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Can we really change the rules of international relations?

Anti-war demonstrators in London
Anti-war demonstrators in London, January 2002
From imperial power to international peace-keepers.

Britain's role in the world has been transformed in a century.

The world is changing fast - and the "rules" of international relations are changing with it. Dr William Brown, lecturer in Politics and Government at the Open University, gives his own view on some of the broader issues in Foreign Policy.

Old Wine in New Bottles?

Is Britain's involvement in Afghanistan the product of selfish, even callous pursuit of its national interest? Or is it due to some broader, ethical or moral impulse?

Many debates about international relations have centred on this very contrast. But is it as simple as it first appears?

The idea of a 'national interest' seems simple enough. In 1848, Lord Palmerston even claimed that Britain's interests were 'perpetual'. But who defines what the national interest is, and how? Interests also change - Palmerston's idea of the national interest was very different from those of today's foreign policy-makers - anything but perpetual.

Indeed, Britain has had to do a lot of rethinking of interests over the past 50 years.

Not only did empire - the guiding light of foreign policy for much of the previous century - come to an abrupt end, but the military and strategic compass which replaced it - fighting the Cold War in alliance with the US - has also now gone. And the European dimension of Britain's economic interests continues to pose as many problems as it ever did.

Today, the British government argues that not only do we need a new evaluation of interests but that there isn't necessarily a division between national interests and ethical considerations. For them, ethics and interests can now go hand in hand: it is in Britain's national interest to further ethical causes.

Gladstone: ethical stand against atrocities in the Ottoman empire
While ethical concerns have always been present in foreign policy debates - witness Gladstone's vociferous campaign against atrocities in the Ottoman Empire in the 19th Century (see Morality) - it is a new departure for a government to make such a strong claim to be pursuing ethical aims.

Maybe there is some truth to the idea that the end of the Cold War has increased the prominence of ethical issues in policy debates.

But whose ethics count in foreign policy?

For the Labour government, humanitarianism, respect for human rights and democracy are claimed to be near the top of the list. But aren't these as open to debate as notions like "the national interest"?

What is clear is that in publicly claiming to be able to pursue an 'ethical dimension' in foreign policy, the government has set itself a yardstick by which to be judged. And many will be quick to argue that it will inevitably fall short.

Answers to these kinds of questions are neither obvious nor simple.

Indeed they go to the very heart of the study of international politics: how do states relate to each other? What are the 'rules' through which the international political system is constructed and operates? And what are the principles that should guide the activities of our politicians and leaders in the international arena?

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