Two groups in Britain urge foreign policies that reflect key aspects of the American neoconservative agenda. One group has even adopted the name of one of the neocon godfathers, Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson. The question is, why?
Apart from those who follow this sort of thing, the founding of two British-based groups devoted to advocating increased internationalism and a British form of liberal intervention likely went unobserved by most. The fact that the two groups have slightly unusual names does not help. There is the Euston Manifesto, an online organizing initiative made up of apparently disaffected European liberals who aim to reach out beyond “the socialist Left” and “toward egalitarian liberals and others of unambiguous democratic commitment,” and the Henry Jackson Society (HJS), which is named after Henry “Scoop” Jackson, a former U.S. Democratic senator who, before his death in 1983, helped foster the neoconservative ascendance in Washington, DC.
Apart from his nickname, Jackson is best known for his willingness in the wake of the Vietnam War to buck the party line and declare his opposition to détente with the Soviet Union, believing that democratic governments should consider the internal character of foreign states when dealing with them. He is also known for giving many of today’s recognized U.S. neoconservatives their first chance in politics; hence, the recognition of his legacy in the group’s name. It remains strange, however, as pointed out by Samuel Brittan in the Financial Times, why a society with grandiose ideas about British foreign policy and an avowed intent to influence it, should name itself for a relatively obscure-at least in Europe-American politician. “Why,” wrote Brittan, “take the name of a U.S. senator with a very mixed bag of views? Better to have called it the Palmerston Society after the 19th-century British prime minister who selectively favored ‘small nations struggling to be free,’ often with the aid of British gunboats.”
As it is largely understood in Europe, neoconservatism is an American political philosophy that can be defined as a belief that the best way to attain national security is by promoting freedom and democracy abroad through the support of pro-democracy movements, foreign aid, and in certain cases unilateral military intervention. This departs from traditional conservative tendencies of supporting friendly regimes in matters of trade and anti-communism even at the expense of undermining existing democratic systems. Europeans also interpret neoconservatism to hold the security of Israel as a main tenet.
A highly idealist ideology, neoconservatism’s relevance to U.S. domestic politics has been almost thoroughly obscured by its association with the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the muddle of its postwar occupation and administration. So who are these people in the United Kingdom who took up the mantle of neoconservatism, despite the fact that the label has become associated, at least in the United States, with right-wing failure?
They are an eclectic group, rather like their U.S. forbearers. The HJS contains politicians, journalists, academics, and soldiers. Its members come from the left, right, and center, but most have some sort of connection, direct or otherwise, to the British Conservative Party. This stands out in the Atlanticist tone of the society’s manifesto, in particular those parts that embrace Britain’s supposedly unique contribution to multilateral organizations like the European Union and the “necessary furtherance of European military modernization and integration under British leadership, preferably within NATO.” The group seems particularly sensitive to the left’s alleged past track record in accommodating various forms of political extremism, including communism and Islamic radicalism. This conveniently ignores the right’s own questionable association with various forms of political extremism and embraces sweeping generalizations about the left’s history.
The Euston Manifesto, inaugurated in March 2006, contains a similar mix of personalities, but less high-profile, and has a declaration that has drawn signatures from largely leftist politicos, including some members of the HJS. Supported by the likes of Britain’s Oliver Kamm, author of Anti-Totalitarianism: the Left-Wing Case for a Neo-Conservative Foreign Policy (2005), the Euston group says it is a “democratic progressive alliance” aimed at creating “a fresh political alignment.” While less obviously beholden to neoconservatism than the HJS, the group claims to draw on the “lesson of the disastrous history of left apologetics over the crimes of Stalinism and Maoism, as well as more recent exercises in the same vein (some of the reaction to the crimes of 9/11, the excuse-making for suicide-terrorism, the disgraceful alliances lately set up inside the ‘anti-war’ movement with illiberal theocrats).”
According to its founding manifesto: “We must define ourselves against those for whom the entire progressive-democratic agenda has been subordinated to a blanket and simplistic ‘anti-imperialism’ and/or hostility to the current U.S. administration. The values and goals which properly make up that agenda-the values of democracy, human rights, the continuing battle against unjustified privilege and power, solidarity with peoples fighting against tyranny and oppression-are what most enduringly define the shape of any Left worth belonging to.” Among the 2,600 signatories the Euston Manifesto has garnered thus far is a diverse group of scholars, writers, politicians, and pundits, mainly from Europe and the United States, but also from as far afield as South Africa and Australia. Signatories include Marc Cooper, a writer for The Nation; Paul Berman, a prominent American proponent of liberal interventionism at the World Policy Institute; Kanan Makiya, a leading Iraqi dissident who was actively courted by core neoconservatives like Douglas Feith during the lead up to the war in Iraq; Dan Johnson of the UK-based blog Muscular Liberals; and various scholars from Engage, a British online forum that provides a “resource for the monitoring and the critique of left and liberal anti-Semitism.” Echoing charges frequently repeated by U.S. neoconservatives, Engage claims that “contemporary anti-Semitism nearly always appears using the language of anti-Zionism. ‘Anti-racist’ anti-Zionism is often reckless about creating an ideological foundation for, and licensing, more openly anti-Semitic discourses and movements.”
