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

Doctrinaire Interventionism

It certainly matters to Tony Blair, whose preoccupations, if not his
policies, are somewhat different from those of Cook. Both Blair and
Cook were once men of the Left. For example, they supported the
Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), the body that pressed for
unilateral Western abandonment of the nuclear deterrent throughout
the crucial stages of the Cold War. (Hain, who has been representing
Britain in nuclear non-proliferation talks, is still a CND member.)
Yet Blair could never have been heard telling a Labour Party
Conference, as Cook did in 1982, "I come to this rostrum to beg
Conference, to ask Conference, to plead with Conference to vote for
unilateral nuclear disarmament." As a young politician Blair was
always too pragmatic and ambitious to get into such scrapes. Now as
prime minister both his pragmatism and his ambition--and increasingly
his pride--incline him toward a more robust posture than could ever
be welcome to the sinuous officialdom of the Foreign Office. Hence
Britain's role in the Kosovo operation.

Both the Bush (Senior) administration in America and the Major
government in Britain seriously mishandled the crises that followed
the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia. The resolve shown in
dealing with Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War was noticeably lacking in
dealing with Slobodan Milosevic in the wars in Croatia and Bosnia.
For the European Left, however, the lessons went well beyond
arguments about wider or narrower views of national interest and
about the expeditious use of overwhelming force. Balkan genocide was,
rather, according to its analysis, a manifestation of the failure of
the international community to defend a liberal, multicultural model
against the forces of nationalism. Kosovo thus provided at once an
opportunity to impose the values of a new liberal order and a
prominent occasion to demonstrate international clout. The
combination was hard for Blair to resist.

Accordingly, Britain was at the forefront of the Kosovo campaign at
both its inception and its conclusion, when British troops raced the
Russians to Pristina. The campaign itself was botched, though this
was largely the result of rules of engagement dictated by Washington.
Partly because of these constraints, the Serbs were given the
opportunity to drive out much of the Albanian population. Since then,
in retaliation, the Albanians on their return have ethnically
cleansed the Serbs, over half of whom have now departed. According to
Madeleine Albright, "We all want a multi-ethnic Kosovo." But
evidently "we" excludes the majority of Kosovars--and nothing that
the new government in Belgrade does is going to change that one whit.
Kosovo thus hangs in a kind of limbo, between independence and
rejoining the rump Yugoslavia; a poor, corrupt, misgoverned colony
administered by reluctant imperialists.

It is difficult to imagine that the experience of Western involvement
in Kosovo would have provided much inspiration for New Labour's
global interventionists. But it has. Blair's hubristic belief in his
ability to rework the patterns of the past and impose modern liberal
shapes and sizes now knows no bounds. Speaking in Zagreb last
November, for example, he offered "the chance of a new history for
the [Balkan] region."

Above all, the Kosovo affair prompted Blair to make a speech in
Chicago that encapsulates the ambitions of his government's foreign
policy. Arguing that the Kosovo campaign was "a just war . . . based
on values", the Prime Minister put forward what he called "a new
doctrine of international community." This was required, he said,
because "we are all internationalists now, whether we like it or
not." Most important, "we cannot turn our backs on conflicts and the
violation of human rights within other countries if we want still to
be secure."

Of course, a moment's reflection reveals this to be nonsense. In most
cases, human rights abuses in other countries have no practical
impact on us whatsoever. Perhaps it is true that "no man is an
island", but states are at best morally peninsular. Yet with Blair's
pronouncements it is not intellectual substance, or the lack of it,
that counts, but rather what his aides refer to as "the signals." In
this case, Blair was signaling that Britain is now wholeheartedly
committed to a program of ubiquitous international interventionism.

