Main Site         

The Big Question: Can Britain lay claim to having an ethical foreign policy?

2006 October 13
by Paul Vallely

Why ask this now?

Yesterday the Foreign Office published its annual Human Rights Report, excoriating the record of oppressive or totalitarian regimes around the world. The idea for the report was that of New Labour’s first foreign secretary, Robin Cook, who 12 days after coming to office in May 1997, vowed to “put human rights at the heart of our foreign policy”. He pledged that “our foreign policy must have an ethical dimension”.

So, did we ever have an ethical foreign policy?

In the early years, Robin Cook could make claims to be really trying. In 1999, Britain intervened to stop the massacre of Muslims by Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic in Kosovo. Britain also sent troops into Sierra Leone in 2000 to prevent rebels from overturning the democratically-elected government. Other examples of ethics in action included a ban on the use and manufacture of anti-personnel landmines. Labour also took the overseas aid ministry out of the Foreign Office to separate aid from foreign policy and focus it on reducing poverty. It increased support for human-rights lobby groups. And it reshaped the army’s training scheme for foreign troops to include human rights and the need for civilian accountability of the military.

Sounds like a good start. So what went wrong?

It clashed with political reality. In those days Britain was the world’s second-biggest arms exporter (Russia and France have since overtaken us). And though Cook boasted: “We will not permit the sale of arms to regimes that might use them for internal repression or international aggression” there was something else in the Labour manifesto. It also said: “We support a strong UK defence industry, which is a strategic part of our industrial base as well as our defence effort.”

With arms exports worth £5bn a year, money talked. Robin Cook controversially approved the delivery of nine British Aerospace Hawk jets to Indonesia, despite claims by campaigners that Hawks were being used in the brutal suppression of East Timor. He claimed, unconvincingly, that they were not for internal use. But that was not all. The Blair Government subsequently approved dozens of secret arms deals with Indonesia and other unsavoury regimes – China, Colombia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe.

Were arms sales the only problem?

No. There were other dodgy judgement calls too. New Labour refused to allow the extradition of Chile’s former dictator, General Pinochet, when he turned up in the UK. And it approved a controversial £28m military air-traffic control system to the poverty-stricken, debt-ridden government of Tanzania.

And so it went. Despite the ethical emphasis on human rights, Britain has been strangely muted in its criticisms of Saudi Arabia and the US over their use of the death penalty. Double-standards have been commonplace: Iraq, which had only fictitious weapons of mass destruction, was invaded; North Korea, which is on the brink of developing a nuclear bomb, is subjected only to a diplomatic fusillade. We wax indignant about Darfur, but turn a blind eye to Russia’s human-rights abuses in Chechnya (nothing, of course, to do with the various deals done with Putin to supply us natural gas). And our critique of America’s treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay – and of its “rendition” of terrorist suspects to foreign regimes known to torture – has been pusillanimous.

So, is morality a dead duck?

That’s the paradox. In other ways, it has survived. Tony Blair made an unashamedly moral case for Africa at the Gleneagles G8 summit – though he tossed in arguments about poverty creating a breeding ground for terrorism, to keep George Bush on-side. Blair persuaded the G8 leaders to a deal which will save millions of lives if the rich world delivers on its promises. And on climate change, where Britain has pressed hardest for action, he mixes arguments about self-interest and business opportunity with high-minded admonitions about our stewardship of the planet for future generations. All this is driven by the same moral vision – the notion that Britain has the responsibility to ride in on a white charger and save the world – that finds its obverse in Iraq. It is the great oxymoron of British foreign policy.

How damaging is Iraq to the ideal?

The invasion of Iraq is probably the greatest ethical blunder in our foreign policy since Suez. You will almost certainly never get Tony Blair to admit that; remember how stoutly he defended his decision in his last speeches as prime minister to the TUC and Labour conferences.

The common criticism of Blair is that he has developed an “auto-pilot foreign policy” which has tied Britain to the coat-tails of the United States. That is wrong. Those close to Blair know that what has driven him is not a sense of strategic alliance, but one of right and wrong. It is that which has gradually led others in Labour to realise what a moral morass Iraq is.

The dodgy and plagiarised dossiers, the dissembling over 45 minutes and the death of Dr David Kelly, the circumvention of the UN, the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners, and the reckless neglect of post-war planning – all of these are issues of more than incompetence or poor judgement. They have a moral resonance. And they have fatally damaged the credibility of the “ethical dimension” of Tony Blair as leader, and possibly that of his party too.

Can anything of Britain’s ethical foreign policy survive?

Funnily enough, yes. It lives on in that mixture of morality and self-interest which characterise Tony Blair’s approach to Africa and climate change. But, after Iraq, it is more subdued. You can see that on climate change where the focus has shifted to trying to persuade George Bush and the other naysayers on the detail. It’s there in Labour’s pushing world leaders for a small arms treaty . Why small arms? Partly because they kill far more people than all the massive weapons systems put together. Partly because the UK doesn’t make them; we do the big stuff.

Ironically Robin Cook understood something of this compromise of principles and pragmatism. He knew that the application of morals to human conduct is always a tricky business. To the children of Machiavelli, bad ethics is always good business – and it may sometimes be necessary diplomacy.

This is, no doubt, why Cook didn’t actually demand “an ethical foreign policy”, as is usually quoted, but a foreign policy with “an ethical content”.

The morality of British statecraft may nowadays be more modest, but there is a morality of sorts in it, for all that.


Comments are closed.