The dilemmas of an ethical Tory foreign policy
Conservative Home - July 16th 2008
Foreign policy is an ethical minefield - or at least it should be. The crusading left-wing journalist John Pilger once wrote about an interview he conducted with the late Alan Clark MP, who was then defence minister. Pilger repeatedly asked Clark why he wasn't bothered that Britain was supplying arms to the Indonesian regime occupying and suppressing East Timor. Pilger told Clark that he found this strange in a man who practiced vegetarianism and defended the rights of animals. Clark failed to see any contradiction. But in his parliamentary renaissance in the late 1990s, Clark was outspoken and almost alone on the Tory benches in his condemnation of NATO's bombing of Serbia.
I quote this episode not only to highlight the refreshing bluntness and free thinking of my former MP, but to support my view that in ethical foreign policy - which was supposedly Labour's policy at the time of the NATO attacks on Serbia - there is rarely agreement as to how ethical concerns should be applied in practice.
Of course, there are always going to be times when 'national interest' or 'realpolitik', nebulous though that term often is, will trump concerns about ethics. One such occasion was the visit in October 2007 of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to the UK. The visit was not long after Tony Blair personally scrapped a Serious Fraud Office inquiry into alleged corruption over Saudi arms deals. Foreign Office minister Kim Howells rather absurdly lauded Saudi Arabia and Britain's 'shared values'.
I found myself quite isolated in criticising this assertion, although my friend and colleague Dan Hannan wrote a devastating critique of the matter. What values do we share with Saudi Arabia? Are British jobs more important than the rule of law? And if so, how many jobs does it take to tilt the balance in the Saudis' favour? The decision to end the SFO inquiry was a controversial one, but who's to say that we in government would not have taken the same decision?
Let's take a few more examples. Margaret Thatcher pursued a policy of constructive engagement with apartheid South Africa, although clearly the Nationalist regime pursued unacceptable social policies. In this case the importance of South Africa as a trading partner and serious military player in a region susceptible to Soviet manipulation was more important than ethical concerns. There were plenty of people at the time who thought that constructive engagement as an ethical choice achieved far more than sanctions and isolation would have done.
Taiwan is a prosperous democracy that shares our values, whereas the People's Republic of China is a communist dictatorship that does not. This was amply demonstrated by China's veto, alongside Russia, of planned UN sanctions against Robert Mugabe's brutal regime in Zimbabwe. Yet the PRC's vast economy and geo-strategic power demands our exclusive attention. Or do they? If we were more critical of the PRC, and more morally supportive of Taiwan (within, of course, the context of the One China policy), would Britain suffer devastating consequences? Or does the PRC need Britain just as much? Is it ethical effectively to reduce the Taiwanese to invisibility in the world? I don't think so, especially if Britain remains devoted to spreading democracy and human rights around the world.
As a firm supporter of Israel I have no qualms in defending that country on the international stage. This, however, does not inure me to the suffering and the plight of the Palestinian people, even if much of that suffering is caused by Palestinian leaders themselves. And, yes, there must be times when we friends of Israel must criticise, confident of the fact that Israel will listen to us more than it will to those committed to its destruction.
In posting this piece I am not seeking to claim I have definitive answers to any of the thorny foreign policy dilemmas that face our country every day and will face our party in government, hopefully sooner rather than later. I am seeking merely to prompt a debate. I am especially keen to do so in the context of the renewed interest in human rights and ethics in politics that is growing within the parliamentary party and David Cameron's recognition of the EU's role in the relief of global poverty.
It's been said that politics is the art of the possible and I think foreign policy needs to be seen in that context: we should only set out to achieve what we think we can achieve. It's a trade-off. But I think we should be aiming for much more consistency and firmness in our diplomacy. Ironically, Britain is more likely to achieve and implement this consistency within the umbrella of a (unanimous) EU Common Foreign and Security Policy than it is alone. However, this piece is not about the EU or the pros and cons of the CFSP.
On a final note, with regard to foreign policy I think there's also something to be said for politicians seizing back the initiative from civil servants. Much as I admire the Foreign Office and its staff, I think there has been in the past a tendency to allow policy to be developed by mandarins and executed by ministers, rather than the other way round. Margaret Thatcher fought fiercely against this although even she was not entirely successful in changing the culture. Politicians must have the courage to take these difficult decisions and be prepared to do the necessary homework in understanding the complexity of many areas of foreign policy, mindful of national interest but also observant and proud of