Liberal Conservatism. A discussion with Mark McClelland

I’ve been thinking this week about pushing the line that a lasting legacy of Blair’s foreign policy was the impact it has had on the Conservative Party.  The evidence for this is David Cameron’s concept of ‘liberal conservatism’, which he set out in a speech on 11 September 2006.  This embraces the concept of new liberal interventionism, which stems from a very Blairite view of the national interest.  That is to say, both Blair and Cameron seemingly reject the view that the long term interests of the nation can be separated from the fate of democracy and human rights in other countries.  They hold a broader view which says that interests and values merge. This is the argument that got the UK into Kosovo, Iraq, and has kept it there in Afghanistan. It has also inspired the UK’s response to the Arab Spring. 

As followers of this blog will know, I was disappointed by Cameron’s response to the manner in which Gaddafi was killed.  This disappointment increased after returning to Cameron’s 2006 speech.  As I said, he overlaps with Blair on the merger of interests and values and on this basis he supports using western power to ‘do good’; but he makes efforts to distinguish liberal conservatism from the failures of post-9/11 western policy (e.g. Guantanamo) by acknowledging that the west’s moral authority is not inexhaustible. 

Human dignity, personal freedom, national self-determination – these are the aspirations for all people everywhere. But if we assume – and I think we should assume – some responsibility for extending these values internationally, we must strive to do so in a way that is consistent and honourable. A moral mission requires moral methods. Without them, we are merely war-makers. Might becomes our only standard of right. And we sink in the esteem of the world. … That is why we must not stoop to conquer. We must not stoop to illiberalism – whether at Guantánamo Bay, or here at home with excessive periods of detention without trial. We must not turn a blind eye to the excesses of our allies – abuses of human rights in some Arab countries,

The last line is particularly telling in the context of last week’s debate, especially when it is set against the arguments by conservatives that we should not be too concerned about the way our allies (the NTC) treat Gaddafi.

I posted this section of the speech on my FB page last week. It was, I admit, a departing shot after time had been called on my debate with Adam Quinn and Matthew Hill.  Yet it initiated a new thread of comments on what is meant by ‘liberal conservatism’.  With the permission of Mark McClelland I have repeated that thread here.  Mark will shortly be submitting his PhD at the University of Birmingham and recently contributed an excellent article on neoconservatism to the April 2011 special issue of International Journal of Human Rights on democracy promotion in US foreign policy.  As you can see, he takes a rather skeptical view, whereas I think there is something distinctive in Cameron’s speech and actions. 

JR This quote was taken from a speech Cameron made in 2006 defining “liberal conservatism”. I’ve posted it here because it reminds us that liberal conservatism, unlike neoconservatism, does not take short cuts on human rights law in order to defeat its enemies.  An argument over the past week is that we should not hold the NTC in Libya to human rights standards; well that is not what Cameron implied in 2006. If you read the speech he actually says that the only way to maintain legitimacy when intervening is by not ‘stooping to illiberalism’.

MM Liberal conservatism. I find the construction somewhat oxymoronic and struggle to understand exactly what this means in relation to foreign policy. I’ve heard Cameron on this a few times and still do not fully understand the concept. Too much of a conscience to be a realist? Too non-interventionist to be a neocon? Too realist to be a liberal? Too interventionist to be an isolationist?. It becomes so wide an idea it almost becomes meaningless.

JR I think there is something in it. The way I see it, it’s more liberal than conservative i.e. democracy promotion is in our interests; and it’s more liberal than the Neoconservatism i.e. our moral authority to promote democracy is tentative and will be destroyed if we abuse human rights.  But then it’s more realist than Blair’s liberalism and Bush Neoconservatism i.e. democracy promotion can be successful but we need to be humble and patient.

MM Maybe. It is easy to argue in a speech, but less so with ‘real world’ events in motion when hard choices rather than rhetorical elasticity are the order of the day. He seems caught between not wanting to follow Hurd, Rifkind et. al. on their mid-1990s road to Srebrenica, and not wanting perpetual neo-Blairite humanitarian wars. Not much time or space for this liberal conservative middle ground, though, when Gaddafi’s forces were swarming outside Benghazi.

JR I wouldn’t say Cameron is ‘caught’ anywhere. He has deliberately positioned himself in response to the foreign policy disasters you mention. And I know I’ve been attacking him a lot this week but I think somewhere between Srebrenica and Iraq is about right. Isn’t that Benghazi?

MM He got very lucky in Libya. NATO airpower can only get one so far (especially with no aircraft carriers!). Would have been interesting to see what would have happened to ‘liberal conservatism’ if Gaddafi had proved more indomitable.

JR But liberal conservatism is about only intervening when there’s a reasonable chance of success, so judging it by a hypothetical tougher scenario misses Cameron’s point. The realism in liberal conservatism means he would not intervene if there wasn’t a reasonable chance of success. That’s the difference between Libya and Syria. Liberal interventionists might regret the inconsistency but being a liberal realist I see the merits, regrettable as the situation in Syria is.

MM Sorry, I am making you defend Cameron which was not the original point you were making! Senator McCain this week has been openly talking up the case for military action in Syria to protect civilians. The problem with all this of course is that everyone defines “a reasonable chance of success” differently. Plenty of realists opposed Cameron on Libya on precisely those grounds. And even the most gung-ho neocon would use a similar construction to justify military action in a number of different states. How can that be a distinctive of ‘liberal conservatism’ when both realists and Neocons also trot out that line too?

JR  Who actually defines ‘reasonable chance of success’? That is a good point.  I’d just say realists, as I see it, think there’s less chance of military action delivering political goals (see Kennan) while Neocons tend to think military action has more chance of delivering political goals (Kristol, Kagan, Kaplan).  Realism is of course a broad church and the conservative realist interested in only advancing a narrow national interest would probably disagree with humanitarian intervention in Libya even if it could save Libyan lives. But the way I see it Cameron (like Blair) had a broader conception of the national interest, which included acting to prevent outrageous human rights abuses. I see liberal conservatism as a kind of liberal realism – it has the broader conception of national interest that allows for humanitarian intervention but it is more sceptical than neoconservatives or liberal idealists on the ability of military force to deliver political/humanitarian goals.  In the face of the military quagmire, liberal realists would say, ‘see, that shows us the limitations of force’, whereas neoconservatives would say ‘we just need to apply more force’. Notice McCain criticized Obama on Libya for not applying more force earlier. And if he’s advocating military action in Syria I think he will lose the conservative realists who say that we have no interest in regime change there; as well as the liberal conservatives (or liberal realists) who would argue that we do not have the means to deliver regime change, even if we had an interest in it, and pursuing regime change with limited means will make things worse for all concerned.

More discussion…

On November 2 Matt Beech (University of Hull) will be presenting on Liberal conservatism and British foreign policy in room 11.14 of the Social Science Building, University of Leeds.  The talk starts at 4 and discussion finishes at 5.30pm.

And on November 16 Justin Morris (also University of Hull) will be presenting on Liberal conservatism, neoconservatism and British foreign policy in room 11.14 of the Social Science Building, University of Leeds.  The talk starts at 4 and discussion finishes at 5.30pm.

About Jason Ralph

Jason Ralph, Professor of International Relations, University of Leeds
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