Conservatism and an ‘ethical foreign policy’
(T)he Party should use its influence to try to change bureaucratic international institutions so that they are more responsive to crises like Darfur, "the biggest scandal of our time". Conservatives…(should) invest in developing countries because it reduces the supply of immigrants in the long-term, but more importantly because it is the right thing to do. William Hague has twice said in speeches that human rights should be "at the heart of our foreign policy" and there was no backtracking today when he spoke of the "deeply held belief of the primacy of human rights". He attacked the government's prevarification (sic) on Darfur and the UN Security Council's failure to take action. The audience clapped loudest when he expressed admiration for the bravery of the monks in Burma, and spoke gravely of the "full-scale humanitarian disaster" in Zimbabwe.
In a direct challenge to the Foreign Office's ‘can't do’ culture, there were calls severally for intervention in Pakistan, Darfur, Burma, and Zimbabwe, to name but a few.
But what precisely is being advocated here? Boycotts and sanctions? They haven’t worked in these situations in the past, and there is no reason to presume they would do so in the future. And any way, it is invariably the poorest and most vulnerable who end up suffering when economic sanctions are imposed. So what about 'regime change'? Not really an option, since it is illegal under ‘international law’. Or interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation? Similar objections. And note the silence of the Conservative Party on Iran, North Korea, China…
And the Labour Party tried an ‘ethical foreign policy’, until it became clear to Tony Blair that it was damaging British jobs and British interests abroad. So he overruled the foreign secretary, Robin Cook, by giving the go-ahead for the sale of spare parts to Zimbabwe for British Hawk fighter jets being used in an African civil war that has cost tens of thousands of lives.
An ethical foreign policy is well and good until you come to decide whose ethics are to be pre-eminent. And ‘human rights’ are a most worthy cause until you attempt to resolve who determines those rights. How does one effectively alleviate global poverty when it is in the interests of corrupt regimes to keep the people in a state of economic oppression and social deprivation? How does one maximise aid when those same corrupt regimes filter it to spend on arms or to ameliorate their own living standards? How does one eliminate child exploitation when whole families are dependent on their 12-year-old children for financial support?
A democratic and pluralist polity fused with a free market economy is incompatible with the imposition of a single socio-political vision, though it may sustain a limited good and realisable freedom. While Christianity is undoubtedly concerned with the moral good, a liberal democratic social order that seeks to impose human rights, justice, solidarity, tolerance and equality upon a culture to which such concepts are alien is doomed to failure. Ultimately, an ethical foreign policy cannot be attained through a public theology. Christianity, rightly understood, provides the moral and spiritual fibre for Western civilisation. More specifically, Christianity set in motion an historical trajectory that, under the impact of the Reformation, blossomed in modern liberal democracy, with its limited (and secular) state, flourishing civil society, and abiding commitment to the universal moral law summed up in modern ‘human rights’.
While this present reality is an admirable vision for future statecraft, it does not constitute a value-system that is remotely viable in all social orders. It is, as always, necessary to begin with the renewal of the human heart, rather than with an eschatological crusade to endorse the salvific mission of modern politics.