Magazine
Latest Issue

Labour abroad

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 2001

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 to be defined: the short-term costs of pursuing long-term goals may be high and risks of failure considerable. Disarmament, European monetary integration and increased immigration are all cases where the remoter benefits may be outweighed by short-term costs.

It is in part because of the realisation that national interest is a vague guide and in part because of the pace of global integration that the debate on foreign policy has come to focus so much on the ethical question. The political context of Labour’s victory also encouraged this emphasis. When Labour came into office in 1997 its approach was shaped by recent experiences in four main ways: the wish to reposition Britain, and Labour, in regard to European integration; a desire to avoid what seemed to be the moral failure of the Tory years (arms sales to Iraq, inaction over Bosnia); an embarrassed retreat from the commitment to nuclear disarmament; and a pervasive but vague desire to link foreign policy more closely with a changing British society. Labour leaders have always known that international issues rarely help to win elections; but they know just as well that foreign policy disasters can weaken a government. However limited options are in the real world, foreign policy is always presented as something involving grand choices and moral impact.

At first, Labour had an easy ride. The withdrawal from Hong Kong, went off without a hitch. Accommodating gestures on Europe helped to set a new tone, if not a new substance. Robin Cook’s announcement in July 1997 of an “ethical dimension” to foreign policy, linked to “real world internationalism,” was put into practice in several initiatives: support for the International Criminal Court, more energetic foreign and commonwealth office (FCO) reporting on human rights, stronger opposition to capital punishment, introduction of a European code on arms exports, and measures to interdict the trade in “conflict diamonds.” Initial problems at the FCO, where Cook felt uncomfortable, gradually eased off.

The clearest examples of the ethical approach were the arrest of General Pinochet in 1998 and the intervention in Kosovo in 1999. The first was supported by most liberal opinion within Britain and abroad, the second contested in principle and in policy. The arrest and detention of Pinochet were presented as the outcome of an impersonal judicial process, but in truth they involved what political scientists politely term “non-decisions.” Had Tony Blair and Jack Straw wanted to get Pinochet out of the country to avoid the issue they could have done so. That they did not was itself a decision: the results, in terms of the support for international law and for the domestic politics of Chile, were substantial.

The high point of Labour’s claim to a new agenda was the intervention in Kosovo in the spring of 1999. The problem with Kosovo, apart from the still unanswered question about what will be the final status of this province of Yugoslavia, was that while it certainly offered a moral case for intervention, its legal basis was tenuous. Yet in the debate on “humanitarian intervention” this action commanded more support, even from normally dissident sections of the left (such as Ken Livingstone), than had either Kuwait in 1991 or Bosnia in 1995 (both of which had greater UN security council sanction). The position of German foreign minister Joschka Fischer found an echo in Britain-if people were being massacred, it was wrong to wait for security council authorisation before acting.

Sierra Leone presented a more complex case of intervention. There were in effect two Sierra Leones: the February 1998 covert action to restore president Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, and the May 2000 dispatch of troops to rescue hostages and establish a UN beachhead in Freetown. Intervention here was on shakier ground, partly because Sierra Leone was a distant African country, compared to a south-east European Kosovo, but also because whereas in Kosovo it could be claimed that there was one morally superior side (the Albanians), in Sierra Leone all parties were guilty of corruption and abuses of the civilian population. But denunciation of the supposed immorality of intervention was itself on weak ground. Britain has a permanent seat on the security council and with it, as Article 24 of the Charter states, particular responsibilities for maintaining international peace and security. If Nigeria, a fellow UN and Commonwealth member, could lose 700 men defending Freetown from the rebels, then surely Britain also had some obligation to intervene.

The general principles underlying intervention were addressed by Blair in his speech in Chicago on 22nd April 1999, when he developed his doctrine of “international community.” On the one hand, he argued, interventions are a legitimate response to acts of genocide and to the exhaustion of diplomatic options. But this injunction to act was offset by two practical conditions: the possibility of successful military operations and the involvement of national interest. Here again, national interest remains elusive: in the case of Kosovo there was no short term national threat: Serbia, a historic ally, was not about to invade Britain and the “interest” had to be somewhere in the middle and longer distance.

