12 May 2015

Why David Cameron’s election victory is good news for Washington


Foreign policy barely featured in the 2015 UK General Election campaign. But this was an election with important consequences on the world stage, not least for the United States, Britain’s closest friend and ally. It would be fair to say that much of Washington (or at least anyone paying attention over here) breathed a collective sigh of relief on both sides of the political aisle when it became clear that David Cameron had won re-election. It is not that Cameron is hugely popular in America. He is not as well known on this side of the Atlantic as some of his predecessors, especially Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher. And many US conservatives regard him as too liberal on some matters, especially on social issues and on foreign aid. But he is respected by Washington policymakers in the Executive Branch and in Congress as a strong US partner, and generally viewed as a safe pair of hands.

As the Iron Lady once remarked, being the world’s superpower can be a lonely task, and having someone alongside you when times are tough is important.  Cameron is no Winston Churchill, but he has been America’s most important ally in the fight against ISIS and on a host of international issues. When he stands alongside the leader of the free world in the Rose Garden he comes across as a figure of weight, at times eclipsing his US counterpart in terms of delivery and gravitas. The British Prime Minister’s robust statements in recent months on Islamist terrorism, condemning the “poisonous ideology” of Islamist extremism, have been widely covered in the US media, and Mr. Cameron has been a prominent voice in shaping the debate in this area.

David Cameron’s relationship with the White House has been as close as it could be, despite President Obama’s relative indifference towards the Anglo-American alliance in comparison with the last few presidents, from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush. Cameron deserves to be criticised for failing to stand up to then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s appalling support for Argentina’s call for UN-brokered negotiations over the sovereignty of the Falkands, a matter that Britain had emphatically settled back in 1982 with great sacrifice. But he has continued to champion the Special Relationship at a time when the American president has been slow to cultivate key US alliances. It is significant that out of all the election manifestos, only the Conservative Party pledged to “uphold our special relationship with the USA and further strengthen our ties with our close Commonwealth allies, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.”

In contrast to David Cameron, Ed Miliband was seen in Washington as a huge gamble for Britain, a political lightweight completely untested on the international stage.  Indeed, it was hard to imagine Mr. Miliband leading one of the most powerful countries on earth, the world’s fifth largest economy, and a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.  In contrast to Cameron, Miliband barely mentioned the United States in his party’s manifesto, and seemed to show little commitment to Transatlanticism in general. The prospect of a Labour coalition with the Scottish National Party made US policymakers nervous, not least the SNP’s opposition to Britain’s nuclear deterrent, which is entirely based in Scotland.  There were also concerns that Britain under Miliband would take a more isolationist stance on the world stage, especially in the Middle East. Labour had failed to come up with anything resembling a concrete vision for British foreign policy, and in place of clear prescriptions for British leadership they offered only vague platitudes.

Had Miliband won the election and entered Downing Street as Prime Minister it would have taken months, even years, to establish the kind of rapport with the White House that David Cameron has established. At the same time, Miliband’s left-wing economic policies would have alienated conservatives on Capitol Hill, making for a difficult relationship if the Republicans were to take the White House in 2016, as well as controlling the Senate and House of Representatives.

At the end of the day, Miliband just didn’t seem ready for prime time as a world leader. David Cameron has however managed to craft the image of a statesman, built up over five years in office, and has assembled a solid cabinet team including Chancellor George Osborne and Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, that effectively delivers Britain’s economic and foreign policy message to a global audience.

There is undoubtedly a great deal of good will in Washington towards David Cameron as he begins his second term. But the Prime Minister will need to respond to an undercurrent of criticism on this side of the Atlantic of his government’s deep-seated defence cuts, which have prompted some US officials to warn that the cuts threaten the future of the Special Relationship. Britain’s value as America’s most important ally rests in part on its ability to fight alongside the United States on the battlefield, a capability that is rapidly diminishing as sweeping cuts are reducing the size of Britain’s armed forces to its lowest level in more than a century.

With a majority in the House of Commons, and freed of the shackles of the Liberal Democrats, Cameron has an opportunity to reverse the decline in British defense spending, and meet Britain’s NATO commitment of investing at least 2 percent of GDP on defense. It makes no sense that Britain is reducing its military capabilities at a time when Russia is ramping up its military prowess, and ISIS is rampaging its way through Iraq and Syria, while building franchises from Libya to Somalia.

As global threats mount, Britain has a vital role to play in defending the free world, and combating the forces of terrorism and tyranny. This is best done through NATO and the partnership with the United States. But any British role must rest on the ability to back tough talk with military might, and David Cameron has to make the restoration of Britain’s defences a top priority in his second term. Great Britain’s voice in Washington is always more powerfully heard when the prime minister is prepared and able to effectively deploy Britain’s military where needed.

Nile Gardiner is the Director of the Margaret Thatcher for Freedom at the Heritage Freedom in Washington, DC.