Goodies, baddies and ethical foreign policy

Simon Zagorski-Thomas

March 15, 2011

There’s been a great deal of ‘holier than thou’ moralising about the hypocritical nature of US and European foreign policy in the face of the popular protests in the Middle East. We’ve been supporting repressive regimes in the region for years to maintain a stability that has helped maintain our economic prosperity and, so the matra goes, we (and the citizens of these regimes) are now going to reap what we sow. Tony Blair promised an ethical foreign policy, although he very quickly went quiet about that, and that is often quoted in this argument but what exactly does it mean? Very simply, I would say: if you want an ethical foreign policy you have to be prepared to be less greedy which means you have to be prepared to be poorer. You put the interests of the many above the interests of the few. Is it as simple as that?

So what is an ethical foreign policy then? Presumably it’s about supporting the goodies against the baddies, about rewarding good morals and punishing bad morals. Providing, of course, that there are goodies and baddies and that we all agree on what constitutes good and bad behaviour. Ethics, however, is about complicated value judgements rather than binary decisions of right or wrong. In Afghanistan the west spent a long time arming the Mujahideen against the Russians because an armed jihad against a foreign occupation force was ‘bad’. Once the Mujahideen were re-christened (unfortunate turn of phrase perhaps) the Taliban we armed the warlords against them and then we became the foreign occupation force facing an armed jihad. In Rwanda, President Kagame’s oppressive, undemocratic and murderous government is supported by western powers because it has brought stability to this troubled country since the 1994 genocide.

In many ways an ethical foreign policy is simply one that has been thought through sufficiently to be successful – and short term national interest is never the right policy goal for thinking something through successfully. If Britain and the US had started the war in Iraq with a clear policy for bringing stability to a war zone afterwards through massive infrastructure investment, the creation of strong grass roots democratic institutions, financial support for moderate muslim political factions and a clearly stated policy of allowing Iraq to manage its own oil revenues, there wouldn’t be any talk of illegal wars: because it would have been successful in bringing stability and prosperity to the region which, after all, is what the US and the UK want. We went about it in an incompetent way and without thinking it through.

But what about the ‘successful’ but unethical policy of propping up Mubarak, the Saudi royal family, Gadafi and successive military regimes in Pakistan with arms and financial support? Hasn’t Europe and the United States benefitted enormously from that hypocritical and selfish act of foreign policy? Well not if you see the development of Al Qaida as a direct result of the western supported repression of the majority of those countries’ populations. And not if you consider that the long term results of political and economic repression are always instability, violence, corruption and economic inefficiency. There is a jaw dropping irony in the spectacle of David Cameron interrupting a middle eastern tour promoting the sale of British arms, rubber bullets and CS gas to give a speech about the errors of the past and to say that “denying people their basic rights does not preserve stability, rather the reverse”.

So why on earth does a democratic society like Britain not base its foreign policy on the achievement and maintenance of stability, peace, integrity and economic efficiency? After all, it seems that ethical behaviour is merely long term intelligent behaviour when it comes to social groupings rather than individual behaviour. If selfishness and short term-ism are signs of stupidity, then why haven’t we learned the lessons of history? The only winners when greed or violence take over policy decisions are excessively greedy or aggressive individuals and the majority suffer because, unlike this privileged minority, they are not in a position to use their financial gains to shield themselves from the instability, violence, corruption and economic inefficiency that ensues. Of course, Britain’s arms trade brings £35 billion a year into the economy and is a major employer and an ethical foreign policy would have an impact on that. What though, is the cost of that trade to the rest of the economy when we take into account the economic instability and corruption that it causes? Once again I come back to the notion of the ‘true cost’ of different types of economic activity (see my previous posts) and the arms trade is no exception.

It would be economic suicide for Britain to leap instantly from being a cynical supporter of despotic and immoral regimes to a peacenik but this isn’t an ‘either / or’ choice. Our current government only seems to have one long term aim: to allow private business unfettered access to every aspect of public life and to steadfastly ignore all the distortions of the ‘free’ market system. They are both representative of, and themselves are, people who will benefit disproportionately from unrestricted capitalism. It seems that despite the trappings of democracy, the greedy and aggressive still manage to get their agenda pushed to the fore and manage to persuade the rest of us to vote for it (or collude in a system that gives them power when we didn’t vote for it).