The question of whether the sovereignty of states can be overridden by concern about human rights violations has been debated for 200 years. Critics of the Chicago doctrine were quick to spring up on left and right: the former charge Blair with imperialism, the latter with liberal meddling that may do more harm than good (“We cannot wipe the tear from every eye,” as Tory foreign affairs specialist David Howell once put it). Yet underlying much of the opposition to humanitarian action-in Kuwait, Bosnia, Haiti or Kosovo-is loathing of the US (vide Harold Pinter). And the sudden disgust on the left with the idea of “just war” contrasts with decades of support for wars of national liberation. The disdain of the right for liberal internationalism has not, for its part, recovered from the disgraceful Thatcher government policy on South Africa, when Britain, almost alone of the developed states, refused to back pressure on the regime. It is in any case inconsistent with a claim to continued membership of the security council and the responsibilities this brings with it.

However, the greatest problems with the Chicago speech are found in two other respects. One is in the rendering of what is practical-the Chicago doctrine means that humanitarian intervention will occur only in the easier cases, where resistance is less, perhaps where there is a nearby coastline. Because we cannot or do not intervene everywhere is not in itself a reason for intervening nowhere. Nevertheless a kind of grim inconsistency, a global triage, comes into play here-Afghanistan, Rwanda, Chechnya will not be helped, because they are too difficult, but easier cases, notably Kuwait, Bosnia and Kosovo, will. The second problem is in this conjoining of moral outrage and national interest. On one reading of the globalisation and atrocities case, there is a national interest wherever there is conflict or human rights violations, if only because these produce refugees, rather as during the cold war there was “strategic importance” in the most remote Pacific island. But if this is not so, then the logic of triage comes up again-Europeans will be saved; a tapering humanitarian concern applies to the rest. Blair’s attempt to rouse public interest in Kosovo by invoking how many people had spent holidays on the beaches of Italy and Greece was an awkward index of this. We are back with a selective humanitarian concern akin to Gladstone’s worries about Christians in the Ottoman empire.

There is one further problem with the doctrine of the Chicago speech, namely that of cost: nowhere are foreign and domestic policy less joined-up than in regard to military spending. British defence spending has fallen by around 25 per cent since the mid-1980s. The sentiment across Europe, including Britain, is for a further reduction, yet a commitment to an active peace-keeping role, even in the Balkans, will require more money, especially if it is to be done with less US support. This is something American critics are keen to point to (“your rapid reaction force could not get as far as Algeria”) and where the contradictions of “real world internationalism” are most acute.

A parallel set of ethical and practical problems arise with regard to the other, much debated, issue of sanctions. From the League of Nations through to the late 1980s, sanctions were the preferred instrument of the centre and left-an alternative to coercion and a means of expressing moral concern. The aims were, beyond the attempt to alter policy, to discredit the target state and give moral support to its victims. Yet in the 1990s sanctions have become a target of criticism from all sides. Business interests in the US oppose them as restricting trade and investment-the main corporate anti-sanctions lobby, USA-Engage, has taken legal action against human rights activists who want to impose sanctions on Burma. Pragmatists have increasingly come to question if sanctions ever work, pointing to the survival of Saddam Hussein and Castro. The left, which 15 years ago was calling for a blockade of South Africa, now see sanctions as an instrument of genocide and imperialism in Iraq.

The truth is that the ethical and pragmatic case for sanctions must be decided on the merits of each case. Sanctions worked against Britain in 1956 when the US used them during the Suez crisis; they worked against Chile in 1973, when they exacerbated the economic crisis in that country and so promoted a military coup; they played an important part, combined with popular pressure from below, in forcing a change of policy in South Africa in the late 1980s.

