Joyce McMillan: Foreign policy needs ethical basis

Robin Cook listens to then US under secretary of state Strobe Talbot on the Kosovo crisis in 1999. Picture: AP
Robin Cook listens to then US under secretary of state Strobe Talbot on the Kosovo crisis in 1999. Picture: AP
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Almost a decade after his death, Robin Cook’s case for moral principles resonates more than ever, writes Joyce McMillan

IT MUST be almost 17 years since the night I turned up at a small meeting room somewhere in central Edinburgh to hear Robin Cook make the case for the constitutional reforms being proposed by the Labour Party in the upcoming 1997 general election.

Robin Cook was then just 51, at the height of his powers, and thoroughly enjoying the task of demolishing the arguments of the then Conservative government – and their scaremongering allies in business and the media – that the mere introduction of a devolved Scottish Parliament would see the collapse of the Scottish economy.

The story of the remaining eight years of Robin Cook’s life has now become part of British political history.

Of course his four years as foreign secretary in the first Blair government of 1997, his demotion in 2001 to the role of Leader of the House, and his breathtakingly powerful Commons speech of 17 March 2003, when, alone among his colleagues, he resigned from Tony Blair’s Cabinet over the decision to go to war in Iraq, will be of most note.

Yet this week, as Russian-backed troops sought to establish military control over the Ukrainian province of Crimea and the world struggled to find an appropriate response, I thought again of Robin Cook’s contribution to UK politics.

I thought of his time at the Foreign Office, when he attracted much derision from the British establishment by declaring that in order to achieve its goals in an increasingly globalised world, UK foreign policy should have a clear “ethical dimension”, and a willingness to live up to the high principles often publicly declared by British goverments.

Cook was only arguing that in terms of long-term strategy, the national interest could not be defined entirely in terms of “narrow realpolitik”.

Yet in a country deeply involved in the global arms trade, and with a known track-record of selling weaponry to any number of violent and oppressive regimes, his mild words clearly threatened some very serious interests and much ink and air-time was expended on the effort to dismiss Cook as a joker and a fool.

Today though – almost a decade after Cook’s sudden death in 2005 – it is becoming increasingly apparent just how right he was, in his assessment of the weakness of a foreign policy without a clear ethical basis.

Faced with the current crisis in Crimea, the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom, in particular, have barely a fig-leaf of credibility with which to cover themselves, as they try to take the moral high ground against President Putin’s apparent disregard for the national sovereignty of Ukraine, and his cynical use of human rights concerns as a pretext for military action.

If Britain had continued to pursue an ethically based foreign policy instead of constructing a largely fraudulent case for intervention in Iraq, it would not now be in a position where every schoolchild in the developing world can point a finger at its hypocrisy in criticising President Putin’s action in Crimea.

If Britain and the US had not, over the last 20 years, turned themselves into a byword for dubious and often illegal military action outside their own territory, they would not now find it so difficult to form successful international military alliances against genuine abuses of power, as in the increasingly horrific war in Syria.

And if they had not, over those years, so severely undermined the possibility of enduring political co-operation with large and vital parts of the developing world, they might by now have been far more successful in securing the much-needed reform and strengthening of the United Nations.

This is essential if effective systems of intervention in tragedies such as the Syrian one are ever to emerge; a reform which was one of the main planks of the new British foreign policy set out by Robin Cook in May 1997.

And as we survey the shambles of the west’s current response to the Crimean crisis – the confusion, the lack of preparedness, the terror of negative economic consequences at home, the absence of any viable or legal military options, and the utter lack of moral authority in the eyes of most of the world – we should perhaps reflect on the reasons why Robin Cook’s wisdom was rejected by large sections of the British establishment.

We should seek to avoid making the same mistake in future.

People who are involved in profitable wrong-doing, after all, invariably react to the sound of the word “ethics” like vampires to a whiff of garlic.

They rage, they sneer, they seek to dismiss the whole idea of ethical conduct as at best irrelevant, and at worst naive, stupid and treacherous.

Some, in our neoliberal age, take the argument further, developing an entire theory of human nature and society based on the idea that narrow financial self-interest is the main driver of human behaviour, and that every other alleged motive is mere hypocrisy.

All the evidence of history, though, suggests that such morally corrupt and cynical systems are neither rational nor sustainable, and are incapable of meeting the equally fundamental human need to live in a just and convivial society.

Their greed and injustice eventually provokes a backlash that sweeps them away, often amid much blood and horror.

In seeking to embed a strong element of ethical wisdom in the British foreign policy of the early 21st century, Robin Cook was looking towards the future, and trying to spare us from that fate.

In the end, a system wedded to the gods of short-term profit chewed him up, and spat him out.

Yet his words remain and the longer we take to act on them, the more likely we are to live through a succession of days like these, when we watch thugs with guns trampling roughshod over peace, justice and the rule of law and find ourselves without the structures, the means, or the authority to do anything about it at all.