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22 September 2011

Is Cameron’s UN speech more than just rhetoric?

Will he now stop rolling out the red carpet for Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and other autocracies?

By George Eaton

David Cameron will address the United Nations for the first time today and, judging by the pre-released extracts, he has become a full-blown convert to liberal interventionism. The PM will say:

“You can sign every human rights declaration in the world, but if you stand by and watch people being slaughtered in their own country, when you could act, then what are those signatures really worth?”

Emboldened by the dethronement of Colonel Gaddafi, he will demand that the UN proves that it “can be – not just united in condemnation, but – united in action acting in a way that lives up to the UNs founding principles and meets the needs of people everywhere.”

For a man whose pre-Libya approach to foreign policy was unashamedly mercantilist, these are bold words. Cameron has all but abandoned the realist position that he adopted in the speech he delivered on 11 September, 2006 when he declared:

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“The ambition to spread democracy is noble and just. But it cannot be quickly achieved to suit a political timetable. Because it takes time, it cannot easily be imposed from outside. Liberty grows from the ground – it cannot be dropped from the air by an unmanned drone.”

But as ever, the PM will judged by his actions, not his words. Despite his ostensible commitment to democracy in the Middle East, he rolled out the red carpet for the crown prince of Bahrain in May at a time when when the country’s regime was jailing, torturing and killing peaceful democracy protesters.

Earlier this month a string of autocracies, including Bahrai, Oman and Saudi Arabia, were welcomed to one of the world’s biggest arms fairs at the ExCel centre in London’s Docklands. Protesters pointed out the hypocrisy but the Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, was unapologetic. In a speech on the opening day of the fair, he declared: “I am proud that the UK is the second biggest defence exporter in the world … This is fundamental part of the coalition government’s agenda for economic growth, but it is also part of our strategy of enlightened international engagement.”

Such debased realism is the antithesis of Cameron’s humanitarian rhetoric. But to date, the PM has appeared intensely relaxed about this contradiction. If he is to present a more credible face to the world, he must end his government’s policy of selective opposition to tyranny.