When you buy a new Lego set, it always comes with a few spares of the smallest pieces that are easiest to lose. David Cameron goes to the G20 at St Petersburg today as one of those pieces. The UK is a spare part at the summit, as a result of last week’s vote in the House of Commons.
Fortunately, this is a temporary condition. Britain has stood aside from American military engagements before, most notably in Vietnam and most finger-waggingly when Margaret Thatcher told Ronald Reagan off for his intervention in Grenada, but it didn’t stop British leaders going on about the special relationship. Nor did it stop Barack Obama describing the UK as America’s “closest ally” on Saturday. (It is worth noting in passing, too, that the date of Reagan’s invasion of Grenada in 1983 is now a national holiday called Thanksgiving Day in that Caribbean country.)
But British irrelevance over Syria will be on public display in Vladimir Putin’s palace tomorrow. The main question at the G20 will be Syria, even though it is not on the formal agenda, which is all economic. It will be discussed by world leaders in informal talks around the formal business. It looks as if Putin will mock Cameron in their chats by saying that Russia is not opposed in principle to UN military action against Syria if it is proved “beyond doubt” that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons. One wonders what philosophical standard of proof would be regarded by the Russian president as conclusive.
Cameron will be able only to try to persuade Putin that it is in his country’s interest, as he put it in Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday, to bring Assad to a political settlement. That is an honourable enough mission, but almost completely pointless. The Prime Minister made clear what he thought of peacenik jaw-jaw as the solution to every world problem when he replied with with icy politeness to Joan Ruddock, the Labour MP and former chair of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. He praised her work for peace but invited her to put herself in the President’s shoes – there was an unlikely image – and said that it would be “very perilous” for the US to step back from military action in Syria.
For a moment at the weekend it looked as if Labour’s scuttle back to its Ruddockian past last week had set off a chain reaction around the world that would stop the US-led air strikes against Assad. When President Obama announced that he would seek the authorisation of Congress – not quite a direct response to Cameron’s defeat in the Commons, but plainly influenced by it – it was assumed that he might not get it. For a moment, the British Labour Party faced a horrible prospect. Having voted against military action as a way of expiating 13 years of having to take responsibility for difficult decisions in government, it almost looked as if it would have to take responsibility for a difficult non-decision out of it.
This week, though, it turned out that the President had done his counting rather better than the Prime Minister, when John Boehner, the leading Republican in the House of Representatives, came out in favour of military action. So it looks as if Labour MPs will get what I suspect most of them want: the US going ahead with military action – which may not make things better but at least has a chance of deterring further use of chemical weapons – while they can watch on television and wallow in the comfort of not being responsible. Even if it does mean also observing the paradox of Ed Miliband’s one-time role model Francois Hollande going ahead with French participation – to the extent of having a debate but no vote in the National Assembly.
As I say, that means Cameron has to sit out this crisis. He will find that frustrating in St Petersburg, but it does not mean that British foreign policy has fundamentally changed – any more than President Obama’s decision to go to Congress means that US foreign policy has fundamentally changed. Both countries have adjusted to the overreach of Iraq and the later phase of the Afghanistan campaign – for which the insult-shorthand is “neoconservatism” – and in the UK the Labour Party has reverted to its prevailing tendency of opposing military action and mild anti-Americanism. That is a tendency that had been overridden briefly by force of argument over the Falklands in 1982, and for a decade by force of will by Tony Blair while he was prime minister.
Labour’s reversion exposes the divisions on the right here, which are similar to those in the Republican party in the US. As Cameron discovered last week, there is a strong isolationist minority among Conservative MPs, which is roughly equivalent to the Tea Party on the Republican right. The Tea Party may be a recent American label, but isolationism is a long and durable tradition in American politics.
It was in the home of US isolationism before the Second World War – Chicago – that Blair made his appeal for his doctrine of interventionism in 1999. What is important about that doctrine is not that the Labour Party has rolled a bit back down the hill, but that so much of it has survived. Indeed, in the form of the “responsibility to protect” – shortened according to modern fashion to R2P – it has been a formal doctrine of the UN since 2005.
Most of the Republican party retains a predisposition in favour of the use of American power, just as the Tories do here. What is different about Syria is more to do with the complexities of that civil war, and the deep scepticism of western public opinion about the prospects of intervention, than any change in the nature of centre-right majorities in Congress or the Commons. The Tory isolationists were not decisive in forcing Cameron to stand aside from military action in Syria: what mattered, once Labour had decided to change sides, were the hostile votes and abstentions of Conservative MPs who regard themselves as internationalists.
Andrew Tyrie, the chairman of the Treasury select committee, for example, explained today that he didn’t vote for the Government last week because he was “simply not persuaded that the proposed strikes would … have the intended deterrent effect on the use of chemical weapons, but instead carried the risk of aggravating the civil war”. But he said he would support military action in other situations where there was “a reasonable prospect of a durable improvement”.
The Lego model of interventionism, or R2P, is not complete. There are spare parts which are duplicates, and some of the more important parts have rolled under the Russian and Chinese sofas. But the construction is taking shape. There is a consistent set of principles, applied in Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan phase one and in Libya two years ago. Syria is one of the hardest cases, but it looks as if there will be limited military action. And there will be action again in other cases. American and British foreign policies have undergone an adjustment rather than a transformation.