The horrors of an ethical foreign policy

The radical activists calling on David Cameron to ‘be more ethical’ in the Arab world have learnt nothing from history.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Critics of David Cameron have responded to his arms-selling jaunt to the Gulf by calling on him to adopt a more ethical foreign policy. How can he hawk guns to authoritarian Arab regimes at precisely a time when Arab people are fighting for their freedom? Cameron should ditch his ‘brazenly mercantilist’ foreign policy, says one commentator, and institute an ‘ethical dimension’ to Britain’s interactions with the world.

No he shouldn’t. Because if there’s one thing worse than a foreign policy which is ‘brazenly mercantilist’, it is one which is high-minded, morally superior, which sees itself as a force for unalloyed good in a world inhabited by ‘mad dogs’ (Gaddafi) and ‘children and lunatics’ (how one commentator recently referred to the rulers of the Arab world). Adopting a so-called ethical foreign policy, which moralises world affairs and sees everything in black and white, would make Cameron’s selling of arms to despots look like a tea party in comparison.

Of course, Cameron’s arms-selling trip is revealing. It shows that realpolitik and trade interests trump Britain’s alleged commitment to promoting democracy. It is a perfect study in hypocrisy that someone like Tony Blair, for example, could in one breath preach about delivering freedom to Iraq and in the next promise to provide Gaddafi with the weapons he needed to maintain brutal stability in Libya. It will come as no surprise to those who know a bit about history that British imperialists frequently say one thing and then do another.

Yet the apparently radical clamour to get Cameron to ditch his mercantilism in favour of once more making Britain a force for good in the world is actually built on a seriously imperialist outlook. It is based on a Kiplingesque view of the West as having the moral authority to lecture the rest, with Britain as an apparently whiter-than-white force with a moral duty to keep the scoundrels of the Third World in check, either by depriving them of weaponry or by enforcing sanctions or taking action against them. Ironically, the demand that Cameron refuse to arm autocrats is driven, not by a genuinely anti-imperialist demand for ‘Hands Off’ foreign countries, but by a Victorian sensibility which says that a mature, decent nation like Britain should not be giving dangerous playthings to irresponsible children Over There.

There are many reasons why an ethical foreign policy – by which they really mean a moralistic, even Manichean foreign policy – is worse than a ‘brazenly mercantilist’ one. At least with mercantilism the aims tend to be narrow and short-termist: sell weapons, make money. In contrast, ethical foreign policy is built on a presumption of moral authority over others, which means there is no limit to what you can do to enforce your righteous writ in what you presume to be inferior, immoral territories.

The idea of an ethical foreign policy first emerged in the early days of New Labour, when the then foreign secretary Robin Cook said Britain would introduce an ‘ethical dimension’ to its dealings with the world. Britain had a ‘moral responsibility’, said Cook, to make itself ‘once again a force for good in the world’. For all his PC, liberal credentials, Cook’s language was as elitist as that of old-fashioned imperialists, presenting an image of Britain as a crusader nation that could rectify the problems of the savage sections of the world with stern words, sanctions, maybe the occasional ‘ethical war’.

Strikingly, one of New Labour’s first acts of ethical foreign policy was to support the campaign to ban ‘evil landmines’. The idea was that by refusing to sell landmines to countries whose moral standards fell short of New Labour’s – the Former Yugoslavia, Indonesia, various wogs – Britain could help to save ‘them’, the peoples of the Third World, from being blown up. It revealed the tendency of ethical foreign-policymakers to moralise conflicts, to present political and social clashes in parts of the world with long-running tensions as simple cases of good and evil. The notion that by removing landmines from a country could have brought to an end war itself – by somehow magically mopping up the political and social factors that underpinned said war – was spectacularly naive. Today, such naivety-cum-moral-superiority, the old New Labour conviction that Britain has a duty to deprive foreign mad men of dangerous toys, is carried on in the activities of the anti-arms trade brigade.

Ethical foreign policy dangerously moralises international affairs. It reduces complex foreign conflicts, whether they are taking place in Yugoslavia, Africa or Asia, to simplistic soap operas for the benefit of Western moral voyeurs. It also divides the world between those who are pure (usually Us) and those who are weird (usually Them). Worst of all, the key instinct behind the clamour for an ethical foreign policy is the burning desire amongst politicians, commentators and activists to do in foreign fields what they feel increasingly incapable of doing at home: be ethical.

Ethical foreign policy is ultimately motored by a search for moral clarity overseas. At a time of profound moral incoherence in the domestic sphere, some desperately want to feel simplistically righteous in the apparently black-and-white conflict zones of some African country or Middle Eastern territory. And of course, the great attraction of this projection of ethics into international affairs is that you never have to pay for the consequences of your supposedly ethical action. When you pursue a moralistic campaign here at home, you will usually be held to account for what happens as a result. But act all ethical in the international sphere – whether by shrieking for sanctions against so-and-so or for the bombing of an oppressive regime – and you don’t have to think about the fallout of your moral posturing, which more often than not will be dire, deadly and long-lasting.

As the Arab world teeters, some seem keen to argue that the key divide is between the responsible West and the reckless Arab rulers, where ‘we’ have a responsibility to teach ‘them’ a lesson about democracy and in the process save the Arab people. In truth, the divide is between the Arab people and their authoritarian governments. And the Arab people have shown that they don’t need to be saved by white ethical crusaders. They’re more than capable of toppling dictators and determining their own affairs. Calling for an assertion of supposed British ethical authority in the unstable Arab world is a surefire way of removing the political initiative from the people who live there.

It is remarkable that at a time when the rulers of Britain sense that they lack the moral authority to control events in the Arab world, following their disastrous, self-defeating excursions in Iraq and Afghanistan, still a super-naive gaggle of commentators and anti-arms activists continue to demand the assertion of British decency on the world stage. If you want to know where so-called ethical foreign policy can end up, look at the ‘ethical war’ that was spearheaded by Robin Cook and Tony Blair shortly after they took office – the bombing of ‘evil’ Yugoslavia in 1999, which destroyed much of Belgrade and left at least 600 civilians dead, including 16 journalists bombed for the crime of transmitting ‘evil’ propaganda. Hell hath no fury like a liberal convinced of his moral superiority over the foreign hordes.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

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Topics Politics


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