What is less clear is precisely how this bold, vast, novel project is
to be accomplished. After all, Britain cannot undertake it alone; it
cannot lead it; and there are even doubts about how much it can
contribute to it, at least in direct security terms. British defenses
have been run down since the Cold War, like those of most other
Western countries, largely to pay higher welfare bills. The British
Army has been cut by about a third. The chief of the defence staff
has recently warned that it will not be fully manned for another five
years, because of reduced career prospects and upheavals resulting
from constantly changing deployments. And Britain's forces are
already suffering from a serious case of overstretch. There are over
20,000 servicemen in Germany, about 3,000 in Bosnia, over 5,000 in
Kosovo, more than 3,000 in Cyprus, and a growing number in Sierra
Leone. Moreover, it is far from clear that the United Kingdom's number
one domestic trouble spot, Ulster--where almost 14,000 are currently
deployed--will remain conveniently untroubled while Britain
minds other peoples' business.

Equally important, Britain simply no longer has the military
technology to act effectively as a world policeman. Compared with
America, it is no more than special constable at best. This was
embarrassingly demonstrated in the Kosovo campaign, when none of the
European air forces could operate effectively without U.S. support,
and not very effectively even then. The trend will inevitably
accelerate with advances in the use of networked information and
precision weaponry--the "revolution in military affairs."

One solution to this problem would be to leave the real business of
military interventions to the Americans, with the British and others
confining themselves to subordinate tasks. But that runs up against
U.S. reluctance--a reluctance that will certainly be more evident as
Secretary of State Colin Powell makes his mark. In any case, that
kind of U.S.-led globalism would look rather too similar to Western
imperialism to be acceptable to the New Left in Europe. Realizing
this, Tony Blair's Britain has instead become a vociferous champion
of the proposals contained in the recent report to the UN
secretary-general for a much larger direct military role for the UN.
That was the message that Blair brought to the UN Millennium Summit,
when he called for implementation of the report "within a twelve
month timescale." Britain has also offered to act as host country for
a permanent staff college for peacekeepers.

Just possibly, something may come of this. But it is in the realm of
institutions rather than military operations that the consequences of
Blair's "doctrine of international community" are most likely to
manifest themselves. Here, too, the Balkans provide the peg.

The war crimes tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, set up
in 1993 and 1994 respectively, were responses to Western apathy,
impotence and (in the case of Rwanda) collusion in genocide. Neither
has worked as intended. It was only when the perpetrators began to
lose that the prospects for their apprehension and punishment
increased--confirming that the only possible international justice
always turns out to be victor's justice. In fact, now that
prosecutions are belatedly gathering pace, the most likely effect,
especially in the Balkans, will be to make a return to order and
reconciliation more difficult.

Undaunted, Britain has become one of the leading advocates of the
creation of an all-embracing International Criminal Court (ICC) that
would intrude far more comprehensively into the affairs of sovereign
states. During the ICC negotiations, the British delegation
consistently argued for the most radical options--for example,
insisting that the definition of war crimes should include crimes
committed in internal conflicts. As a sign of its commitment, Britain
has also offered to imprison those convicted of crimes against
humanity. Again, there is globalist theory at work here, and in its
most extreme form. As Cook expressed it: "It is no longer sufficient
for states to claim that they have the sovereign right to decide what
is going to be legal and what is going to be illegal. The
international community can both determine and enforce that"
[emphasis added].

The objections in principle to such an approach to international
justice have been trenchantly and persuasively put by others. But the
main objection in practice, which weighed heavily with the United
States under Clinton and will weigh more heavily still under
President Bush, is the prospect of American politicians, high
officials and military personnel being made internationally
answerable for overseas interventions. This cuts no ice at all with
Britain's Foreign Office. Yet on any common-sense view it should.
Britain is not as feared as the United States, so its personnel are
that much more vulnerable. At the same time, Britain is uniquely
closely associated with America in operations that are anathema to
many members of the international community. What the Argentineans
would already like to do to Margaret Thatcher others will probably
want to do to Tony Blair, and perhaps even Robin Cook.

Essay Types: Essay