Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Hague falls into the ethical foreign policy trap

One of the few areas in which the current UK government's existence can be described as an improvement on the last has been a weakening of the rhetoric of moral superiority in foreign policy.  The late Robin Cook upped the stakes drastically when the e-word was introduced into the vocabulary, making Blair's bellicosity and entry into at least one illegal and one dubious military action hypocritical as well as wrong.

Until now, give or take the anti-European posturing required to avoid being mauled by the lunatic tendency, Hague has been a reasonably good Foreign Secretary.  Despite the right's posturing, the UK is no longer a great power and really only of any consequence when acting in concert with other EU members, and good diplomacy is about realism rather than the stilted windbaggery that Blair emitted whenever he emerged from under Dubya's coat-tails.

Yet the pressure on the EU to remove its arms embargo on Syria looks like the very kind of pseudo-moral opportunism of the New Labour era.  The risk of escalation, as well as the law of unintended consequences, should dominate the calculations of political leaders.  Taking on the odious Syrian regime - a Russian client state - risks too many other area.  It is unclear who or what motivates the Syrian opposition, and it is unclear what the consequences would be for neighbouring states if the country is used as a proxy for conflict between others.

Western intervention in the Middle East has not been benign.  By all means, it should be backing democratic reformers economically and politically, but within the framework set down by the United Nations.  At the same time, should the west wish to enforce international law, the same needs to apply to Israel - a rogue state itself which enjoys seemingly unfettered economic and political licence.  Ethics are vital, but within the context of international law.

The other pragmatic rule for diplomacy is only to get involved where there is a reasonable chance of endorsing the outcome.  You do not score some kind of moral Nectar points from hand-wringing or windy exhortation.

The EU, the USA and Russia have all raised the stakes, paradoxically reducing the chances of a regionally-based and regionally-enforceable solution not just in Syria but for the Palestinians.  Hague (and, lest it be forgotten, Hollande) have engaged in the kind of post-coloinial guilt-posturing that should have gone out with the spectacularly-successful peace envoy, My Little Tony.  A shame, because after three years, the UK has overstepped the mark for a peripheral European state.

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