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U.K. Foreign Secretary Reaffirms ‘Unbreakable Alliance’ with the U.S.

May 14, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Foreign Secretary William Hague met with Obama administration officials, following speculation that the U.K.'s new governing coalition will be more independent of U.S. policy. Margaret Warner talks to Hague about the newly formed government under Prime Minister David Cameron.
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JIM LEHRER: Now: the new British foreign secretary.

He made a quick trip to Washington today. At the State Department, William Hague and Secretary Clinton reaffirmed the close ties between the two allies.

Margaret Warner talked with Hague this afternoon at the British Embassy.

MARGARET WARNER: Foreign Secretary, thank you for joining us.

WILLIAM HAGUE, British Foreign Secretary: It’s a pleasure.

MARGARET WARNER: As you just said in the press conference with Secretary Clinton, it has been an extraordinary week in British politics. You were in the thick of it. You were the lead negotiator with the Liberal Democrats.

What tipped the balance? What made you decide to go into this coalition, rather than govern alone?

WILLIAM HAGUE: Well, we wanted to have a secure government that could last, we hope, for a good five years, until the next general election.

And if we had governed as a minority, that would have been a very unstable arrangement, probably led to another election very quickly. And we found we could combine socially liberal Conservatives with economically conservative Liberals into a coalition, which we hope will be a great success.

MARGARET WARNER: And what — I mean, this is the first coalition government Britain’s had since World War II…

WILLIAM HAGUE: That’s right.

MARGARET WARNER: … since Churchill’s cabinet.

WILLIAM HAGUE: Yes.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, obviously, what kept them together on foreign affairs and national security was defeating the Germans.

What’s going to keep these two parties, Conservatives and progressives, united on foreign policy?

WILLIAM HAGUE: Well, we — David Cameron and I always have said, before we contemplated a coalition, that we would pursue a liberal conservative foreign policy. It’s turned out to be quite a fortunate phrase.

That means we — we have clear values of supporting democracy, political freedom, human rights. And we will support these important values in the world. But we’re skeptical of grand utopian visions to remake the world. We’re conservative in that sense. We want to work with the grain of other societies and nations, work with the world as it is, not as we would wish it to be.

And I think that will be the right combination. And there’s certainly a lot of agreement on relations with the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: So, here you are. This is your third day in office. You’re already here in Washington. Why? I mean, does this mean the special relationship is alive and well?

WILLIAM HAGUE: It is very much alive and well.

The first person to speak to Prime Minister David Cameron when he entered the door of 10 Downing Street was President Obama. And the first person to call me as I entered the Foreign Office was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

And, so, we have felt it a very warm welcome into government from the United States. I’m here to reciprocate that warmth and to talk about so many urgent issues on Afghanistan, Iran, Middle East peace process. There’s no time to lose.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet, David Cameron has talked about the need to have the relationship — I think his word was rebalanced. You have said you want a solid, but not slavish, relationship with Washington. What does that mean?

WILLIAM HAGUE: Well, it means we won’t always agree. The United States is our indispensable partner. And this is, as I called it this afternoon, the unbreakable alliance, and we’re utterly convinced of that. We’re very transatlantic in our approach.

But that doesn’t mean we will always agree. I mean, we shouldn’t be afraid to disagree. But I’m — but I’m glad to say that we do — as things stand today, the foreign policy decisions of the Obama administration are ones that we strongly support and want to work with.

MARGARET WARNER: But now Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats have gone even further. He has said something to the effect of, too often, the British just put ourselves in an automatically subservient position to Washington.

Is he part of shaping this approach to Washington, or not?

WILLIAM HAGUE: He is. What he is talking about there is that his party, the Liberal Democrats, opposed the war in Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: Mm-hmm.

WILLIAM HAGUE: But then so did the current president of the United States. And so, looking forward, I think it is possible to approach it in this spirit. We will sometimes disagree. But the vast majority of the time, our national interests coincide. And that is the view of Nick Clegg, our new deputy prime minister, just as it’s my view.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, what about Afghanistan? Now, there, the Liberal Democrats opposed that war, too. In fact, the majority of Liberal Democrats do. Will there be anything different in — or would you like to see anything different in approach in Afghanistan, as compared to what the Obama and Brown administrations were pursuing?

WILLIAM HAGUE: Well, we will work closely with the Obama administration. We will take stock, urgently take stock. But that’s not about whether to support the strategy of NATO and agreed at the London conference. It’s how to support it.

Of course, a new government wants to look at the role of British forces over the coming years. But we will be there. We want this to succeed. It is vital for our national security and America’s national security for the operations in Afghanistan to succeed.

