An Ethical Foreign Policy?
by Samuel Brittan
Hinton Lecture 11/24/99
It is an honour to be asked to give the
second of your annual Hinton Lectures. I did not have the privilege
of knowing Nicholas Hinton, after whom this series was named.
Hinton was best known for his ten years running Save the Children.
After that he became first president of the International Crisis
Group and died from a heart attack while working for the group
in Croatia in 1997. His example has encouraged me in giving this
lecture an international flavour.
I have always been a great believer in
voluntary organisations. This is not just a conventional platitude.
It arises from the view that a free society cannot function if
the only force modifying the individual's own self interest is
the state. The case for intermediate organisations to carry out
activities of public or group interest without compulsion was
most eloquently put forward by the 19th century French writer,
Alexis de Tocqueville, in his famous book Democracy in America
(1). He was struck by the large number of organisations of every
kind to which citizens belonged; for him this was just as important
as the American constitution or the free market in promoting the
health of the new society which he found there.
But what in my case has enlivened this
belief has been the fate of the former Soviet Union after the
collapse of Communism. There are of course a few political parties
and pressure groups. But there is nothing like the complex network
of voluntary bodies which exists in Western Europe and the United
States and which are beginning to emerge in other former Communist
countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic. These constitute
what the Czech president Vaclav Havel, among others, calls civil
society. Their absence has surely a great deal to do with the
disorder into which Russia has fallen and the prevalence of what
is called rather charitably "Mafia capitalism". When
there is only the state to promote public spirited action, then
the state itself is likely to lose much of its authority.
But having made this strong statement,
I have to confess that I have had little experience myself of
working for voluntary organisations. My decision nevertheless
to accept your kind invitation was strongly reinforced by the
example of Lady Warnock, who chose to make her subject a fascinating
series of moral reflections on the nature of altruism. I have
to admit that her lecture has provoked me into stating a somewhat
different position. Indeed I am citing overseas military intervention
mainly to illustrate a view of good conduct I have long held,
which differs both from the conventional pieties and from hard-boiled
Morality and Foreign Policy
Unlike Lady Warnock, I am not a professional
philosopher. But "philosophical" problems are thrown
up all the time in both our public and our private lives. Nor
do I believe that everyone's opinion is as good as everyone else's.
Scholars who have spent their careers investigating the logic
of moral and other statements have had an indispensable contribution
to make from Socrates onwards. But unless the discussion is to
be confined to the two extremes of the academic world and the
bar room pundits, there must be room for those of us who have
reflected on the logic of some moral issues without any claim
to professional status. To put it in the vernacular: a cat may
look at a king.
My subject - what we might mean by "a
foreign policy with an ethical dimension" - is concerned
with high politics rather than the voluntary activities to which
you give such dedicated service. In fact Hinton in his last years
not merely gave a lead to voluntary effort in the world's trouble
spots. He also undertook a rigid scrutiny of the claims of the
Nato Command and the Organisation of Security and Co-operation
in Europe (OSCE) which ran the Bosnia elections. But my main excuse
for concentrating on government actions rather than voluntary
effort on the ground is that my day job has always been concerned
with policy analysis.
The subject of "Morality and Foreign
Policy" is one which has preoccupied me for a very long time.
Indeed, it was the topic of my own first extended essay after
I had ceased to be an undergraduate (2). It was written in the
aftermath of the Suez crisis of 1956 in which the Eden government
and its French allies colluded with the Israelis to find a pretext
for invading Egypt in the unfulfilled hope of overthrowing the
government of Colonel Nasser which had seized the Suez canal.
At the time of Suez there was a fierce
argument between those who thought that foreign policy should
be concerned with so-called national interest and those who believed
that it should be governed by moral considerations as well, one
of which included an inhibition on invading another country whose
government had not committed physical aggression or embarked on
gross violation of human rights.
Over the years the protagonists have changed
position. At the time of Suez, it was the hard-boiled realists
who were in favour of military intervention and the moralists
who were against it . In recent instances, such as Kosovo, the
moralists of the centre left have been the greatest enthusiasts
for such intervention, and it is the hard-boiled right who have
been hostile, or at least very cautious. But although the protagonists
have changed sides, the underlying issues remain the same.
Analysis has been bedevilled by two extreme,
but widely held views. The first might be called universal moralism
to which I will come in a minute. The second is the view that
foreign policy should be exclusively concerned with national interest.
The French raison d'etat conveys the meaning better. For it really
has nothing to do with modern nationalism as such. It could equally
be the view that foreign policy should have been exclusively concerned
with promoting the interests of the multinational Hapsburg empire
of the 19th century, or for that matter of the ancient Roman Empire.
The second and opposite extreme might
be called universal moralism. The best way into is to re-examine
the so-called golden rule. which is widely regarded as the foundation
of good behaviour. I have seen this stated in at least two different
ways. The first is:-"Do unto others what you would that they
should do unto you"
The second is:-"Love thy neighbour
With the first version, I have no quarrel,
despite Bernard Shaw's flippant remark that other people might
have different tastes and dislike intensely things that you might
not mind having done to yourself. I am sure this form of the rule
can be rephrased to counter Shaw's objection!
I have greater problems with the more
familiar "Love thy neighbour as thyself". I am going
to suggest that you should have some degree of love for your neighbour,
but that it need not be the same as for yourself or your immediate
To elaborate just a little: there is nothing
to be ashamed of if you give the greatest weight to our own family
circle; a good deal of weight, but not quite so much, to your
friends or professional associates; some weight to fellow citizens
of your own country, and lesser but by no means negligible weight
to other people in distant areas.
