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Does national interest always come first in Foreign Affairs?

Ethical Foreign Policy was new Foreign Secretary Robin Cook's "big idea" - but how well has it survived in practice?
It used to be accepted that national self interest ruled supreme in foreign policy, whatever governments did at home.

So is it unrealistic to talk of a new moral approach to world affairs?

When Robin Cook announced a new ethical dimension to British foreign policy, there was widespread derision.

The Labour Government had been in power for precisely two weeks - after nearly 20 years on the opposition benches - and Cook's video wall presentation, a mission statement for the Foreign Office, was dismissed by sceptics as a gimmick.

Lord Carrington
Former Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington: "better to do these things without a great fanfare"
"Our foreign policy must have an ethical dimension and must support the demands of other peoples for the democratic rights on which we insist for ourselves," he told assembled journalists.

"The Labour government will put human rights at the heart of our foreign policy."

Shortly afterwards, in a BBC documentary, the former Conservative Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington, predicted the phrase would land Robin Cook in trouble: "We've always had an ethical foreign policy," he said, "but he will run into quite a lot of difficulty about exports and retaliation. It's much better to do these things without a great fanfare."

During Cook's four years as Foreign Secretary, the shorthand phrase, "ethical foreign policy" came back to haunt him - over Britain's decision to honour a contract supplying Hawk Jets to Indonesia, over military action in Kosovo, and over the Sandline affair in Sierra Leone, when mercenary soldiers who helped restore the elected government there claimed they'd had backing from the British government.

On each occasion, journalists asked: how does this square with an ethical foreign policy?


Kosovo: humanitarian aims but was bombing the short term solution?
To take Kosovo as an example. The British government is credited with stiffening international resolve to intervene in Spring 1999, as Serbian action against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo provoked a refugee crisis. As tens of thousands of Kosovars streamed across the borders and into neighbouring Macedonia, NATO launched high level bombing sorties against Serbian installations.

The aim was humanitarian - to get President Milosevic to stop the repression in Kosovo, so that the refugees could return. But the immediate effect was actually to increase the flow of refugees, threatening to destabilise neighbouring Balkan states.

Quote Mark ..when Milosevic embarked on the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Kosovo, we acted. The sceptics said it was pointless, we'd make matters worse, we'd make Milosevic stronger and look what happened. We won, the refugees went home, the policies of ethnic cleansing were reversed and one of the great dictators of the last century will see justice in this century. Quote Mark

Tony Blair, Labour Party Conference Speech, October 2001
Critics worried about "proportionality" - the danger of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Eventually, President Milosevic withdrew, letting a UN peace-keeping force in to Kosovo in the summer of 1999. Two years on, the government counts Kosovo as one of its Foreign policy successes.

When a cabinet reshuffle brought Jack Straw to the Foreign Office, in the summer of 2001, it was widely assumed that the phrase "ethical foreign policy" had been quietly buried.

Then came the events of September 11 2001.

Shortly after, at the Labour Party's annual conference, the Prime Minister Tony Blair gave what most observers conceded was a barnstorming speech - several writers compared him to Churchill, or even Gladstone.

Video Clip VIDEO
Labour Party Conference October 2001
The Prime Minister spells out the message of moral intervention.
He pledged international action against the Taleban; but he went further, proclaiming a moral duty to intervene across the world, wherever necessary - in Kosovo or even in Central Africa.

"If Rwanda happened again today, as it did in 1993," he said "when a million people were slaughtered in cold blood, we would have a moral duty to act there also," he declared.

Self-interest rules?

But is Foreign Policy really about morality?

Lord Palmerston
Lord Palmerston: national interest above all else
It used to be accepted wisdom that national self-interest would always be the driving factor for any country's foreign policy. The distinguished nineteenth century politician Lord Palmerston once said Britain had no permanent allies - only permanent interests.

One hundred and fifty years later, one of Palmerston's successors, the former Foreign Secretary Lord Owen, still believes the choices are often between shades of grey: sometimes unpalatable decisions have to be taken, in the national interest. In a BBC documentary, he described his own decision to refuse to let the Shah of Iran live in exile in Britain after the Iranian revolution as shabby, but essential to Britain's interests abroad.

Quote Mark We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are perpetual and eternal and those interests it is our duty to follow. Quote Mark

Lord Palmerston, British Foreign Secretary, 1848
Now, the Blair government's approach is that globalisation means that no country can afford to ignore famine, war or human rights abuse anywhere in the world.

"There's always been a moral dimension to foreign policy," says Victor Bulmer-Thomas, director of The Royal Institute of International Affairs. "Take, for instance, Gladstone and the Bulgarian Atrocities. And the Prime Minister has a strong moral streak, so it's not entirely cynical."

 Click here for more on the Bulgarian Atrocities

Video Clip VIDEO
How to Be a Foreign Secretary, BBC TV
The former Foreign Secretary David Owen describes how national interests remain paramount.
Of course, being morally right is one thing - but the consequences are another.

"We cannot wipe away the tear from every eye," the Conservative Foreign Affairs specialist David Howell once said.

But, in an age when the old certainties of the cold war have broken down - and with them, the over-riding fear that a small war could spark a super-power confrontation - there will be repeated requests for the international community to do just that.

Quote Mark The critics will say: but how can the world be a community? Nations act in their own self interest. Of course they do. But what is the lesson of the financial markets, climate change, international terrorism, nuclear proliferation or world trade? It is that our self interest and our mutual interests are today inextricably woven together. Quote Mark

Tony Blair, Labour Party Conference, October 2001

The Conservative MP Andrew Tyrie wrote in the Guardian that he wished the Prime Minister had left the job of speechwriting to the Foreign Office, rather than doing it himself:

"International society," he wrote, "is a place where the doctrine of self help means that everyone is their own policeman, the legal and judicial system is very fragile and where the only additional support one can hope for will come from international neighbourhood watch schemes called coalitions" (Guardian November 6 2001).

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