In times of political turbulence, the words of the late Harold Macmillan often find renewed relevance. As the first Etonian to serve more than a year as Prime Minister, Macmillan’s quip, “Events, my dear boy, events,” resonates with particular poignancy. Today, this adage takes center stage as David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, charts a course into Cairo—the first world leader to do so since the recent revolution in Egypt.
Macmillan’s “wind of change” metaphor, originally aimed at apartheid-era South Africa, now echoes across the Arab world, potentially unsettling Cameron’s foreign policy ambitions. Arriving in the Middle East during the region’s “1989 moment,” ostensibly to boost British trade—often a euphemism for arms sales—would be ill-timed. Over the weekend, the UK was compelled to rescind arms export licenses to Bahrain and Libya, highlighting the volatility of the geopolitical landscape.
Cameron, known for his agility, responds to the prevailing “wind of change” by hastily incorporating a visit to Egypt at the onset of his pre-planned Middle East trip. Downing Street aims to inject a dose of democracy into the agenda, with Cameron paying homage to the heroes of Tahrir Square. This brief five-hour sojourn, where he will also press the country’s military leadership to uphold commitments to free and fair elections, promises to be the defining moment of his Middle East expedition.
Upon assuming office, Cameron prioritized trade promotion as a cornerstone of British foreign policy, particularly after stabilizing Afghanistan. Addressing British ambassadors in a special conference, he urged them to be “economic ambassadors for Britain.” His directive was clear: utilize diplomatic residences to forge new trade links and generate business for Britain. In quick succession, Cameron led significant trade delegations to India and China, signaling an early focus on the world’s most influential developing economies.
The visit to Egypt marks a potential pivot in Cameron’s foreign policy narrative, challenging the perception of a “one-legged” approach fixated solely on trade. Cameron asserts that promoting political reform aligns seamlessly with championing British business abroad. The underlying message is that fostering trade links and encouraging political change contribute to stability—an outcome beneficial for all.
Critics, including former Foreign Secretary David Miliband, view Cameron’s trade-centric approach as “low-grade mercantilism.” Miliband argues that a narrow focus on trade diminishes the UK’s influence, emphasizing the importance of engaging in long-term relationships on significant global issues. He contends that neglecting broader diplomatic initiatives could relegate Britain to a position beneath even France in the global pecking order.
Undeterred, Cameron positions himself ahead of France in the sensitive arena of Egypt, beating Nicolas Sarkozy to Cairo. Egypt holds particular sensitivity for Sarkozy, who faced criticism after Prime Minister François Fillon’s New Year break in Egypt, partly funded by deposed leader Hosni Mubarak.
Cameron’s current visit to Egypt aims to showcase a multifaceted foreign policy that extends beyond economic interests. While trade remains a cornerstone, the Prime Minister underscores the symbiotic relationship between economic engagement and political reform. In his view, stability is the common denominator that aligns both aspects—a stability he argues is in the collective interest.
As Cameron navigates the complexities of the Arab world’s evolving landscape, his recalibration of priorities suggests a recognition that events, in the spirit of Macmillan, demand a nuanced and adaptive foreign policy. The visit to Egypt, at this critical juncture, could signal a broader realignment—one that acknowledges the interplay of trade, diplomacy, and political reform in the pursuit of global stability. Only time will reveal whether this marks a pivotal moment in Cameron’s foreign policy legacy.