MARGARET WARNER: But do you think the Obama administration strategy that the president announced last December is the right course?

WILLIAM HAGUE: Yes. We want to give it the time and the support to succeed. But, of course, at every stage, as the situation develops, we want to be there helping to shape the decisions and be — be — and form an exceptionally close political partnership with the Obama administration. Again, that’s why I have come here so quickly.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Nick Clegg has talked about a five-year withdrawal timetable from Afghanistan. And I think David Cameron also talked about 2015.

Will this new government be seeking some sort of time limit on how long British forces will be there?

WILLIAM HAGUE: We’re not going to set a time limit. Certainly, that’s not our intention at the moment.

As I say, we will — we are urgently taking stock. But that’s not our intention at the moment. Of course we want British troops to come home when their job is done. We want to pursue every possible action to bring forward that time, because our objective, when you think about why we’re in Afghanistan, it is to reach the point where Afghans can look after their own affairs, without presenting a danger to the rest of the world.

But it’s at that point that we can ask our troops to come home.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, now let’s turn to Iran, because I know that was a major point of conversation between you and Secretary Clinton today.

Again, any difference of policy that you’re seeking in the way the Obama and Brown governments have been pursuing, trying to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions?

WILLIAM HAGUE: There’s no difference at the moment on that. There’s a strong continuity of British policy from the last government to the new government.

If anything, we have been advocates of tougher European action on sanctions than the outgoing government. But it’s a — it’s a small difference. It’s not a very — it’s not a fundamental difference of strategy. We’re all united now, the U.S. and the U.K., on trying to get a Security Council resolution that puts more pressure on Iran.

And then we will again work with the United States to achieve determined European action. And that, of course, is where we really come in and we have a very important role to play.

MARGARET WARNER: But, again, here, there has been a difference between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. The Liberal Democrats have said, no military action ever, even as a threat or an option with Iran. The Tories, of course, have not said that.

What’s going to be this government’s position?

WILLIAM HAGUE: Well, we’re not, in any case, at the moment, calling for military action. So, if we had a different view of that, at the moment, it doesn’t surface. At the moment, that difference of view, if it still there in the future, doesn’t matter.

We are united about the need for stronger sanctions. We haven’t ever ruled out supporting military action, but we have also been clear we’re not advocating military action now. We’re not calling for that. That’s why we want to intensify the peaceful pressure on Iran.

MARGARET WARNER: I keep asking about this — about the differences between the two partners, because that’s, of course, been of great concern here in Washington…

WILLIAM HAGUE: Of course, yes.

MARGARET WARNER: … what kind of a partner, then, is Washington going to have? Can you name any issue on which Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats’ positions are or will round the edges or affect what this government’s position is on a foreign policy issue?

WILLIAM HAGUE: Well, we’re — we are a collective government. We’re one government. And, so, again, we will develop certain things as we go along with the Liberal Democrats.

But there is no fundamental difference at the moment with the United States. Nick Clegg has had a very good conversation with Vice President Biden. He also is an Atlanticist in his outlook. So, there is no need to look for these differences. The new coalition government in Britain will work closely, the whole of it, with the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: And have you and the Liberal Democrats sort of agreed to disagree or bury your differences on relations with Europe, or are you concerned — I mean, the Liberal Democrats have always wanted greater integration.

Your party has, if anything, wanted to take back some powers. Could that be an issue on which the coalition fractures?

WILLIAM HAGUE: Well, funnily enough, we didn’t find it difficult to reach a common position. This is one of the things the negotiations were about.

The Liberal Democrats have already come to the view that we do not want to transfer more powers or sovereignty to the E.U. So, it was quite easy to agree about that. They have also come to the view that we shouldn’t be joining the euro in the foreseeable — in the near future. So, we have agreed that, in the lifetime of this government, this Parliament, we’re not going to be doing that.

So, actually, events have moved on, and it wasn’t so difficult to bring the parties together.

MARGARET WARNER: So, you won on both of those. Bottom line, is this going to be a Tory foreign policy or a blended foreign policy?

WILLIAM HAGUE: Well, it’s — what I’m pointing out is that the differences were not so great. Before — when we had debates on foreign policy in our election, actually, people — most observers thought they were rather uneventful, because the differences between the parties were — were really nuances.

And, so, on foreign policy, it is not so difficult to assemble a united British government that puts the national interests before any party interests.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, we wish you all the luck. And, Foreign Secretary William Hague, thank you so much.

WILLIAM HAGUE: Thank you very much.