Barack Obama and David Cameron, who have been meeting in Washington this week, are two leaders who owe their present positions, in part, to the backlash of the post-9/11 era. But both the U.S. president and British prime minister have also demonstrated surprising continuities with their interventionist predecessors while in office.
Obama, of course, rose to prominence as a critic of George W. Bush's "dumb war" in Iraq. Cameron, in addition to his pledges to cut spending and get Britain's fiscal house in order, took special effort after rising to leader of the opposition in 2005 to distance himself from the interventionism of Tony Blair.
While Blair's position in British politics had once been unassailable -- he had completely overhauled a Labour Party that was hostile to capitalism and committed to unilateral nuclear disarmament and won three successive general elections in the process -- he paid a heavy political price for the support he gave to U.S. policy after the 9/11 attacks and in particular for committing British forces to the overthrow of Iraq's Saddam Hussein.
Cameron took full advantage. On the fifth anniversary of 9/11, Cameron gave a speech on foreign policy in which he described himself as a liberal conservative rather than a neoconservative. Echoing the Augustinian realism of Reinhold Niebuhr, Cameron decried a simplistic vision of a world order divided between the forces of light and the forces of darkness, and he expounded the virtues of humility and patience.
However, just as Obama's presidency has surprisingly come to be defined by drone war, special operations raids, and a troop surge in Afghanistan, Cameron in government is more interventionist than his statements in opposition suggested he would be. And his relations with Obama are warmer than observers of both men's political records might have predicted.
Cameron's Blair-like tendencies have been much greater than the continuities in foreign policy between Cameron and John Major, the Conservative prime minister from 1990 to 1997. To the despair of Margaret Thatcher, whom he succeeded in Downing Street, Major presided over the greatest catastrophe in British foreign policy since the 1956 Suez crisis: Western inaction in the Balkans. Major completely misinterpreted the war in Bosnia as a recrudescence of intractable ancient hatreds. Possessed not by realism but an amoral conservative quietism, Major's government not only urged no-intervention but actively obstructed the efforts of its NATO and European Union allies to counter Serbian aggression.
In 1999, two years after his first landslide election victory and at the height of the Kosovo crisis, Blair gave a notable speech on foreign policy in Chicago. He cited both Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic and Iraq's Saddam Hussein as threats to international stability. The emphasis of that speech refutes the absurd and insulting charge that after 9/11 Blair acted as "Bush's poodle." In reality, Blair was arguing a case for the responsibility to protect threatened populations while Bush, then governor of Texas and an aspiring presidential nominee, was opposing the Bill Clinton administration's supposed entanglements in the Balkans.