Exporting ethics in place of arms

November 7, 1997

Should Britain sell arms to countries with appalling human rights records? Ken Booth suggests some avenues for foreign secretary Robin Cook to explore in his drive to make the country 'once again a force for good in the world'

In one of his moments of greatest popularity, Robin Cook, the foreign secretary, told his officials in May that part of their mission was to give British foreign policy "an ethical dimension". The aim was to make Britain, in Cook's words, "once again a force for good in the world".

In arguing for this, Cook contrasted a foreign policy with "ethical content" to one based on "narrow realpolitik". He is not alone in making this distinction. His critics, retired Foreign Office mandarins and former Downing Street advisers - together with their academic supporters - contrast what they call "moralising" with their own more "hard-headed" approach, which attempts to "balance" power and morality. What they fail to recognise is that realpolitik is not morality free. Realpolitik is an applied ethics that privileges the sovereign state, narrowly defines the moral community, sees international laws and norms as simply instrumental, rather than good in themselves, and believes that the ends justify the means. It is the applied ethics of state selfishness.

Cook's old-guard critics argue that foreign policy is best left in the hands of professionals rather than with those they dismiss as moralisers. They claim that criticising the domestic policies of other countries risks losing influence with important trading and strategic partners, that "gesture" politics is no substitute for prudent calculations of the national interest, that diplomacy and trade require prudent calculations, that cutting off trade because we disapprove of the policies of another country only opens the door to our commercial competitors, and that "morality" and human rights are not the keys to punching above our weight internationally - power and prestige are.

Such arguments are easily rebutted. Labour is not about to lead a moral "crusade". It is worth noting that Cook placed "the promotion of our values" (British values such as basic human rights), together with other explicitly ethical considerations, as the fourth and last of his policy goals, following security, prosperity, and quality of life. Nor is Cook threatening to carry out his policy in ignorance of what might work in a particular instance. On the point about losing influence with important trading partners, the key question is: "Influence with whom?" There may be serious risk of losing influence with an existing regime if one makes a stand, through sanctions, or cancelling a deal, but if that regime's human rights record is so appalling that such stances are justified, its future is probably in doubt. It then makes better politics to identify with the opposition. Nelson Mandela is only the most inspirational reminder that today's political prisoner might be tomorrow's president.

If we refuse to trade with a particularly oppressive regime, there may be also be a price to pay in terms of smaller profits and potential job losses. But it is worth remembering that in 1979 the Iranian revolution suddenly cut off British exports of Pounds 500 million, yet there were no massive redundancies. Alternative contracts might be found, and people will be pushed to discover or invent new employment. We should beware of scare-mongering, learn more about the economics of weapons production (such as the massive subsidies), understand that arms deals with dodgy governments are inherently suspect, promote conversion and diversification in the defence business, and remember that no policy is ever without a price.

In no part of our national life, except for the killing business, do we operate on the principle that "we should export such and such because if we do not our competitors will". We do not say to other manufacturers: "Yes, export child pornography, or hard drugs, and the government will subsidise you, organise trade fairs, and promote your business abroad". If we do not do it for child pornography or hard drugs, why do we think it acceptable when it comes to supporting governments with the instruments by which they maintain control - arbitrary arrests, unfair trials, barbaric punishments, torture, disappearances, and violence against national, ethnic, religious or other groups? We have the burden of knowledge of what our exports might do to those oppressed strangers who want for themselves no more than we want for ourselves. Unless we act to stop such business, history will record us as Britain's willing executioners.

Britain can act now as a "good international citizen" - with teeth. The lessons of the Arms to Iraq scandal and the Scott Inquiry must be operationalised: these include procedures, such as a Freedom of Information Act, as a result of which it will be more difficult for those who act for the state to cover up what they are doing. Human rights and (locally appropriate forms of) democracy are among the bases of long-term justice and stability; we should promote them. We should refuse to sell to oppressive regimes equipment that might be used for internal repression.

The Cold War has been over for nearly a decade, yet the world remains threatened by nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Instead of the nuclear amnesia that has set in, I would like to see the government promote a global conference in 2000 - a millennium project worth its name - in which the international community commits to work towards the elimination of all weapons of mass destruction by the time of the centenary of Hiroshima in 2045.

A policy inspired by the ideals of the Labour Party must include a commitment to reduce the massive inequalities in wealth, which condemn countless millions to live wretched lives and suffer premature deaths. A foreign policy in which doctors and development specialists are honoured more than diplomats and soldiers would be a welcome shift. Duties to strangers do not always have to be high profile or dramatic. It is more feasible to save lives in the daily, global, "silent genocide" by improving public health than by sending in rapid reaction forces when civil order has broken down in faraway places. And we can show we are serious by improving our treatment of asylum seekers, victims of torture, refugees and other victims. Morality is tested by the treatment of the weakest in society, not the strongest.

Being a force for good does not depend solely on the successes or failures of the Foreign Office. We all have some space to support Amnesty International and others committed to human rights, to put money in the collecting boxes of Oxfam and Unicef, to help environmental groups or campaigners against nuclear weapons or the arms trade, and to back those development bodies working to help others look after themselves. Global civil society, committed to world order values, has developed ties between like-minded people here and elsewhere, and sometimes gets results. It can encourage governments to sit at the table (as at Rio, for example) and get judges to change their mind - as was the case with the World Court decision on nuclear weapons. It cannot yet get governments to go as far as some of us would like, but its champions cannot be entirely ignored. We can all play a part in Britain becoming a force for good in the world.

Ken Booth is professor of international politics, University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

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