Friday, January 01, 2010

What would an ethical foreign policy look like?

Robin Cook did us a favour when he came up with the phrase 'ethical foreign policy', even if he wasn't always able to live up to that exacting standard when foreign secretary.

It seemed to sum up for many of us what we wanted to see when it came to international relations. A step away from prioritising business interests and our relationships with more powerful nations and moving towards doing the right thing because it's right rather than the pragmatic thing that we're able to put a progressive spin to.

But, it seems to me, that there is no easy path to take when trying to decide what's a truly ethical foreign policy. It's worth grappling with some of the contradictions and problems in order to help clarify what it is we really want.

For example, we could take a completely non-interventionist position, as some nations do. That would mean we could keep our hands clean but at the cost of never acting to improve the world.

Would that policy extend to aid and trade relationships? Having worked in international development I know there are plenty of grey areas where you need to weigh up exactly whether the 'help' you are giving is really helpful, and where it is, to whom?

I take it as a given that military strikes and occupations of other people's countries would take no part in that policy, and arms sales would go too. However, should that be treated as a principle? The ability of the weak to be able to militarily defend themselves against the strong is not an irrelevance in many parts of the world, a genuinely pacifist foreign policy would certainly claim the moral high ground, which is quite a good spot to be able to see all the horror and murder going on in the rest of the globe.

Then again if we simply say that it's the way previous governments have used force and have been complicit in violence that has been the problem and we'd know better, wouldn't we be laying a trap for ourselves? Risking the slippery slope into liberal interventionism and before you know it we're propping up dictatorships to prevent civil wars or arming semi-democracies in the hope that they might see there way to cleaning up their act.

We can back pro-democracy movements, the fight for independent trade unions, women's liberation and a host of other life and death causes - and as a movement the left must be internationalist in its outlook. Does that mean we think the government should be shipping anti-aircraft missiles to the Kurds or printing presses to Zimbabwe's MDC?

The answer can be yes, but if it is we should carefully think about what the implications of such acts would be. Personally I don't have any bullets that I can spare to pop in a jiffy bag and send to a freedom fighter, even if I wanted to, but there are differences between our solidarity and demands as a political current in the UK and precisely what we'd see the government do if we had more influence with it.

Having said all that I don't want to imply everything is a grey area and, even if I accept sometimes bad things need to be done to produce a good result, I can't ignore that the means are things in themselves as well as the ends. The responsibility to choose ethical methods to achieve ethical outcomes is a heavy one.

There are no subtleties or up sides to nuclear explosions that can make owning weapons of genocide acceptable. Arming oppressive regimes to repress their own people in the name of our 'war on drugs' or 'war on terror' is not right no matter how you squint at it.

Lines exist, but even when they are blurred it doesn't mean not taking a position on what we want to see happen, only recognising the complexities on how we lend a helping hand - if at all.


luna17 said...

The most immediate, urgent thing is that the troops are withdrawn from Afghanistan. As long as this country's role in the occupation continues, any talk of being 'ethical' is meaningless. Then there's scrapping Trident, changing the UK's relationship with Israel, and doing something about the global arms trade (to which the UK is central).

Jim Jepps said...

Certainly all those things are hard lines for me too.

What about more pro-active policies - like what ind of support should the UK government be giving the Palestinians (or any other group of your choice)

luna17 said...

The main thing has to be breaking the slavish allegiance to US foreign policy, which is in fact the bigger picture framing British policy. Big improvements would be made simply by NOT doing the wrong things! A good start, for example, would be a total suspension of arms deals with Israel.

simon of bexhill said...

we need to see the copenhagen failure for what it is- a work over by the rich countries-oppressing the poor countries-then in turn scapegoating those who stood up to them

read the below for a fresh global perspective

Jim Jepps said...

Well I'd be for suspending all arms deals but you're right that there needs to be an independent foreign policy not just an adjunct to the US.

Simon: i think this is an important point. I do think not doing all the bad things would be a massive improvement but there is clearly scope for us to be a force for good in the world too and climate change is one area where international cooperation as well as unilateral action is needed.