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Cambridge Review of International Affairs

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

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