SNP needs to get real about foreign policy in a complicated world – Alastair Stewart

The unfolding crisis in Afghanistan is a tragedy that has exposed policy fault lines across the UK.

Crowds of people wait outside the foreign military-controlled part of Kabul airport on Sunday night, hoping to flee the country following the Taliban's military takeover of Afghanistan (Picture: Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images)

Nicola Sturgeon is demanding the UK government goes further and faster on Afghan refugees. Her government has also called for a four-nations summit.

The crisis is a constitutional quagmire. Scotland does not have a foreign policy as international relations is a reserved matter. But the SNP perpetually condescend to the UK government. They seldom present solutions beyond the obvious: when Scotland is independent, we will do it our way and do it better.

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Unfortunately, international relations is a remarkably neglected area of the independence argument. There is a plentitude of strategies and frameworks from the Scottish government, but they are all predicated on the dubious conviction that Scotland would be a “good global citizen”.

As a small country, Scotland could only react to bigger events, not shape a global agenda. Geopolitics is a game of hard knocks, and even the UK, as a nuclear power, is relegated to the second tier. The ‘special relationship’ is an embarrassing crutch for successive UK leaders to feel globally relevant. Scotland might talk about moralpolitik, but it would have no means to enforce it.

US President Joe Biden's ‘America First’ approach to Afghanistan is a cold splash of water for allies that deluded themselves as to their influence. A civilised global society is an illusion; the modern era is still organised along political and economic lines similar to those of the Second World War. The political scientist Hans Morgenthau called it the “twilight of international morality” in which values and acceptable behaviours vary. Churchill said it better – morality and alliances change like women's fashions.

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Do we have Scottish politicians prepared to navigate this minefield if we were to be an independent nation? The rhetoric seldom matches reality. Would Nicola Sturgeon or Patrick Harvie pressure, cajole and threaten change to protect lives? Moralpolitik is the art of the possible only if international conditions allow it.

So far, the track record isn't great. Alex Salmond was on the wrong side of history when he condemned Britain's involvement in Nato airstrikes on Yugoslavia as an “unpardonable folly”. The Independent reported at the time that a quarter of Scots polled said Mr Salmond's condemnation of the Nato bombing of Yugoslavia “made them less likely to vote SNP”.

The Scottish government provoked general ire over the release of Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi in 2009. By 2012, Salmond allegedly snubbed the Dalai Lama's visit to Scotland to assuage Chinese government sensibilities. And he notoriously said Vladimir Putin's patriotism was "entirely reasonable".

More recently, the Scottish Greens called on the Scottish government to stop support for companies profiting from the war in Yemen. Climate campaigners even confronted Nicola Sturgeon over failure to oppose the Cambo North Sea oilfield. It is telling that international relations is excluded from the SNP-Green cooperation agreement, and yet both parties suffer a disconnect between reality and rhetoric.

There is a dangerous conflation between soft and hard power. Scottish exceptionalism is fuelled by our influence on global culture, not global politics. Our leaders mistake whisky, tartan, science, technology, medicine, literature, and music as global muscle.

Dr Natalia Dinello, director of the global residencies programme at George Washington University, points out that Scotland “has already charmed many generations of global citizens through its cultural brilliance. Scotland brings people of various nations together by instilling the values of dignity, bravery, adventure, simple kindness, mystery, and romanticism.”

Is our reputation deluding us? Some in the SNP and Greens think that because Scotland says it will be a good guy, then the world will reciprocate. Would we seek regional alliances if the aim was 'good'? Would the ends justify the means? Would we block, embargo and sanction countries with dubious human rights records? Would we buy off enemies to win hearts and minds? Would we bomb today to save tomorrow?

Even a comparably sized country like the Czech Republic was accused of land-grabbing by Lichtenstein. It had limited diplomatic relations until 2009. We can talk about being a "good global citizen" until we're blue in the face, but it won't negate the anarchy of the international system.

All countries compromise their principles to foreign policy realities. Would Scotland renounce “the manufacture and possession of and control over nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons" but host tactical nuclear bombs, as Germany does? Would we have an actual or token defence budget? Would we accept a military-industrial complex and permit foreign bases, troops and equipment as part of broader defence pacts?

The SNP and Greens have a concerning amount of growing up to do when it comes to foreign policy. Both parties have the freedom to moralise, posture and condemn everyone else because they hold spectator status on foreign policy decisions. Their response will always be an idyllic, textbook answer instead of one determined by budgets, treaties, realpolitik, international security, and an abundance of other factors hammered out and debated across every level of government.

What the pro-independence parties should be advocating is a moral principle, not moral absolutism. Morgenthau posited that “the moral strategy” of politics is to “try to choose the lesser evil”.

If you need to make tough policy choices in an unrelenting world, do the least amount of harm. It could be a vote winner for its pragmatism and demonstrate these parties are serious statesmen on the world stage.

If Scotland is ambitious about foreign policy, our governing political parties must embrace pragmatism and be frank with the electorate. The world, as one philosopher put it, “ain't all sunshine and rainbows”.

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