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25 October 1999

Mandarins, guns and morals

A battle is being fought in Whitehall, with supporters of arms sales on one side and disciples of an

By John Lloyd

The ethical dimension to foreign policy, launched over two years ago soon after the Labour administration took office, is now in great danger. It has been one of the boldest initiatives taken by a major state to shift foreign policy on to new tracks; to reset the practice of diplomacy from an exercise dominated by realpolitik to one that embraces both interdependence and practical observation of human rights; and to begin to set some observable standards in the arms trade in both the UK and the European Union. Yet it now risks being sidelined.

This was highlighted by the visit to London of Jiang Zemin, the Chinese head of state. On any count – diplomatic, strategic, trade – China is the crucial partner for both the US and the European Union in the next century. Yet its human rights record is appalling, both in its suppression of religious, cultural and civil rights in Tibet and in its treatment of the hundreds of thousands of political prisoners in China itself. Any “ethical dimension” risks being reduced to a pro forma mention of British unease.

The irony is that the failure of the ethical dimension to root itself in practice is partly founded on success. The war in Kosovo was undertaken for largely humanitarian reasons and was advertised as being an example of the ethical dimension in practice. Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, said in an interview with the New Statesman in July that “I’ve always said that I wanted human rights, democracy and freedom – the place where human rights, democracy and freedom have been challenged over this past year has been in Kosovo, and we’ve asserted these values”.

But the peace was always going to be more difficult than a war that Nato could not afford to lose, and which it had the weapons to win. This is hardly discussed in the UK but is very much a live issue in the US, where there was strong political and public opinion resistance to the war and where there has been a considerable backlash against US forces taking part in a war in central Europe in which the US provided most of the weaponry, flew most of the missions and took most of the risks.

In a speech in London two weeks ago, the US Deputy Secretary of State, Strobe Talbott, said that it was “too early to tell” if the action had been a success because “the ultimate verdict on Kosovo will depend on the effect the war and its aftermath have on transatlantic attitudes . . . Many Americans are saying: never again should the US have to fly the lion’s share of the risky missions in a Nato operation and foot by far the biggest bill.”

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This is not just an American perception. Joschka Fischer is the German politician who ditched his former green pacifism to be Germany’s first foreign minister since the war to oversee Wehrmacht troops in combat in a foreign country. He said soon after the Serbs had retreated that “the sad truth is that Kosovo showed that Europe is still not able to solve its own problems”.

Kosovo has gone on to show that Europe is finding it just as hard to cope with the Balkan peace. Led by Germany during its presidency in the first half of this year, the EU pledged to administer a “Marshall Plan for the Balkans” – a reconstruction programme both for the Balkan states (except Serbia while Slobodan Milosevic remains in power) and the surrounding countries. But almost nothing has been done; and the US has been enraged by private suggestions from European officials that, having paid for the war, it should now bear a large share of the burden of reconstruction.

Thus the really “ethical” part of the intervention – the rebuilding of infrastructure, and with it of a civil society – is withering for lack of funds. The Europeans’ failure to collaborate without an American presence is not all that has been revealed by the end of the Kosovo war; there is a philosophical issue about humanitarian wars in general, whose implications still have to be faced.

Humanitarian wars are wars fought without recourse to a fundamental – or even any – national interest. They are, in the derisive slang of some of the US military, “CNN” or “Bleeding Heart” wars – fought because a significant section of the public and political class has come to believe that “something must be done” about the latest horror to hit the news programmes. But their support is shallow – as the US learnt when it began taking casualties in Somalia in the last weeks of the Bush administration. Dead US soldiers dramatically decrease the support for wars. The politicians and commanders who undertake these wars thus search for ways in which to fight without casualties – which means not engaging ground troops and relying on laser-guided weaponry.

Two analysts who thought the war worth fighting, Ivo Daalder and Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, who wrote Kosovo: anatomy of a crisis, say that “a B-2 bomber is simply not a very effective instrument to stop genocide committed largely with machetes or even machine guns. That task calls for ground troops – and usually rather more than less. Once troops are deployed, the aim must be to achieve the object decisively in order to minimise risk to US and allied forces.”

