An ‘ethical foreign policy’ is a contradiction in terms.
Or in the language of Machiavelli and the Renaissance, a skilled prince cannot also be a good Christian. At least, not in his public life.
In the world of international politics, states rarely get the choice between good and bad. They get the choice between bad and badder. It is a jungle, not a graduate seminar, not a courtroom.
First, because the most potent and relevant allies are not always conveniently liberal. Both Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt grasped this point during World War Two. Churchill described Hitler in the House of Commons as so predatory that he would ‘at least make favourable reference to the Devil.’ Roosevelt repeated an old proverb from the Balkans, that in times of emergency, it is permitted to hold the devil’s hand to walk across the bridge.
Stalin grasped this too. Churchill was the devil for him – a figure of capitalist imperialism and a supporter of the invasion of Russia (1918-1920), a war to strangle Bolshevism at birth. Yet who else but the capitalists would supply the Soviet Union in its war of survival against the deadliest military force in the world?
Second, ‘should’ implies ‘can.’ We are not obliged to do what we cannot do. We might in the abstract declare our values and good intentions. But the limits on our power dictate compromise. To roll back an Argentinian invasion of the Falklands, Britain relied upon Augusto Pinochet, not the most obvious gentle liberal. To secure a Security Council Resolution in favour of armed intervention in the Gulf in 1991-2, our dealings with Syria regarding Lebanon were less than pure. Even outward legality is a compromise.
Al Qaeda’s demise at the hands of our allies in Iraq and Saudi Arabia has not come about with gentle persuasion. Speaking of which, should we only trade and cooperate with inoffensive regimes? In which case, our principles might cost us our civilised standard of living. Would it have been moral to cut off trade with China in 1989 over Tianenmen, impoverishing our people with the only likely result being to antagonise Beijing? Should we press for consistent and unbending justice for all the victims of terrorism in Northern Ireland? Or is it better to compromise, and build peace through amnesty and leniency? What is more just – chaos with principles or order with corruption?
This is not a case for utter amorality. We do have control over what we do, and must uphold certain principles when it comes to our own sovereign behaviour, such as the rejection of torture. But if we are serious about a coherent foreign policy that is reality-based, rather than a pretence of purity in an anarchic world that is inherently polluting, ‘prudence’ is a better guide than ‘righteousness’ as we pick our way through the chaos.
The next issue is then one of transparency. Do we preach ethical policy while practising realpolitik? Some argue that this hypocrisy is necessary, because the people will not abide reakpolitik. I suspect differently, and that our people can be remarkably pragmatic. But that is for another post.