Blair's 'Ethical' Policy

March 1, 2001 Topic: Society Regions: North AmericaWestern EuropeAmericasEurope Tags: AcademiaNew Left

Blair's 'Ethical' Policy

Mini Teaser: Over four centuries, British foreign policy based on national interest has served the country well. Now its greatest threat may be the moral pretensions of Messrs. Blair and Cook.

by Author(s): Robin Harris

Cook's third mistake was his decision to commit substantial numbers
of British troops to support the Sierra Leonean government against
Sankoh's now fully reactivated forces, without hard-headed assessment
of the mission's purpose. The stated objectives were initially the
sensible, limited ones of liberating kidnapped UN soldiers and
affording protection to British nationals. But there was no doubting
that the mission had a much wider and more ambitious long-term
goal--the establishment of democratic order. The triumphalism with
which the operation was announced confirmed as much: "Britain will
not abandon its commitment to Sierra Leone", proclaimed Cook.

The immediate outcome was encouraging. Given the professionalism and
firepower of the force committed, that was hardly surprising. The UN
soldiers were released. Sankoh was captured--again. But Cook
seriously misjudged British public opinion, which was now alarmed
about the risk of British troops becoming sucked into an unwinnable
war in an impossible country for inexplicable ends. Accordingly, the
800 paratroopers were withdrawn and a much more modest force of
Marines took over with a mandate to train and arm the Sierra Leonean

This, though, compounded the mistake. Too small a force had been sent
to perform too large a mission. The factions involved in the Sierra
Leonean civil war were actually already quite well trained, both in
killing each other and civilians. They were also well armed. In any
case, Britain could exercise little control over the weapons sent.
Some, to Cook's embarrassment, were used by child soldiers fighting
for the Sierra Leonean government. Others fell into the hands of the
rebels. Indeed, it was increasingly hard to decide who the "rebels"
were, given the chaotic shifting of allegiances. The "West Side Boys"
who captured eleven British soldiers and held them hostage had
actually started out on the side of the government. The subsequent
rescue by British troops of their comrades in a prolonged and bloody
battle was a difficult mission well accomplished. But where did it
all leave Sierra Leone?

As an exercise in futility, the whole operation increasingly
resembled the disastrous U.S./UN mission in Somalia in 1993. The
conclusion should have been the same. Again, Kipling:

Let us admit it fairly, as a business people should,
We have had no end of a lesson: it will do us no end of good.

But will it? Almost certainly not. As the UN force in Sierra Leone
crumbles--amid mutual recriminations and withdrawals--Britain
continues to increase its commitment. A British officer is now chief
of staff; major amphibious exercises are planned; a naval task force
has been sent. In the eyes of the British government, if in no one
else's, the business is not just deadly but deadly serious. And,
indeed, once you takeaway the braggadocio and misjudgments, you are
left with something resembling a doctrine to which both Blair and
Cook are committed.

Ethics and Interests

This, it should be said, is not a doctrine specifically relating to
Africa. It is not, for example, at all equivalent to the traditional
French approach to the francophone countries of that continent.
French strategy consists of a more or less unashamed pursuit of
national interest, aimed principally at resisting and undermining
American and British influence. Ever since the revelations about
France's role in the Hutu genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda, Paris has
trodden more lightly; but its footprints are still apparent, and
their direction is clear.

By contrast, Britain's attitude is naive rather than self-serving.
Until the late January re-shuffle caused by Mandelson's resignation,
the Foreign Office minister with responsibility for Africa was Peter
Hain. Hain still entertains the same romantic illusions about the
black man's liberation struggle as he did when he was a young
activist agitating against South African rugby tours. It is just
that, as with other members of that political generation, hi-tech
globalist rhetoric has been larded into the old prejudices. Thus Hain
could recently be heard forecasting a bright future for Africa
because of exciting new technologies. Somali pastoralists using
mobile phones to price the cost of goats in Jeddah, allowing them to
operate in the wider world outside the confines of inefficient
state-owned fixed line systems, is a graphic illustration of the

It is difficult to imagine Hain's French equivalent preoccupied with
the sale of Saudi goats. There is, indeed, more than a trace of farce
about British foreign policy today. Some of this is simply a
reflection of Robin Cook himself, not least his bombast. In
opposition, Cook's rhetorical flourishes across the dispatch box of
the House of Commons were admired. But in office, when a measure of
authoritative sobriety is expected, his grandiloquence threatens to
turn him into a buffoon. Who else in British politics could say the

"Since I took office in 1997, Madeleine [Albright] and I have worked
closely together on tackling some of the biggest foreign policy
problems of our age.