The still unanswered question about the Kosovo intervention is: did it cause more deaths than if it had not happened? It seems that Serb killing squads did step up their atrocities during the Nato engagement – even though they were expelling Albanians before the intervention. If that is so, was it nevertheless “worth it” in order to draw a line that Milosevic would be finally constrained to recognise, and to get the Albanians back to their homes?

In April, as the war was cranking up and as a chorus of commentators wrote that it was unwinnable, Tony Blair gave a speech in Chicago on “the international community”. In it, he said that the “most pressing foreign policy problem we face is to identify the circumstances in which we should get actively involved in other people’s conflicts . . . The principle of non-interference must be qualified in important respects . . . We need to find a new way to make the UN and its Security Council work . . . This should be a matter for the Permanent Five [on the Security Council] to consider once the Kosovo conflict is complete.” It was a fine and thoughtful speech; yet nothing has come of it. The “most pressing foreign policy problem” remains – pressing.

David Held, the professor of sociology at the Open University and the principal author of a recent and remarkable book, Global Transformations, says that the change in foreign policy can be encapsulated by considering two conflicts separated by only a few years: the Gulf war and the Kosovo intervention. “The first of these was fought for old interests – the security of energy supplies and to preserve the integrity of a friendly state. The second, Kosovo, was fought on principles which had nothing to do with state interests, or indeed with religious beliefs. It was what I call a war of the new cosmopolitanism. However, when you’re doing foreign policy you also have to deal with the real world, and with issues like the balance of power and realpolitik; so at the moment it’s very hard; policy-makers and politicians have to shuttle between two worlds, the cosmopolitan and interdependent one and the nation state which still demands its old ways.”

A reduction in arms exports to authoritarian or dictatorial countries, an important element of the ethical dimension, is endangered in the UK by being overtly championed by departments such as the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development – and being covertly opposed by the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Trade and Industry.

In its Human Rights Audit of UK foreign and asylum policy, published last month, Amnesty International commended the government for its “genuine and active commitment to human rights in a number of areas” – but said that the DTI was “out of step” with the foreign departments and was “not meeting its responsibility to promote trade in a manner not harmful to human rights”. It pointed to only a tiny number of licences refused for arms exports to countries with bad human rights records – including Indonesia – and said that the DTI’s actions “had been characterised by delay and inefficiency in implementing the human rights concerns that are central to the government’s stated policy”.

Saferworld, the NGO-cum-think-tank that specialises in the arms trade, in an independent audit of the government’s second annual report on the arms trade, agreed that the government had made improvements in the scrutiny of the trade but had done little to diminish it. Export licences had been granted, it says, for arms shipments to 42 countries with bad records against the government’s own stated criteria. Clearly a Whitehall war was being won by the DTI. Three years after a new regime on arms exports was recommended by the Scott report, little had been done.

No one will comment about the Whitehall battle between the Foreign Office on the one hand and the DTI and MoD on the other. But it is one of the defining struggles of new Labour – and is not yet over. Cook scored some early successes; in talks with the Indonesian foreign minister during the handover of Hong Kong to Chinese rule two years ago, he made it clear that certain types of weapons would no longer be exported to Indonesia – and, say insiders, none have been (though the obscurity of the export licence statistics prevents verification of this). He took the lead in negotiating a Europe-wide code on arms sales – but this is presently under review, and there is no evidence it has begun to bite on sales.

Cook, a long-time campaigner against arms sales, nuclear weaponry and breaches of human rights, has been brought hard up against the central fact of the British economy: one of its most advanced and successful sectors is arms production, and that sector employs over 200,000 workers, directly and indirectly, many in areas of high unemployment. The aviation and armaments maker Shorts, for example, is now Belfast’s biggest employer, while Vickers is largely based in the north of England, where jobs are scarcer and pay lower than elsewhere.

David Held says that “arms exports are a huge moral bind for any government taking human rights seriously. Countries such as Britain made arms production a central national concern, and they are now a central national export and source of employment. Yet you cannot take the ethical dimension seriously unless the arms trade is confronted and reduced. You cannot preach ethics to other nations when you are one of the world’s top three suppliers.”

The ethical dimension is now in a delicate position. Either the main western states back it up in real terms – with resources and a real diminution in the arms trade – or it will have to be put aside as a major element of foreign policy. It is and was a good idea; but perhaps its time has not come, because we cannot be induced, or our politicians do not try to induce us, to make the sacrifices it requires.

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