But sanctions do not always work against determined authoritarian regimes such as Iraq. The continued pressure on Iraq has at least prevented the Ba’thist state from attacking its neighbours or reoccupying the Kurdish northern provinces. The argument that the whole policy has failed because it has not altered the Baghdad government is akin to arguing that we should abolish the police force because not all crime has been prevented. There may be a case for lifting many of the controls now, but it does not follow that the sufferings of Iraq can be blamed on the sanctions. There was never an embargo on food or medicine and Iraq has access to oil revenues to feed its people.

But these debates on intervention and sanctions have been flawed by Labour’s na?ve implication that the choice is between an “ethical” and an “unethical” policy. High-minded appeals to take a moral stance do not resolve the question of which stance to take. The maintenance of peace and security involves clashes with movements demanding independence; the provision of humanitarian assistance to the vulnerable involves dealing with warlords, and thus conflicts with the obligation under international law to arrest them; the imposition of sanctions on aggressive or dictatorial states can impose suffering on their people; assistance to victim populations also involves loss of life; debt relief may also allow corrupt states to continue in their kleptocratic ways.

Nowhere are these dilemmas more evident than in regard to arms sales. Labour inherited a historic position of opposition to the arms trade and an underlying assumption that arms sales themselves are a cause of conflict. Once elected this came down to a set of more limited goals: a ban on sales of arms for use in internal repression, a campaign against anti-personnel mines, a commitment to destroy Britain’s stocks by 2005, support for the EU code on arms sales, and greater restrictions on the spread of missile technology. Critics have been quick to point out that this has left much of the arms trade unaffected. But their premise is that weapons sales in themselves are unethical-an unsustainable claim, except for consistent pacifists, in a world where conflict between states and hence the right to self-defence remain prevalent. The precondition for a world without arms sales is the consolidation of democracy and the promotion of co-operative diplomacy across the world-a distant horizon indeed.

Point-scoring on the “ethical dimension” has also detracted attention from some other shortcomings in Labour’s approach. The issue on which Europe as a whole is in denial and where American critics are right is proliferation. The nuclear explosions by India and Pakistan in May 1998 were the most irresponsible acts in international affairs since the end of the cold war. In common with other states, Britain did not see the explosions coming nor did it take any significant action in response. The UN Charter allows collective action-including sanctions or diplomatic isolation-where a potential threat to international security exists, as it most certainly does between India and Pakistan, yet nothing significant was done. Therefore, not only has the world come to accept a nuclear presence in a highly unstable region, above all because of the irresponsibility of both sides vis-? -vis Kashmir, but the signal has been sent to others that acquisition of nuclear weapons is a permissible course of action.

Labour’s other great failure has been European integration, in particular participation in “Euroland.” This is the result of New Labour’s caution combined with the hostility of the British press. European policy has been more effective than in the Major years thanks in part to the pursuit of bilateral agreements with countries outside the Franco-German core, such as Italy, Sweden, Portugal and Spain. But thanks to non-participation in the euro the impression has been given again that Britain is a half-hearted European. Further, the failure to wrest the initiative in the national debate from the isolationists who now dominate the Conservative party has made it harder to win a referendum on the euro in the second term.

Realism dictates a more active engagement: Europe itself is changing and the longer the delay in engagement the longer the marginalisation. This is all the more so because of the most important change of all, one to which Britain has a special blind spot- the rising power and confidence of Germany. This most unexpected but robust outcome of the 20th century-the emergence of a democratic, confident, united and strong Germany-is one that Britain is unable by history, culture and media to confront.

Prevarication on European integration will not be resolved by coming up with appealing fudges of the kind to which the prime minister resorted in his Warsaw speech last October, where he talked of Europe becoming a “superpower” but not a “super-state.” In this world, indeed in any conceivable world, you cannot become one without the other. Where the government has overturned previous policy and won plaudits in other EU capitals is in its support for a common European defence policy. But one has to question what this will in the end amount to, in the absence of both a will to pay for it and a shared political perspective between Britain, France and Germany on international issues. Also, this shared EU defence policy cannot be an alternative to other forms of integration, indeed it will only work if it is accompanied by other forms of integration. On all such issues, evasion in London is married to rhetorical over-sell in Brussels and other European capitals. Across the Atlantic, and in Asia, there is less indulgence of Eurospeak and more of a sense of a growing disunity of purpose to which Britain has made its own distinctive contribution.

