on the need for more accountable rulers in the Arab world.
Cameron allies question whether such formal, exclusive clubs as the European Union enjoy special legitimacy, merely by claiming to speak for 27 like-minded nations. Recalling the tense days in March as France and Britain led a push for a UN Security Council resolution authorising force to stop a massacre in Benghazi, a source recalls “indispensable” help from America, then notes: “We didn’t even consult the EU.”
Moreover, officials scorn the notion that pursuing a common foreign or security policy through the EU will magically make a giant out of a score of Euro-pygmies. They hail the Libyan conflict as proof that when hard decisions have to be taken, it is still national capitals—able to draw upon armies, secret services and diplomatic ties with far corners of the world—that “have to act”. When action requires an international mandate or simply consent from bodies such as the Arab League, Mr Hague further argues, it is precisely by burnishing bilateral ties that Britain can best secure multinational agreements.
Conservative distrust of Europe is no surprise. But British foreign policy also shows signs of breaking free of the decades-long spell cast by the “special relationship” with America. Britain’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan cannot be separated from its relations with America. The Libyan air campaign could not have been fought without American help. But Britain did not undertake the campaign for the sake of its ties with America.
This has all felt rather new. British warplanes have been flying sorties and the briefing from British officials has not all been about the mood in Washington. Instead, there has been talk of almost daily contact between Mr Cameron and leaders in places such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates—and, above all, briefing about the closest diplomatic and military co-operation between Britain and France since the second world war.
For advocates of the new bilateralism, such deep Franco-British co-operation, which was originally conceived as a way to make shrinking national defence budgets go further, is a big prize. Since the Libyan campaign began, the relationship has survived considerable turbulence, in large part due to the remarkable pragmatism of the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy. As the Libyan campaign loomed, officials in the French diplomatic establishment initially resisted running air strikes under NATO command, and they have since lobbied for the long-standing French dream of an alternative European military headquarters. Britain opposes a European headquarters, which is a source of angst to French diplomats. Mr Sarkozy—focused on the benefits of military co-operation with Britain, the only other serious military power in Europe—simply overruled his own officials.
Meanwhile, the others still rise
Within the government, wise heads caution that early success in Libya does not mean that Britain has invented a new world order in which the British always get their way. Libya may have made it harder, at least in the near future, to secure legal backing from the UN for similar interventions. Big emerging democracies, from South Africa to India and Brazil, do not share Britain’s enthusiasm for getting involved in the affairs of other countries. And France might elect a new president next year.
Luck, then, allied with attempts to temper idealism with caution, has helped Mr Cameron achieve what looks, for now, like a first foreign-policy win. His luck may not hold. Mr Cameron knows that. But he has tasted action on the world stage. He will be back for
Wednesday, 31 August 2011
Posted by MANUEL DE ARAÚJO at Wednesday, August 31, 2011