The Euston group has been applauded by neoconservatives in the United States due to its hardline antiterror stance and its avowed goal of combating growing anti-Americanism in Europe. Commenting on the group’s formation, William Kristol wrote in the Weekly Standard early this year: “In the fight against tyranny and terror, against secular dictatorships and Islamic jihadism, is it too much to hope that decent liberals and conservatives could make common cause? We think not, and we hope that this clarion call from overseas might contribute to a rebirth of political courage and moral clarity on the American left as well.”
In contrast to Euston, whose activities-including an ongoing discussion and debate blog-are largely constrained to the blogosphere, the Henry Jackson Society seems to be a flagship effort, as indicated by its rather cushy, invitation-only Westminster inauguration in November 2005 (though the group issued its statement of principles in March 2005). HJS has several notable associates. Signatories of its statement of principles include: Irwin Stelzer, a highly influential U.S. neoconservative based at the Hudson Institute who is best known in the United Kingdom as being an adviser to Rupert Murdoch and having close relations with both Prime Minister Tony Blair and Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown; Gerard Baker, Stephan Pollard, and Oliver Kamm, who all work for the London Times; and Brendan Simms, author of Unfinest Hour: Britain and the Destruction of Bosnia, the seminal work about Britain’s policy on Bosnia during John Major’s government that castigated the British for pursuing a realist foreign policy, equating all parties to the conflict, and essentially allowing Bosnia to collapse.
Other HJS signatories include Sir Richard Dearlove, the former head of British Intelligence before and during the Iraq War; Tim Collins, the former Colonel of the Royal Irish best known for his rousing address to his soldiers prior to the invasion of Iraq; John Drewienkiewicz, a British general who was military adviser to the High Representative in Bosnia and a senior member of the Kosovo Verification Mission prior to the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999; and Jamie Shea, the former chief spokesman for NATO during the Kosovo war who continues to work in the NATO Secretary General’s office; Paul Cornish, a member of the Royal Institute for International Affairs; Denis MacShane, Labour MP and former Minister for Europe; Lord Powell, Margaret Thatcher’s personal adviser on defense and foreign affairs; Lord Trimble, the former leader of Northern Ireland’s Ulster Unionists and a Nobel Peace Prize winner; and Robert Halfon, the political director of Conservative Friends of Israel. The Conservative Party is ably represented by a number of MPs, notably Michael Ancram, Edward Vaizey, Greg Pope, and Michael Gove, the latter three all MPs with allegedly close links to Tory Party Leader David Cameron.
So what are the goals of HJS? According to its website, the society pushes a “‘forward strategy’ to assist those countries that are not yet liberal and democratic to become so. This would involve the full spectrum of [British] ‘carrot’ capacities, be they diplomatic, economic, cultural, or political, but also, when necessary, those ‘sticks’ of the military domain.” Kamm has suggested that some neoconservatives with “reactionary social views” are abandoning the neoconservative label and that “this is as good a time as any” for interventionist foreign policy advocates who want to find recruits on the cultural and social left to adopt it. Yet it is not at all clear how this seems a wise move either rhetorically, logically, or politically-or whether it is even happening. Logically, neoconservatism needs to mean one thing, not many things that various adherents want it to mean, and it is not at all clear that reactionary neoconservatives are abandoning the label, as Kamm asserts; the list of HJS international patrons is a who’s who of core U.S. neoconservatives, including Robert Kagan, Bruce Jackson, Richard Perle, and Joshua Muravchik.
A recent editorial by the society’s media secretary, Matthew Jamison, posited neoconservatism as virtually the only political movement that has consistently proved its positions over the last several decades. Why then assert that it is now open for new adherents from erstwhile rival political factions? Most “recruits” seem already to be on the right. Furthermore, maintaining the neoconservative badge cannot but do harm to the society’s ambitions in the current British political climate, with Blair suffering by association with U.S. President George W. Bush’s Mideast policy, and with most expecting a Gordon Brown-led government to make at least an ideological break with the Americans. In this, there is a clear continuation of a certain way of looking at the Anglo-American “special relationship,” specifically that it is British brains and American brawn that sustains it. This is the line of thought that wishes to turn the concept of Blair as Bush’s lapdog on its head, and instead portray the prime minister as Bush’s ideological godfather, supposedly thus proving that Britain continues to exercise significant influence in American policy. This reasoning interprets the British experience, specifically Blair’s, in the sort of liberal intervention that the neoconservatives want as vastly superior to the U.S. experience in intervention-supporters of this viewpoint see Bush turning to Blair, with a proven track record in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Sierra Leone, following 9/11.
Movements can often trace their origins to seminal moments or events. In the case of many members of the HJS, the period between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11 seems to have served as a crucible of great expectations-expectations that were left unfulfilled by the governments of the time. The failure of the West to intervene decisively in Bosnia and Rwanda were nadirs, with the former crisis imposing terrible strain on Anglo-American relations. Most people would agree that spreading the benefits of the democratic system, allied to liberal markets, is a worthwhile effort, and most Western governments have precisely these sorts of programs in place. It is not clear, then, why promoting democracy should be associated with a neoconservative agenda, with its implications of flawed military action and American unilateralism. The neoconservative label-which began as a term of opprobrium-is now widely and almost irredeemably suspect, especially on the left. Thus, the central puzzle behind the creation of these two new groups, though particularly in the case of the Henry Jackson Society: If your goal is to urge European decision-makers to aggressively promote liberal values, why associate yourself with a tainted neoconservative label?
Luke McCallin, a writer based in France, is a contributor to Right Web (rightweb.irc-online.org) and a doctoral candidate in international relations at the Institut Universitaire de Hautes Etudes Internationales.