The claim, the very constitutive llusion, of any country’s foreign policy is that it can in some way make a difference to the international system. In a Britain still subject to post-imperial nostalgia and stimulated by media obsession with the second world war, this is an easy argument to make. Membership of the UN security council and continued possession of nuclear weapons add to this belief. Yet virtually no policy initiative can be that of a single nation: policies are necessarily “multilateral” be they on Kosovo or Palestine, the environment or migration, human rights, sanctions, the ICC or management of the global economy. For Britain this means in the first instance working within the EU. An ethical dimension, wherever it works, is a shared one. The problem with the intervention in Sierra Leone was that this was not possible-Blair called the leaders of all other EU states and not one was willing to provide forces.

Another precondition for an effective British foreign policy remains co-operation with Washington. British observers tend to see this in terms of a “special relationship” with the US based on ties of history, sentiment and common position in crises. But the past is less significant than shared interests in the present. And the need for a good relationship with the US applies to other big European states too. Indeed, if a European defence force is to get off the ground, in some EU-Nato co-ordination, it will involve a big political commitment from Washington. The real problem with the British debate is that it remains thwarted by a combination of Atlanticist servility and gut anti-Americanism. In a world where cultural conflict between the west and Islam is much discussed, far less attention is paid to the cultural stereotyping that informs much discussion of the US.

Blair was lucky in that, for the first three and half years, he had Clinton in the White House-his policies on Kosovo, or Iraq, would have been much less effective if that had not been the case. Indeed the advent of Bush casts a shadow over the future of the liberal internationalism practiced since 1997. The Anglo-US disagreements that did exist, some inherited from the Tories, have remained-on Cuba, for example. So too does a broader difference in how the world is understood: Robert Cooper, the Cabinet Office official responsible for a slice of foreign policy, has observed that while European states are now in their integration “postmodern,” the US remains a “modern” state, in the company of Russia, China and Iraq. The unilateralism of the Bush administration continues this “modernity,” most of all in the pursuit of National Missile Defence, which marks a foolish but unstoppable resort to unilateral modernity.

It is not only external factors which constrain foreign policy. There is the domestic context too. Labour has been committed to reforming what it has seen as an elitist, isolated, conduct of foreign policy, both in regard to who makes policy, and in regard to the interaction of issues: joined-up policy suggests, among other things, closer links between what the FCO does and policy on the world economy, as seen by the treasury and the development department. Gordon Brown’s measures to encourage drugs companies to lower their prices for sales to the third world are an example of the former, Clare Short’s policy on globalisation, and her commitment to linking gender concerns to development aid, are examples of the latter. Short’s white paper of December 2000, Eliminating World Poverty, contains a number of specific and realistic proposals on money laundering, child labour and the eradication of polio. It has two central arguments: firstly that, side by side with a reformed system of state to state aid, private capital flows to the third world (now $200 billion per year as against $50 billion development aid) have an essential role to play, and secondly that state intervention, while not displacing private investment, can serve to regulate it in a variety of ways. Setting herself against the pessimism of conformist economics, Short supported implementation of the Tobin proposals for taxing foreign exchange dealings. Her proposals will no doubt be denounced as placebos by the dreaming classes in their green and red varieties but it is a thoughtful programme that meets domestic concern and international reality alike.

More difficult, of course, to integrate with foreign policy is the work of another department of state, the home office. Arguably the two most contentious international issues facing Britain, indeed all developed states, are narcotics and immigration, yet it is here that rational, long-term strategic considerations have the least impact. Narcotics are the second most valuable commodity, traded in the world, second only to oil. The British political class and the press are in denial on this question, stubbornly believing that criminalisation can succeed.

Immigration relates to the most important longer-term factor of all in determining a country’s economic and political future-demography. Yet a measured, rational and factual debate on immigration is virtually impossible throughout Europe. The denial by sections of the left of any distinction between asylum-seekers (those seeking refugee status from persecution under the 1951 convention) and economic migrants only reinforces the problem. The starting point cannot be a purely national policy and EU coordination is already central to the debate. We need a new look at the 1951 convention on political refugees, which is most appropriately discussed in the context of the world bodies set up to deal with these questions, the International Labour Organisation and the International Organisation for Migration.

