David Cameron’s visit to the United States this week offers the prime minister a major opportunity to assert a stronger British presence on the world stage after a period of notable decline under Gordon Brown. On both Afghanistan and Iran, two key issues likely to feature heavily in his White House meeting on Tuesday, his position should be clear: Britain will stand shoulder to shoulder with the United States in defeating the Taliban and standing up to the Iranian nuclear threat.
The world needs robust U.S.-British leadership, which has been strikingly absent in recent years. David Cameron has the skill and charisma to build up a powerful partnership with Washington, but must be careful to maintain British interests while doing so, and must not be afraid to stand up to the Obama administration on key areas of disagreement, including how best to deal with the global economic downturn. He should also be aware that Barack Obama is an increasingly weakened president, with many policies that are not only harmful to the United States but to America’s standing in the world as well. President Obama has contributed to a significant weakening of the Special Relationship, which might only be reversed after he has left the White House.
Cameron should be under no illusions that the current U.S. president is pro-British in outlook, or has much empathy at all for the Anglo-American alliance. While building ties with the White House, he must look beyond the current administration in his meetings on Capitol Hill, and seek to engage with conservative leaders in Congress, who may hold the balance of power in Washington after this November. Many of them are instinctively pro-British in outlook, and have a direct role in shaping U.S. policy on major issues facing the United Kingdom, including defense and intelligence cooperation, national security, and trade.
In his meetings this week with the U.S. president, David Cameron should:
1. Focus on victory in Afghanistan, not on exit timetables: It is important that the focus of the Cameron-Obama talks be victory over the Taliban, not a timetable for withdrawal, which hands the initiative to the enemy. As U.K. Defence Secretary Liam Fox recently put it in a major speech at the Heritage Foundation, an early departure from Afghanistan “would be a shot in the arm to jihadists everywhere, re-energizing violent radical and extreme Islamism. It would send the signal that we did not have the moral resolve and political fortitude to see through what we ourselves have described as a national security imperative.… To leave before the job is finished would leave us less safe and less secure. Our resolve would be called into question, our cohesion weakened, and the Alliance undermined. It would be a betrayal of all the sacrifices made by our armed forces in life and limb.”
2. Take a firm line on Iran: Washington and London must send a clear signal that the days of engagement with Iran’s brutal regime are over, and that the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable. In addition to calling for strengthened U.N. Security Council and EU sanctions, Cameron and Obama must make it clear that the possible use of force against Tehran’s nuclear facilities is firmly on the table. There should also be strong condemnation of human rights abuses in Iran, and a statement of solidarity with Iran’s democracy movement.
3. Spread the message that deficit cuts are better than stimulus spending: There is a significant divide between the U.S. and British governments over the issue of deficit reduction and government borrowing, with U.K. Chancellor George Osborne’s budget-cutting agenda in marked contrast to the failed stimulus approach backed by the Obama administration. The prime minister must deliver the message in Washington that economic growth in Britain, Europe, and the rest of the world rests upon reducing levels of government spending, reining in budget deficits, and cutting down the size of the state. This is not language Obama will want to hear, but it should be voiced loud and clear by a British leader whose standing in the polls actually went up after the announcement of tough austerity measures, in marked contrast to the big spending U.S. president, who is rapidly losing the trust of the American people.
4. Push for ratification of the U.S.-UK Defense Trade Cooperation Treaty: David Cameron should press Barack Obama on ratification of the U.S.-UK Defense Trade Cooperation Treaty, signed in June 2007, but currently stuck in congressional limbo. If enacted, the treaty would significantly streamline defense-related trade between the two allies. It would also send a strong message that strategic alliances matter, and that the Special Relationship is a two-way street, with both sides fully invested in it.
5. Stand up to Obama on the Falklands sovereignty question: David Cameron should not shy away from a firm defense of British sovereignty over the Falkland Islands, and reject calls for a negotiated settlement over their future. The Obama administration has generated considerable bad blood across the Atlantic through its support for Argentine calls for U.N.-brokered negotiations over the sovereignty of the Falklands, a position which is unacceptable to London. This may not be a major issue for Washington, which has carelessly sided with the Kirchner regime in Buenos Aires, but it is very important to British interests, especially with the brave sacrifice of 255 British servicemen and women in the liberation of the Islands following the Argentine invasion of 1982.
– Nile Gardiner is the director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation.