Britain's new Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has promised "a solid but not slavish relationship with the US". The implication is clear: the days of British poodledom are over.
Many will find this rather hard to stomach. In the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Conservative Party was even more gung-ho over Iraq than Tony Blair. And Mr Hague himself has always been a Thatcherite Atlanticist, as reflected by the speed with which he set off for yesterday's meeting in Washington with the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. One of the reasons Mr Blair hugged George Bush so tightly was out of fear that the likes of Mr Hague would take his place and adopt a still stronger embrace.
Iraq is now history. And in Barack Obama the US itself has a leader who opposed that calamitous invasion. Yet both America and Britain are in danger of making similar mistakes over the Nato mission in Afghanistan. Mr Hague made it clear to Mrs Clinton yesterday that the new coalition Government will not deviate from the strategy of its predecessor on Afghanistan. Britain's 9,500 troops, according to Mr Hague, will stay until "their job is done".
It is probably sensible for Mr Hague to wait until after the impending Kandahar operation before reviewing Britain's involvement in this conflict. The Nato assault on the birthplace of the Taliban will be a crucial moment for General Stanley McChrystal's strategy to stabilise the country. But, whatever happens, bigger questions over the Afghan mission cannot be ducked for ever. In particular: would the West's interests be better served by supporting the Pakistan government's counter-terrorism efforts further east, rather than expending blood and treasure propping up a corrupt regime in Kabul? It remains to be seen whether Mr Hague will raise such difficult questions with Washington, or whether he will be swept along with the unthinking tide like so many of his predecessors.
Afghanistan is not the only test of our new Government. Mr Hague is known to hold hawkish views on Iran. But an overly belligerent policy towards Tehran, at a time when Iran is in the grip of acute civil strife, could escalate, rather than defuse, the crisis of its nuclear policy. The issue of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks is also of vital importance. Will Mr Hague be prepared to join the Obama administration in pressuring Benjamin Netanyahu to come to the negotiating table? Or does Britain's new Government have an unreconstructed neo-conservative outlook?
One area that certainly does not bode well is Britain's relations with the European Union, to which the Tories have a deep-rooted hostility. It is hard to envisage greater pooling of military resources with our Continental neighbours, despite the clear logic of such co-operation at a time of tight military spending.
Foreign policy is one of the few areas of government where the Tory side of this Lib-Con coalition has free rein. That is both a pity and an opportunity. It is a pity because the multilateralist, pro-European Liberal Democrats would have been a valuable stabilising influence in the Foreign Office. But it is also an opportunity because now the Conservatives can demonstrate that they have moved beyond the dogmas of former eras and can act effectively and pragmatically in concert with all our international allies.Reuse content