What do we mean by an ethical foreign policy?

Global Justice Now's 'Day of Shame' protest calling for the suspension of Covid-19 vaccine patents (photo: © Jess Hurd)

In the midst of a global pandemic, climate change and conflict, Mary Kaldor suggests features of an ethical socialist Labour internationalism or human security policy

An ‘ethical foreign policy’ was the term adopted by Robin Cook when he became foreign secretary in 1997. While it served the purpose at the time of identifying a distinctive foreign policy stance, the term ‘ethical’ was always problematic. In discussions about foreign policy there is a tendency to distinguish between norms and interests, or in the language of international relations, between realism and idealism. In practice, the distinction is not at all evident. Most countries frame their foreign policies in terms of values. Thus, the dominant US foreign policy narrative is expressed in terms of an idealistic story about the United States as a global policeman acting in support of freedom on the American model. Even Putin claims to be operating on the basis of international law and opposing what he claims is illegal Western behaviour. Thus, the issue is really about the nature of those values and whose interests.

What Robin Cook meant by an ethical foreign policy was a foreign policy based on human rights. It was the idea that human beings are equal and the rights of Americans, Russians, or Afghans matter just as much as the rights of British citizens. What followed from this starting point was a commitment to the prevention of war, a rights-based international rule of law and a multilateral system of governance. This distinction is also what is meant by the distinction between idealism and realism. Idealism is supposed to be about the construction of a peaceful international system while realism is about the defence of national interests in military terms if necessary – ‘blood and iron’, to use Bismarck’s phrase. But the terms idealism and realism are misleading; in today’s interdependent world, where a major war could mean the destruction of humanity, idealism may be more realistic than what is considered realism.

Smaller powers such as the Scandinavian nations have always tended to favour what are known as idealist or ethical foreign policies. Because they lack the capabilities of great powers, they define their interest in terms of international norms. Or to put it another way, since they could never win in a war with a great power, their interest is the prevention of war. Hence, small powers contribute disproportionately to the construction of international institutions, to peace-building and global development; they favour the strengthening of international law. In the contemporary context, the national interest for all countries is to live in a safer, fairer and more secure world. What Robin Cook meant by an ethical foreign policy was a foreign policy along these lines – something that is the only realistic option in today’s world.

A good illustration of why an ethical foreign policy along these lines is more realistic is the current pandemic. We are learning that just vaccinating the citizens of the UK does not protect the UK from the disease. New variants such as Delta or Omicron inevitably emerge in countries with much lower vaccination rates. Thus, UK citizens have an objective interest in vaccinating everyone; in other words, this is not just an ethical consideration. That not only means exporting surplus vaccines but also ending pharma monopolies and allowing vaccines as well as drugs and medical equipment to be produced at cost. It also relates to other global challenges like climate change and conflict. Contemporary conflicts, for example, are transmission belts for Covid; this is because of inadequate heath care, inter-generational living, and large crowded places like refugee camps or detention centres. Polio was supposed to have been eradicated by 2006 but it has reappeared in Afghanistan and DRC.

If Labour were to adopt an ethical foreign policy in today’s world, what would it involve?

First, a central goal would be prevention of war between the great powers. The situation is currently dangerous. Both Russia and China are acting as irredentist powers. Russia is currently engaged in a military build-up on the border with Ukraine; China is undertaking menacing overflights over Taiwan. But threats of retaliation by Western powers are extremely risky and play into the legitimising narratives of Putin and Xi Jing Ping. Hence Putin justifies his behaviour in terms of the possible expansion of NATO and the possible deployment of missile systems on Ukrainian territory. If the threats fail to deter aggressive action, the consequences are unimaginable. What is needed instead is a defensive approach that eliminates offensive weapons, especially nuclear weapons, and engages in confidence-building measures, while maintaining the pressure on human rights issues and co-operating on life-threatening global challenges such as climate change and Covid. A future Labour government should put an emphasis on upholding and extending arms control and disarmament treaties and should, in particular, sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

There is also a need to rethink the role of NATO. In the aftermath of the Cold War, many hoped that both NATO and the Warsaw Pact would be dissolved and replaced by a pan-European security system. That did not happen. As long as NATO remains a classic war-fighting alliance, any expansion can be interpreted by those excluded as threatening. Were NATO to rethink fundamentally its posture, emphasising its defensive nature and its potential role in crisis management, this would be more difficult.

Second, it would involve an active contribution to multilateral crisis management. Contemporary conflicts in places like Syria or DRC or Afghanistan are characterised by persistence – the UK is affected by such conflicts as a consequence of large-scale forced migration, the spread of organised crime such as smuggling in drugs or antiquities, and the growth of extremist ideologies based on ethnic nationalism or religious fundamentalism. The American so-called withdrawal from Afghanistan is an example of what not to do in such situations. In fact, it only involved withdrawing troops on the ground. The Americans continue to be engaged in what is called the ‘War on Terror’ – long distance air strikes, often using drones, aimed at killing potential terrorists. The War on Terror does not work in terms of eradicating radical Islam – it merely provokes further insurgencies. The areas under the control of radical Islamist groups in Africa and the Middle East are growing. Currently, former members of the Afghan Security Forces, trained by Western governments, are joining ISIS in order to attack the Taliban. For all their shortcomings, multilateral peace-making and peace-keeping operations have contributed to a lowering of violence in the places where they have been deployed and there is a growing experience and learning about how to stabilise contemporary conflicts. The UK should have a capability, both civil and military, for contributing to such missions on the ground, aimed at protecting the local population and dampening down violence. Such a capability could also be deployed in other types of emergencies such as natural disasters.

Third, the alternative to war is the strengthening of international law. The establishment of the International Criminal Court at the end of the 1990s was a huge achievement. But it risks being undermined by the one-sidedness of its judgements since nearly all the cases concern conflicts in Africa and the Balkans. To restore credibility, the Court needs to have the authority to rule on the responsibility of Western leaders for war crimes or the legality of the possession and use of weapons of mass destruction.

Fourth, such a foreign policy would involve major commitments on a range of global issues including climate change, a global treaty on pandemics, a multilateral managed approach to asylum and migration issues, and the promotion of global development – especially debt reduction, poverty alleviation, the spread of education and effective healthcare.

Perhaps a better term than ethical foreign policy is human security. Human security is understood as the security of individuals and the communities in which they live, in the context of multiple economic, environmental, health and physical threats, as opposed to the security of states and borders from the threat of foreign attack. Human security implies that the security of Afghans or Chinese is just as important as the security of British, or to put it another way, British citizens can only be secure in a world in which the Chinese and Afghans are also secure. In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example, it would mean addressing the security of Palestinians and Israelis rather than the security of the Israeli state as tends to happen at present.

At present, the term human security is becoming widely accepted. It is used by multilateral institutions such as the UN and the EU. It has also been adopted by NATO and a number of Western governments including Canada, Belgium, Portugal, Italy (in relation to cultural heritage), the UK, Germany and France. The UK Ministry of Defence is currently working to mainstream the concept within the armed forces. In these contexts, human security has been understood as an umbrella term that encompasses building integrity (anti-corruption), protection of civilians, cultural property protection, children and armed conflict, conflict-related sexual and gender-based violence, human trafficking, and women, peace and security. But there is scope for making use of the way the term is currently being legitimised so as to introduce a broader understanding along the lines of Cook’s ethical foreign policy.

Leave a comment...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.