This Isn't the Time to Go All Wobbly

With Britain's inconclusive May 6 election now behind us, Americans are watching carefully to see what David Cameron's new coalition government does with his country's foreign policy. To most Americans, Prime Minister Cameron is a blank page, a question mark, a cipher, especially regarding his international policies and his view of whatever remains of the "special relationship". His post-election deal with the Liberal Democrats, creating Britain's first coalition government in almost 70 years, looks very much like "sleeping with the enemy" in domestic politics. It thereby raises the question whether he will be sleeping around internationally as well.

Britain's new collective leadership inherits enormous difficulties. And in Washington, Cameron will face a cool, detached and basically uninterested Barack Obama. With few exceptions, Obama concentrates on restructuring US domestic life, and national security distracts him rarely, in cases such as Afghanistan, where it is unavoidable. In the few foreign policy issues where he has acted voluntarily, such as nuclear weapons, Obama has proved to be highly ideological, devotedly reflecting the Democratic Party's Left. His attitude towards US allies has been stunningly inattentive. Had it come from George W. Bush, it would have precipitated massive media criticism.

Moreover, America's 2010 congressional campaigns are well under way, already foreshadowing the 2012 presidential contest. Obama is therefore concentrating on ramming through what he still can of his radical domestic agenda before his legislative majorities risk vapourising in November. Increasingly, Obama's weak, naive and unfocused responses to the continued threats of international terrorism and nuclear proliferation have encouraged criticism of his inadequacies. For example, Scott Brown's stunning January election to Ted Kennedy's Massachusetts Senate seat rested not only on opposition to Obama's healthcare proposals, but also on Brown's strong anti-terrorism stance. Unquestionably, however, the President's role in US foreign policy is constitutionally predominant, so little is likely to change before 2012.

Therefore, looking at Cameron before May 6, US conservatives wondered whether, under his leadership, Britain could, in a sense, "hold the fort" until then. This is, to be sure, a Washington-centric view, but one shared by those who prize even a reduced "special relationship". Margaret Thatcher certainly held the fort prior to Ronald Reagan's election in 1980.

Whether Cameron has the slightest interest in playing this role, or any role in foreign affairs, remains to be seen. Like Obama, he too may view international policy as a distraction, and, given recent history, may see the US relationship as more of a liability than an asset. Cameron's pressing political problems, leading a morganatic coalition government while positioning for another election to achieve an outright Conservative Party majority in the Commons, may mean America is a burden he simply does not need.

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John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.

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  • John R. Bolton, a diplomat and a lawyer, has spent many years in public service. From August 2005 to December 2006, he served as the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. From 2001 to 2005, he was under secretary of state for arms control and international security. At AEI, Ambassador Bolton's area of research is U.S. foreign and national security policy.

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