The complications of joining up foreign policy are equally evident in regard to the opening up of foreign policy to “civil society.” The most powerful element of civil society in Britain is the press, followed in its chauvinist and insular tone by much of the electronic media. A rising tide of subliminal nationalism in the press is matched by an introversion of television news and current affairs-consider the domestication and banalisation of the BBC’s Panorama. Even when there is engagement with the outside world it is too often jumped on by the domestic editor-witness the spectacle of ministers on foreign trips being pursued by British correspondents with their home news obsessions, and press conferences with foreign visitors being dominated by similar diversions.

Civil society also refers to the world of unofficial organisations, NGOs, community groups and lobbies who are invited to be part of the joining up of foreign policy. However the most cogent of all civil society organisations are still business interests: we hear little about their role in shaping foreign policy, but can presume that not all of it is benign. Labour has learnt a lot from specialist NGOs which have provided their research and advice on a range of issues: the arms trade, conflict resolution in the Caucasus, the link between gender and development, and debt relief, to name but four. Yet the NGO world is itself not of one voice, or competence.

In any case, engagement with civil society does not cause the hard choices to disappear. Where does concern with, say, slavery in southern Sudan end, and partisan intervention on behalf of Christians begin? Who is to choose between the plethora of voices on Israel/Palestine, Kashmir, Sri Lanka? Anti-Saddam Iraqis are divided on whether western sanctions should be continued. The demonstrations against the WTO in Seattle at the end of 1999 have become an icon for those who uphold the potential of civil society; rather fewer ask the questions as to what the programme of these protesters was, whether the demands voiced were remotely consistent with each other and whether a world without regulated trade would be preferable to one with some regulation.

Perhaps most disturbing, because cast in a virtuous pall, is the tendency for the joining up to involve the shaping of policy by partisan lobbies-a long-standing example of this has been Iran. Since his election in 1997, Iranian President Khatami has visited Paris and Berlin, Rome and Tokyo. He has conspicuously not been invited to London and Robin Cook has twice postponed his visit to Tehran. A combination of pro-Israeli influence on the Labour leadership and a determined infiltration of local Labour parties by the People’s Mojahedin, a guerrilla group based in Baghdad, has hobbled Labour policy-no less than 437 MPs and peers recently issued a statement in support of the group. Kashmir is another issue on which a sectarian immigrant base, drawn from the Mirpur region of Kashmir and unrepresentative of the range of opinion in that region, has unduly shaped Labour policy. Indeed British public life is full of examples of interventions by groups claiming spurious legitimacy for intransigence elsewhere. Labour still holds firm in its policy documents to universal principles of human rights, but the import of many campaigns waged within the party combined with a diffuse questioning of “western” values, is that such universalism should be abandoned.

The external context of Labour’s foreign policy could be very different in a second term. The world has only begun to grasp how cold a wind is blowing from Bush’s Washington. Those who spent the past eight years sneering at Clinton and Gore, or who voted for Ralph Nader, may have a lot to answer for. With the prospect of Berlusconi coming to power in Italy and a reinvigorated right in France, the context is changing for the worse. Secondly, the leeway for prevarication on Europe is drawing to an end, as is the patience of major European states with the indecision and populist nationalism that beset the British debate. Thirdly, the international security situation is worsening with the US pursuit of NMD on the one hand, and a deteriorating situation in the middle east, central Asia and east Asia on the other. At home, Blair presides over a society in many respects still uncivil and culturally ill-equipped in its engagement with the outside world, and where those calling for an alternative, more ethical policy tend to inhabit a dream world. Foreign policy should be judged on how a state combines ethical aspiration with political realism. It is that challenge, rather than some ranking on an abstracted moral scale, which will confront Labour in a second term as much as it did in its first.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to letters@prospect-magazine.co.uk

More From Prospect