I come to America as the President of a European Union going through
immense and exciting change.

Britain will not turn its back on Sierra Leone. Today I will go there.

There is no greater national duty than the defence of our shoreline.
But the most immediate threat to it today is the encroaching sea."

Yet, for all that, Cook is the spokesman for a serious--if also
seriously flawed--doctrine of liberal internationalism. The Foreign
Office "mission statement" still claims that it exists to serve the
national interest. But it then goes on to elaborate that interest in
terms so nebulous that the expression is drained of meaning. Nor is
this at all surprising, for, according to Cook, "the global interest
is becoming the national interest." Thus in one trite slogan some
four centuries of debating, calculating and executing policies
designed to maintain Britain's standing and promote Britain's
interests in the world are abandoned. The Victorians generally
assumed that what was in Britain's interest must also be in the
world's interest. The Labour government now assumes the precise
opposite, that what is in the global interest must be in Britain's.
Each proposition is as unthinking as the other, though at least the
Victorians had no illusion that their view commanded universal
assent. Today the high priests of globalism have simply decreed that
distinctions, priorities and choices in foreign and security policy
are outdated relics of old thinking. And all that therefore remains
is to resolve the Manichaean conflict between (in Blair's words) "the
forces of progress and the forces of conservatism."

In this make-believe world, where the forces of progress are always
identifiable and by definition correct, there is no room for moral
ambiguity. We know what is right--the international community tells
us so--and there is no excuse for shirking. And so it was, in Cook's
words, that the "ethical foreign policy" was born. The pursuit of
this approach has, however, provided the government with so many
headaches, and its critics with so much ammunition, that the phrase
has now been banned. The Labour Party's draft manifesto will, it is
reported, omit it entirely. It is easy to understand why.

The government has behaved, as governments will, according to double
standards, and it has frequently been caught out. The British Left
has always railed against the arms trade, refusing to accept that it
is not the possession of arms but the intentions of the possessors
that matter. So Cook declared it an ethical aim to "curb the supply
of weapons that fuel conflict." The policy was soon exposed. Hawk
military aircraft were supplied to Indonesia right up to the time of
the first large-scale atrocities in East Timor. Still worse, Cook
found himself pressured by Downing Street into allowing the export of
spare parts for Hawks supplied to Zimbabwe, which is deeply engaged
in the bloody civil war in the Congo.

Similarly, Cook began by promising to "put human rights at the heart
of our policy." But weak, vulnerable countries proved a good deal
more likely to experience Cook's condemnation than great powers--just
as was the case with Jimmy Carter's reign. Here China was the test
case. The foreign secretary reversed the previous British position
adopted in the UN Human Rights Commission by refusing to back a
resolution condemning China's abuses. When Chinese President Jiang
Zemin visited Britain in 1999, protestors with the temerity to remind
him of Chinese brutalities in Tibet were kept out of sight and their
banners confiscated. When the Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng sought
a meeting with Cook, it was first refused and then, when it did
occur, the foreign secretary's office ensured that the two were not
photographed together, for fear of Beijing's reaction. When Lee
Teng-hui, the former president of Taiwan, sought a visa in order to
visit his granddaughter, it was only granted on condition that he say
nothing embarrassing during his stay. All of these positions were
adopted in response to Chinese pressure. Under Messrs. Blair and
Cook, Britain has become a virtuoso of the kowtow.

Do such double standards matter? Arguably not. Contrary to Cook's
confident assertions, global relationships are still governed by
interplays of power. The arms business has to go on if its employees
are to be paid. And great powers with unpleasant regimes must
sometimes be shown respect or they will take umbrage and may
retaliate. The problem with hypocrisy on the scale practiced by the
British Foreign Office today, however, is that it makes Britain a
laughing stock. And on any definition of the national interest that
should matter.

Essay Types: Essay