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Here's the text of a piece I have forthcoming in a US journal 'Cambridge Review of International Affairs', minus footnotes. I was asked to respond to an article by Professor Mervyn Frost of the University of Kent at Canterbury titled - I kid you not - 'Putting the World To Rights: Britain's ethical foreign policy'. 5 March 1999 Response to Mervyn Frost The Systematic Violation of Ethical Norms in British Foreign Policy Eric Herring In this response to Mervyn Frost's paper on ethics and British foreign policy, I do three things. First, I outline my areas of agreement with his position. Second, I point out areas which require further exploration to get closer to confirmation or otherwise of Frost's view that his ethical theory and the ethical theory implicit in the Foreign Office’s Mission Statement dovetail neatly. Third, and most important, I argue that Frost and the British government have something in common which is not acknowledged in Frost's paper - that is, a view of foreign policy ethics as being what 'we' do about them out there, and a blindness to 'our' systematic violation of ethical norms. Challenging this tendency is at the heart of what I call radical security studies. Let me start with the common ground, which is substantial. I agree with Frost that foreign policy statements and actions inevitably have ethical meaning and implications. Even the claim that talk of ethics is dangerous nonsense when it comes to foreign policy is itself an ethical position. I have also found the central thesis of Frost's book Ethics in International Relations - that state and individual rights can be accommodated within what he calls his 'constitutive theory of individuality' - to be very persuasive. His brief article in this journal can only hint at the superb clarity of his book-length argument. His analysis of what is not in the Mission Statement - such as realist notions of states and sovereignty, liberal notions of markets, socialist notions of class and communitarian notions of multi-culturalism - is a fascinating dissection. His argument that the Mission Statement reads like a constitutive ethics text, in which Britain's individual ethical goals can only be achieved - indeed only understood - in a collective context is in many ways persuasive. And, as he says, it is helpful that the Mission Statement lays out explicit ethical standards against which its policies can be criticised. Next, I would like to examine briefly the possible areas of tension between Frost’s position and that of the British Government. The sub-title of Frost's article is 'Britain's Ethical Foreign Policy'. If he is claiming that all foreign policies are ethical in the sense that they inevitably tell us something about the ethics of the foreign policy actor, then the claim is true but banal. On this basis Hitler's foreign policy of lebensraum was ethical. Furthermore, his usage is not that of the Foreign Office. Foreign Secretary Robin Cook has taken pains to argue that he is not seeking to promote an ethical foreign policy, but a foreign policy with an ethical dimension. Indeed, he has tried to move away from the word 'ethical' towards an emphasis on promising to work where possible for human rights. Cook’s implicit argument is that foreign policy with an ethical dimension is less demanding and more realistic than an ethical foreign policy. I don't think there is necessarily a contradiction between Frost and the British Government here, but the possibility needs closer examination. Also worth considering is whether other Foreign Office statements, or the positions of other arms of the British Government such as the Ministry of Defence or Department of Trade and Industry, follow a constitutive line or diverge from it. It may be that Frost is too quick to project the perspective in the Foreign Office Mission Statement onto the government as a whole. A last area of tension I wish to raise is: did everything suddenly change with the election of Blair’s government? Can the British state change its spots so easily? My central point of criticism of the article is that Frost signs up fully to the British Government’s self-image and image of others in which the problem of ethics in British foreign policy is a problem of ‘putting the world to rights’, as Frost’s title phrases it. In other words, the problem is how to stop others doing things which violate our sense of right and wrong. Invisible here is the way that Britain is a vigorous and systematic violator of the ethics professed in the Mission Statement. Consider Frost's comment: 'In many cases, the present British government's foreign policies and practices have failed to meet the ethical criteria incorporated in the original document. However, this should not blind us to the significance of its having taken an explicit position in the first place.' It should be the other way round - the British government's adoption of explicit ethical criteria should not blind us to the significance of its failure in many cases to live up to those criteria. My contention is that Frost does indeed suffer from that blindness. Consider Frost’s representation of my position on Iraq: 'Critics point to the thousands who have died as a result of what might be termed "collateral" damage from economic and military sanctions against the regime'. First of all, the figure I gave was a minimum of 400,000 deaths up to a possible 1,500,000 - and these are United Nations figures which the British government accepts: hundreds of thousands or even over a million, not thousands. Second, my argument was not that these deaths are collateral damage - that is, unintentional suffering which has occurred as the result of trying to do something else (such as limit Iraq’s military production). The policy has been one of deliberately inflicting maximum misery on the civilian population - such as banning the importation of chemotherapy drugs, painkillers, tampons, children’s toys, syringes, shrouds, catheters for babies and a vast array of other goods - in the (at best questionable) belief that that will make them overthrow Saddam Hussein. The official British line - that Iraqi can buy all the food and medicines it needs for its people under the UN’s ‘oil for food’ programme but is refusing to buy them and is deliberately withholding much of what it does buy to gain international sympathy - is a fundamentally misleading half-truth. This can be shown from the UN’s own detailed documentation. When Iraq requests food and medicine, it is often prevented from buying them due to British and US vetoes on the UN sanctions committee. The main reasons for the suffering and deaths - according to the United Nations - are the economic sanctions and continued bombings which prevent Iraq from raising the permitted funds (exacerbated by low oil prices), from acquiring the necessary transport to distribute the aid, from rebuilding the necessary infrastructure to sustain life, and from meeting basic needs such as clean water. Saddam Hussein is prepared to cause and exploit human suffering for political gain - and so is the British government. In this the most important example of British sanctions policy, the issue is not whether the British government is doing enough to, as Frost puts it: ‘support international sanctions aimed at ending human rights abuses’. Actually, the issue is trying to stop the British government from using sanctions as a means of deliberately perpetrating human rights abuses in the (faint) hope that the Iraqi people will be so degraded and desperate that they will take on the terrifying security apparatus of Saddam Hussein. This sort of dishonesty and callousness is not an isolated case in British foreign policy. In opposition, Cook condemned the sale by Britain of Hawk aircraft to Indonesia on the grounds that they are used as part of Indonesia’s genocidal war against the East Timorese. In government, Cook claims that export licences for Hawks granted under the previous British government cannot be rescinded by the present government for legal reasons. The implicit view that the Genocide Convention can be over-ridden by a commercial contract is ridiculous. British foreign policy regarding two vital cases, Iraq and East Timor, is hardly about what Frost refers to as ‘fostering free individuality’. In a world of consistent standards, Tony Blair and Robin Cook would stand trial for crimes against humanity and for arming genocide, and be derided for their dishonesty and hypocrisy, not be lauded for their ethical foreign policy. ---------------------- Dr. Eric Herring Department of Politics University of Bristol 10 Priory Road Bristol BS8 1TU England, UK Tel. +44-(0)117-928-8582 Fax +44-(0)117-9732133 http://www.bris.ac.uk/Depts/Politics Eric.Herring@bristol.ac.uk -- ----------------------------------------------------------------------------- This is a discussion list run by Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq. To be removed/added, email email@example.com, NOT the whole list. Archived at http://linux.clare.cam.ac.uk/~saw27/casi/discuss.html