How to make foreign policy

There are numerous competing theories about the principles which should underlie foreign policy.

Let us first dispose of one of the most despicable. It is represented in the UK by Clare Short and in the US by the more substantial figure of Bill Clinton. It seems to include virtually all the people who strongly advocated military action in the former Yugoslavia, but opposed the liberation of Kuwait, and/or the liberation of Iraq.

Their analysis seems to go like this:

Human rights are important. Human rights deserve to be defended. Sometimes the most egregious breaches of human rights demand the mobilisation of international military forces.

So far, perfectly reasonable. And yet, there is a rider. If there are strong western interests at stake – major trading relations for example, or secure energy supplies – then the use of military force becomes anathema.

So the abuse of human rights is worth a war. The abuse of human rights and a simultaneous threat to western interests is not. The only way this equation can possibly be balanced is if western interests are to be regarded as a negative factor: something which must be subtracted from human rights.

This is, clearly, the most disgraceful and immoral way in which to analyse foreign affairs. It is far worse than the position of those who opposed both intervention in the former Yugoslavia and in Iraq. Such a position has the merit of consistency and is not (or at least not necessarily) based on siding against the cause of freedom.

Nonetheless the pacifist or near pacifist position of opposing muscular foreign policy in all, or nearly all, circumstances is also to be condemned.

The next possible approach is that of the so-called ‘ethical foreign policy’. This was advocated in Britain by the late Robin Cook, before he defected to the anti-western cause and resigned from Blair’s cabinet over Operation Iraqi Freedom. (As Foreign Secretary, he had previously supported bombing Iraq, but he opposed active intervention. Apparently intervention in other countries to precipitate regime change is fine, provided it doesn’t work).

The notion of ‘ethical’ foreign policy is that it puts the cause of human rights first. This sounds great in principle, but it runs into two huge questions, which Cook always evaded, as did Jimmy Carter, an early American exponent of the same ideas.

First, what happens if the cause of human rights and the interests of your country conflict? Carter’s approach to this was to have two advisers – Cyrus Vance and Zbigniew Brezinski – who took different lines and let them fight it out inside the administration. Final policy then veered erratically between the two poles.

Second, just how far are you prepared to go in support of human rights abroad? Should you be willing to provide air support to rebels seeking freedom from oppression? Should you be willing to send them ground troops? Or money? Or perhaps just a postcard with your best wishes.

No ethical foreign policy can possibly succeed unless it addresses these questions and finds workable answers.

Another approach is that of realpolitik. This says ‘stuff human rights’. National interests are all that count. In America this was, historically, the position of Henry Kissinger, and today his vicar on Earth, Brent Scowcroft. In Britain former Foreign Secretaries Douglas Hurd and (to a lesser extent) Malcolm Rifkind lean towards this camp. In this way of thinking human rights was a stick with which to beat the Soviet Union, and can be used against any other enemies in the future, but if an ally abuses human rights, who cares? As McArthur said of Chiang Kai Shek, “sure he’s a bastard, but he’s our bastard”.

The far left is by no means immune from this approach. But in their view the realpolitik always supports the enemies of the west. Human rights, in this way of thinking, can be used as a stick to beat Israel, just as they were key issues for Pinochet’s Chile and apartheid South Africa. But anti-western figures such as Castro, Kim, and Saddam must be given a free pass. No matter that for every year that Pinochet was in power, Castro’s abuse of human rights was more egregious. Castro was a Soviet puppet, so he deserved support.

Finally, there is the Palmerston approach. While a liberal internationalist who probably inspired later advocates of similar causes, such as Woodrow Wilson, Palmerston was always clear as to his priorities. British interests were first. Liberal interests (what we today call human rights) were second.

He was perfectly willing to despatch a gunboat in support of British citizens in trouble abroad, but was more circumspect in his support for human rights. Certainly, if no compelling British interest was involved, he would tend to support people seeking to overthrow tyrannical regimes or assert their national independence. But the support would be limited. A gunboat – the Victorian equivalent of air cover – might be sent, if it was likely to tip the balance, and do so quickly. If not, then support was to take the form of a speech in the House of Commons and a telegram from the Queen.

Now, that’s an ethical foreign policy.

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All information © copyright Quentin Langley 2019
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