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Talking Politics: an ethical foreign policy - what would it be like?

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An ethical foreign policy – what would it be like? Talk given by David Drew at Kingshill House on Thursday 28 February 2013.

Again I have the disadvantage tonight that the person responding knows much more about this subject than I can ever know being an acknowledged international expert on peace and reconciliation.  I start from the outset saying that I am not an expert on foreign policy as my interests have tended to be in the domestic field.  However I have taken an interest in a number of parts of the world that sadly have known little other than conflict over recent times, such as The Sudan, Pakistan and The Balkans and visits to those places has certainly shaped my experiences and contextualised my ideas.

I thought that I would start by referring back to Robin Cook’s famous (infamous) remark when he acceded to the post of Foreign Secretary in 1997.  The obvious place to start was his memoirs – ‘Point of Departure’ – but that of course starts with him losing the Foreign Secretaryship – and is about the build-up to Iraq of which more later!

It is still worth capturing what he did say on Monday May 12th.  In devising the government’s mission statement re foreign affairs he highlighted four objectives which would benchmark Britain’s role in the world; security, prosperity, quality of life and promotion of our values and confidence in our identity.

Under the last of these criteria he made the line ‘Our foreign policy must have an ethical dimension and must support the demands of other peoples for the democratic rights on which we insist for ourselves.’

You would not think such an innocuous sounding sentence would cause so many problems in later years.  Now I do not intend to play around with the syntax of this statement let alone try to reinterpret it post Iraq, The Balkans, Afghanistan, Libya, Mali and the rest, other to say that it was important that it was made and it provides the backcloth of what I am going to say.

Let me start by employing an old politician’s trick.  Can we exclude what we don’t think should ever be part of a British government’s foreign policy.  I’ll see if you can agree to most if not all of these.

·We should never be complicit to torture

·We should not use powers such as extraordinary rendition to move citizens from one domicile to another

·We should not invade another country for reasons of resource gain, territorial advantage or just because we don’t like who is in charge of that country

·We should not engage in fraud, corruption of deliberate deception

·We should not threaten another country using diplomatic, economic or military means unless all other avenues of engagement have failed and be seen to have failed.

·We will always vote with conscience at the UN and will put our responsibilities as a member of the Security Council above any form of self-interest.

Now I hope my now there is at least a smile on your face, because, and this list is not intended to be endless, it is possible to determine cases over the last couple of decades where Britain has at least been accused of each and every one of the above list.

So did New Labour have an ethical foreign policy?  It’s easy on the back of Iraq and Afghanistan, which to my mind were both terrible foreign policy blunders to just ignore the wider question.

By chance I came across an article by Mumford and Selck (British Journal of Politics and International Relations 2010 Vol 12 pp 295 – 312) which analysed how many times the then government and particularly Blair and Cook talked about the need for a moral aspect to foreign policy.

Their findings were surprisingly positive – now I know that words matter less than actions but it is at least dwelling for a moment on the context and outcome of this research.

The reasons that New Labour went along this path of trying at least to talk in terms of an ethical foreign policy is interesting in itself:

·To distinguish itself from the previous Tory administration in areas such as arms control and stress morality rather than national interest

·To afford foreign policy a higher profile – some would argue that Blair became obsessed by strutting around the world stage

·To recognise that if globalisation was to be the recognised economic system then there needed to be a counter-balance in the form of ethical relationships between nation-states

·To be able to pursue new objectives such as environmentalism and climate change remediation

·To intervene in conflicts where there were humanitarian reasons to do so and where international agreement required this

·To highlight human rights issues including historical events such as the Holocaust

·To persuade other nations and their leaders that pursuing ethical aims were a noble cause worth supporting.

Now to re-state I am not suggesting that rhetoric and discourse are a substitute for ‘doing the right and ethical thing’ but at least if you talk more about the need for an ethical policy and what it might look like it is at least a start.  Now this may sound strange coming from a strong critic of New Labour but I always think it best to start from a position of fact rather than opinion.

Of course we can’t ignore the downside of British foreign policy under New Labour and more than anything that period of time will be always associated with intervention.

That is why I returned to one document that I regularly referred to when I was an MP; the report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty ‘The Responsibility to Protect.’  This was presented to me the one time I took on an intern – who was a Canadian socialist – why and what I did is a story for another day but he presented me because it was co-written by Gareth Evans who he once worked for.

I would not pretend that this is a light read but if you want to understand something about the rationale for intervention on the basis that that is the only way to protect an endangered people this is de rigour.  It was published in December in December 2001 in the aftermath of 9/11 which obviously deeply influences its ideas.

What the ICISS report says is that the policy challenge facing the world must demand a response based on basic principles, foundations of those principles, elements that protect those principles and priorities that require action to meet those principles.

In more practical considerations it:

1Re-examines the just cause threshold so that intent or actuality of genocide or large-scale ethnic cleansing must be a precursor of anything action.

2Identifies precautionary principles – right intention, last resort, proportional means and reasonable prospects.

3Demands right authority – the importance of the UN, Security Council authorization, full deliberation considering all the issues including any request for intervention and the consequences of not acting.

4Highlights operational principles – clear objectives and an unambiguous mandate, common military approach, acceptance of limitations, incrementalism and graduation in use of force, proper rules of engagement, acceptance that force protection cannot become the principle objective and maximum possible co-ordination with the humanitarian organisations.

In reading or rather re-reading ICISS I am struck by how long a list of prior requirements they have identified.  This contextualises how strong the rationale for intervention must be and what safeguards should be put in place first.  For myself before I go on and try to define what an ethical foreign policy is the bar is now so high that I doubt that intervention should be anything other than the very last resort.  With that in mind I would have been against any British involvement in either Libya or Mali, though I would and continue to support our role as peace-keepers in the Sudan – though our role there now is very minor.

So for risk of giving you one more list – and I promise this will be the last one – here are my essential requirements for what any ethical foreign policy would look like.

1     It must be ethical, ruling out principally being about national interests

2     It must prioritise human rights.

3     It must demand the reduction and eventual removal of the arms trade.

4     It must use intervention only as an absolute last resort when ALL other means have failed and there is no alternative available that will prevent a massive loss of life.

5     It must be international in intent and seek to work with other nations for the betterment of all peoples ruling out racism, genderism and other forms discrimination.

6     It must look to the future and not to the past encompassing new threats such as climate change.

7     It must seek out fairer and more just economic, political and social systems of government.

This list is personal and not supposed to be exclusive let alone exhaustive. 

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