New Labour has taken British foreign policy in some startlingly new directions. It's a pity that the debate about it has been dogged by point-scoring over the "ethical dimension"by Fred Halliday / June 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
Debate on labour’s foreign policy has focused, to the point of distortion, on whether and how far it has met its “ethical” standard. The “ethical” issue is important, if more so at home than abroad, but it has to be matched by another standard, that of effectiveness. Has Labour been able to achieve its goals, given the context in which Britain finds itself and given the ways in which the domestic shapes foreign policy? The late Pierre Trudeau, prime minister of Canada, was once asked what room for manoeuvre a country like his had in foreign policy. “About 5 per cent,” he replied. It is what a state does with that 5 or 10 per cent which should form the basis for an assessment of what Labour has done.
Long absence from office, and the desire to strike a new note in foreign and domestic policy, account in part for the way Labour has presented itself in the international arena. Since it was last in power the cold war ended and with it some of the set-piece divisions between left and right in the party and the country-the sight of Margaret Thatcher and Michael Foot vying with each other in calls to bomb Serbia in the early 1990s was indication enough of this. More importantly, in foreign policy as in economics, the certainties of a national policy directed by a largely autonomous state seem to have been eroded by globalisation (consider policy on BSE or asylum). As much as any kind of rebound from the Tory years, globalisation has formed the new foreign policy outlook. There was less of an attempt to propound a “third way” in the international realm than an appeal for “real world internationalism.”
In earlier times foreign policy was defined and defended in terms of an identifiable public good, the “national interest.” This is a certainty invoked by all, but according to their own political priorities. One does not have to be a Marxist to see that different interests will define the “national” in different ways: industry as against finance, purchasers of books as against their authors, truck drivers as against environmental campaigners and so on. If foreign policy is “joined up” to society then it is to a society which is more diverse than has hitherto been the case.
Moreover, the concept of national interest leaves open the timescale in which the interest is…