Morality in foreign policy

Sir Samuel Brittan

Amid all the debate about the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the consequences, civilian and political, that have followed, I was prompted to have another look at an old article by Sir Samuel Brittan, “Morality and foreign policy”, written shortly after the disaster at Suez. His article, although dated, contains nevertheless some interesting perspectives on where we find ourselves now, and in some ways the ways in which it is dated say even more.

His starting point is to assert that countries should not take actions that the citizens of those countries would not do personally. He quotes David Hume: “A nation is nothing but a collection of individuals.” Somebody murdered by an arm of the state is still murdered. Christopher Hitchens’ book, “The trial of Henry Kissinger”, is a good illustration of the principle.

But that’s the easy part. The more difficult question is not where morality starts in foreign policy but where it stops. For example, what kind of relations is it permissible to have with a dictatorship? He rejects the notion that there should be an absolute boycott of such regimes, but is it, for example, acceptable to strike a deal that is beneficial to the dictatorship because it is also beneficial to the democracy? How to moderate or manage the iciness or even hostility in a relationship?

His answer is that this is what the rules of diplomacy are for. They prevent disagreements from turning into wars. An international code enables everyone to know where they stand.

Back to the personal analogy, there are people you have to get along with even though you might not like them much. Social rules and expectations ease the path of daily life. Better some kind of politeness than to be moralistic.

However, Samuel Brittan allows that there might be occasions when even these rules of society need to be broken. But there will not be very many of them. He writes:

“But this is not the type of move which should be undertaken when there is only a gambler’s chance of success.”

Looking at the Iraq crisis in this light (he was thinking mainly of Suez), it is plain that it did not meet this standard of confidence. The built-up expectations of the WMD simply weren’t met.

He goes on:

“For in gauging the consequences of an individual breach of the international code we must – even from the most narrowly national standpoint – take into account not only its immediate consequences but also its long-term effects in disrupting the still fragile code of international good behaviour.”

He could so very easily have been writing about Iraq, in those terms. It is not obvious that only one side of the debate has the claim of morality on its side.

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I mentioned an aspect of datedness about his essay. It is this. He asserts that one aspect of refusing to be moralistic is that we are not entitled to impose our vision on others of how government should work. That is something that each country should decide for itself. The fact that a country might not have a market economy and a liberal democracy might be something it has chosen, and this is not to be second-guessed.

This article was written during the period of European decolonisation, and many newly independent countries were making decisions about their future systems of government. Many of them were bequeathed liberal democratic constitutions by their former colonial masters, but not many survived. There was a relativism about liberal democracy, not an absolutist approach.

However, now that 50 years have passed, it is possible to be a bit more critical. Just about every country whose citizens have made a free choice has opted for liberal democracy. As exceptions, one can think perhaps of the Vatican City, or perhaps the election of Ahmadinejad in Iran, but in the latter case, the electoral process was heavily circumscribed by the religious authorities in the country. Notably, the countries that have escaped communism since the fall of the Berlin Wall have become liberal democracies where the people have had the choice. This distinction between the people choosing and the government choosing is important.

In the 1950s, relations between European countries and their former and soon-to-be ex-colonies were dominated by the fact of that colonial relationship. Frank conversation was difficult as a result. Times have moved on: it is easier for Europeans to be more critical (although Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe for one is keen to revive memories of the colonial mentality) and the world, if not Zimbabwe, is better for it.

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