Robin Cook – Ethical Foreign Policy

JWP, Going Postal

Labour had been in power a matter of a few days when Robin Cook preached to the nation on Labour’s big new idea, an Ethical Foreign Policy. I remember thinking at the time that this was novel, strange and very foolish.

Ethics are not ectoplasm. They do not appear from the ether to inform our thoughts, shape our opinions and direct our deeds. Ethics, like morals (are they not the same thing?) require codifying, laying down, carving on tablets of stone before they can be applied, lest we fall foul of the temptation to make it up as we go along.
One notable absence from Cook’s speech was any indication which code of ethics we would thereafter be seeking to apply. I believe he was himself a staunch atheist (strange that he should have had a Christian funeral. I suppose even Socialists like to purchase insurance policies) and that would suggest that the ethical code that he would seek to apply in New Labour’s Foreign Policy would not be what we might call “Judaeo-Christian” in nature, but rather something like a Humanist one. To inform myself what this might amount to, I turned to the British Humanist Association where we are told:

“Humanism is an approach to life based on humanity and reason. Humanists recognise that moral values are properly founded on human nature and experience alone: concern for others does not necessarily have an external source, as religions tend to assert. Humanists do not refer to sacred texts or religious authorities when making moral decisions.”

So, it is clear that we are not dealing with anything like the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount as these are religious codes that depend for their authority upon the existence of an external source, namely the Divine. Rather, we are dealing with something that can be discovered as ‘right’ by deduction, by reason and (dare we say it?) by popular acclamation. But what?

It continues: “(Humanists) do not believe in a life after death that will compensate for earthly suffering by rewarding the good and punishing the bad. Humanists do not believe in a god who gives us moral codes or values, and they base their lives on guiding principles, not dogmatic rules. Despite that, humanists do not believe that basic moral principles are simply matters of personal preference…..”

Guiding principles? Zooming forward several years we see where those (man-made) Guiding Principles brought us as we pursued this so called Ethical Foreign Policy. In his Party Conference speech of 2001 Tony Blair spoke of the ‘moral duty’ (ethical imperative) to become involved in other nations’ affairs; to intervene, militarily. That is longhand for ‘go to war’. So, in pursuit of safeguarding ‘Human Rights’, (which was the only real objective we can deduce from the non-definition of Ethical Foreign Policy) human beings would be killed; some would be counted as expendable whilst safeguarding the rights of those considered ‘more deserving’, and therefore ‘entitled’ our help. In pursuance of this ‘crusade of righteousness’ (man-made, not divinely inspired) many British lives would be laid down as well.

It is my contention as you might have surmised that Britain has no place meddling in the affairs of other nations. Other nations are precisely that; other. They have their own histories, their own traditions, their own space; they will enjoy their own achievements and experience their own tragedies in the same way as we do. The fact that we are perhaps a little more able than some to contend with the sorrows and the trials of our human frailty is due in large part to the wisdom and strength of character of those who went before us. It used to be held by those who were in many ways greater than ourselves that one thing and one thing only must guide our interaction with the wider world; self interest.

This does not mean isolationism. It does not mean callousness. It does not make us selfish. It simply means that our warmth and affection is directed to where it belongs; our own. Even so, as of old, alliances remain a necessary part of the political scene. We need friends, but as in the personal sphere it is a fool who puts his relationships outside of the home higher on his list of priorities than his relations with his own family. Friends, yes, sometimes chosen because we share with them ties of culture or kindred; sometimes chosen because of shared aims and objectives. Whichever it is, the cold eye of realism must always be applied and the question asked, “Is this friendship for our own good?”

This is the prime duty of government. It would be foolish in the extreme to hark to an unidentifiable ethical code when faced with the situation of, shall we say, a new President in the USA. Must we vet him for his moral integrity before we engage with him? Or should we simply say, his country’s needs are similar to our own; its objectives are the same objectives that we desire to see fulfilled for the benefit of our own people? On the basis of our own self-interest and respecting his, can we be friends?

To those who walk the streets and denounce the new President for comments made in the past or for policies that he has been elected to implement I say, “What is the code? What is the standard? Where is it written?” Finally, “…and how do you as a person, as a political party, as a Parliament measure up?” In more intelligent times we might have applied an ancient principle: “Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone.”

None of this is appropriate however as the moving principle of self-interest is the only one that need apply as we interact with that which lies beyond our borders. The prime duty is toward our own.

Aristotle famously said that ‘the whole is greater than the sum of the parts’ and there is of course some truth in what he said. However, I believe that the moral paucity of the thinking that applies in our own House of Commons lies at the heart of many of the mistakes that have been made over recent decades. Lacking a solid basis upon which to stand we see flailing arms, we hear strident voices of denunciation, we sense individuals engaging in a moral outrage which is nothing of the kind, because it is a chimera, having no core, no centre and no solidity. “Ectoplasmic ethics”: this is I believe the cause of the froth and blather that we have been subjected to by the political class in recent days. In the absence of a personal morality (I cite the widespread refusal to condemn one of their kind who was allegedly involved with foreign rent boys outside of the marital home and bed: adultery and sodomy are the old fashioned descriptions) there seems to be a desire to win points in a collective sense by being seen to be the good guys of history.

This is not the duty of politicians. It is not what they are set apart to do. They are not our priests or confessors let alone our teachers. They are there to protect and defend the sovereign rights of the people to enjoy freedom and as much peace and prosperity as is possible in a wicked and devious world. They are there to protect and preserve, not to preach.

 “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.”