Is an ethical foreign policy an impossible dream?

Almost before the dust had settled on Labour’s historic 1997 election win, we were given a glimpse of what “better” might mean.   Just ten days into government, the late Robin Cook MP, announced a new mission statement for his department, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. 

“The Labour Government does not accept that political values can be left behind when we check in our passports to travel on diplomatic business. Our foreign policy must have an ethical dimension and must support the demands of other peoples for the democratic rights on which we insist for ourselves. The Labour Government will put human rights at the heart of our foreign policy and will publish an annual report on our work in promoting human rights abroad.”

It was to be a false dawn.  Just a few days later, it emerged that the UK was still selling military equipment to Indonesia that could, and would be used, to repress their own people and the self-determination movement in East Timor.  It soon became clear that an ethical foreign policy would always be subjugated by the UK government in favour of perceived internal and external economic and diplomatic interests. 

And even with the advent of devolution, so it has remained.  The burd dared to hope that the SNP Government might take a different approach to external affairs.  I and many others – including the late, much missed Allan McCartney – envisaged Scotland joining that honourable band of smaller nations that play an essentially ethical role in global affairs, promoting democracy and human rights and brokering peace. 

Indeed, it is a role that Scots with our strong stance against apartheid, for democracy in Nicaragua and through our ongoing investment in developing countries’ welfare have long auditioned for.  But it seems that such is their desire to show what Scotland can achieve on the world stage if given the chance – an entirely understandable aspiration – the SNP Government has expended little thought or effort into determining  just what kind of role our country might want to play now and more importantly, if independent. 

Thus, this weekend, there has been more bowing and scraping at the altar of all things Chinese with much blawing of our ain trumpet in the process.   We have rolled out the red carpet in order to open export doors and gained bawbees as a result.  A £6million deal (that amounts to less than 0.02% of the Scottish budget by the way) for a supposed green technology investment that Suitably Despairing has exposed as the very un-renewable technology of waste incineration.  An investment that secures the future of the Grangemouth refinery, thus cementing as myth our low carbon aspirations.  Oh, and two pandas.  All of which is great but….

Am I the only one to feel uneasy at our willingness to trade with one of the world’s greatest economic bullies?  Chinese industrial interests are hoovering up the world’s resources at a shocking rate, in order to satisfy the state’s economic imperialism.  Take a look at this article by the BBC’s John Simpson about Mount Toromocho in Peru.  The Chinese have bought the mountain and will mine it until it disappears.  The same is going on all over Africa.

Yet, there are other economic superpowers to engage with: France, Germany, Italy, India and Brazil all feature in the top ten global list, yet if we are bending over backwards to do more business with them, we hear little of it.  And in terms of fastest growing economies in 2010, Scotland can take its pick from Vietnam, Sudan, Chile, the Maldives, Guyana and oh look, Ireland.  Yes in population terms the gains would be less but our consciences would be much clearer surely, from engaging with less rapacious nations.

Then there is the thorny issue of democratisation and human rights, or the lack thereof.  China continues to persecute its own people, and those in countries like Tibet.  It continues to support the despotic regimes in North Korea and Myanmar.  It affords women in particular such a lowly status that Chinese female babies are often aborted, smothered at birth or dumped in orphanages.  The removal of whole communities in the way of vital infrastructure for the Beijing Olympics was stunningly repressive and harrowing.  The angry response by the Chinese government to the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to Liu Xiaobo for his “long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights” shows how far it still has to travel, in spite of all the promises made in return for the award of the Olympic Games. 

The burd is not some political naif.  I get the arguments for economic and diplomatic engagement with China – huge population; if not us; better to encourage reform from the inside etc – and on one level they make sense.  But do we have to?  Are we so unsure of our place in the world and the role we could play that we feel impotent to control and direct our relationships with other nations?

Sadly, it would seem so.  In which case, an ethical foreign policy for Scotland, as either a devolved or independent nation, will remain an impossible dream.


4 thoughts on “Is an ethical foreign policy an impossible dream?

  1. Pingback: A Review of Scottish Blogs week ending 15 Jan 2011 « A Review of Scotland's Blogs

  2. Quite agree – Panda Economics a joke. Glad-handing the Chinese is Google Politics wi Eck playing Nixon. Not sure you can ignore the biggest growing economy in the world though, but you could play it better.

    Of course the reply will rightly be that you can’t play your part internationally until you yourself are a nation. The Fossil Fuel levy scandal being a specific.

    Aideen has more on shaping this within the current settlement here:


  3. Brilliant post. Spot on. Why no analysis on this score in the media. Are we all so dopey? All so maxed out on news of snow and shopping?

    • Thank you for those kind comments and I echo your thoughts. I don’t know if you saw the recorded piece on Newsnicht last night which shamefully posited an entirely pro Sino piece with no analysis whatsoever from any other quarter? So much for unbiased broadcasting!

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