I have called these the successive circles
of obligation. They will vary from person to person. Some people,
if they are being honest, would give more weight to members of
their own profession or people with similar interests in other
countries than they would to distant and unknown citizens of their
My point is that we can live with these
successive circles of obligation. The result is likely to be a
more humane and altruistic world than if we pay lip service to
a system of equal obligation to everyone, but are almost never
able to live up to it in practice. What I cannot accept is that
we replace the old diplomacy of non-intervention in internal affairs
with some new principles of abstract justice to be pursued though
the heavens fall.
What I am saying is thus somewhat opposed
to the view that moral principles are universal prescriptive statements.
Prescriptive yes, universal no.
Some philosophers maintain that universalism
is a purely logical thesis deriving from the meaning of moral
terms. But if it is a purely logical principle, this means that
it depends on the definition of words and nothing can follow about
Many of the considerations which philosophers
have in mind when they say that moral principles must be universal
can be taken care of by a less ambitious word such as "impersonal".
When we come to public policy, some such concept is necessary
if those in authority are to do something other than just promote
their own personal preferences.
My argument is with those who do assert
universalism as a actual substantive norm. They concede that human
beings are often not able to live up to it, but insist that they
should carry on trying. One danger is that people give up the
effort as too difficult and lapse into indifference An alternative
route -- which leads to the greatest disasters -- is to restrict
its scope to fellow nationals and give zero weight to people in
other countries. This is a bad moral position, but is sometimes
disguised as a positive statement about the world, e.g. when it
is said that foreign policy is only concerned with national interest.
Another way out is to stick with the universalist
prescriptions; but to go on to say that the best way to observe
them in practice is for people to carry out their local and immediate
obligations; and if they do so human welfare will be served better
in total than if they try vainly to give as much attention to
Mongolian peasants suffering from war or famine as to their own
children, parents or spouses.
For instance, it is said, that even if
her objective is to promote equally the welfare of all children
in the world, each mother would serve this purpose better by giving
closest attention to her own children and promoting the welfare
of others only as a subsidiary activity.
This is better than either extreme of
saying that other children do not matter or neglecting one's own
children for the sake of the world. But, like most rules of thumb,
it has severe limitations. To begin with, it is not entirely honest.
The view that we have primary responsibility to our own children
does not depend on the belief that we are also serving other children
best that way. Looked at from the altruistic point of view, it
may not even be sufficient. One's obligations to other children
may be less than to one's own; but it may not be true that these
lesser obligations are best promoted by forgetting about them
and by preaching to others to look after their own.
In my original paper I expressed myself
in favour of a weighting system, whereby different weights were
assigned to interests of people outside our own circle in diminishing
circles of obligation. But I am now in two minds about how far
to go down the road of quantification. Few people would be able
even with the help of a professional moral tutor -- if there is
such a thing -- to quantify such weights. They would differ not
only from individual to individual, but even in the same person
at different times.
These doubts lessen if we move from personal
dealings to national policy. There is no way governments can implement
the contradictory and changing sets of obligations of every one
of their citizens. They have to take some view which they hope
will be moderately acceptable and which will at least not dumb
down the level of moral aspiration of their own populations.
There is an analogy here with decisions
about where to put new airports, or new housing or industrial
development. You can take an absolutist point of view that no
area of natural beauty, no distinguished architectural building,
or much loved familiar landmark, should ever be adversely affected.
But this will never happen. Nor would it be particularly moral
if it did. Those specialists who carry out cost benefit analysis
often have to ask what value is put on a unique perpendicular
church or an attractive piece of woodland, in order to balance
it against the advantages of the proposed new development. If
they simply say that the value of the old landmarks is immeasurable,
they are simply not telling the truth
In every military decision, even in every
decision of foreign policy, there is an implicit weighting system.
Economists will be accused of having a professional bias towards
making this explicit. Yet doing so might make for better or at
least clearer decisions.
The Role of Intervention
Let me now turn to the other extreme view,
that foreign policy should only be concerned with national interest
or raison d'etat.
There are two very different justifications
advanced for saying that foreign policy should be based on hard-headed
calculations of national self interest and not at all on supporting
human rights or preventing atrocities. One is simply to assert
that foreign policy has no concern with such matters. That is
the traditional view of many diplomats and statesmen such as the
French Cardinal Richelieu, the Prussian Otto Bismarck and even
our own Disraeli.
But we do not need to go back to the 18th
or 19th Centuries to find examples of this attitude. For instance,
Lord Bridges has told the House of Lords that he drafted a speech
for Lord Home in 1963 "which took a strong line that there
should be no connection between ethics and foreign policy".
To be fair this is not the attitude that Lord Bridges now takes;
and even in 1963 the draft might have been tongue in cheek, It
has also be said that Lord Home read these notes in the middle
of a long air journey from Karachi to London and became so angry
that he there and then produced the draft of an alternative speech.
But whoever espouses it, the pure "national
interest view" is in fact a moral position disguised as some
profound statement about the nature of international politics.
It is a position that we are free not to hold; and it is in my
view a reprehensible one.
There is another very different justification.
This is to say that in practice the main results of trying to
interfere in the affairs of other countries, when there is no
pressing hard-faced reason for doing so, is to increase rather
than diminish the sum of human misery. This was the view of the
great 19th century Liberal, Richard Cobden; and it has been forcefully
restated by the distinguished US diplomat and historian George
In our own day Lord Dahrendorf has taken
a similar position that "not everything that is morally unacceptable
can be rectified by governments"(2a). But he added that non-
governmental organisations, such as Amnesty, can do a great deal
to assist the victims of oppressive regimes or to care for the
victims of torture. Moreover governments can help create a climate
that is friendly to such non governmental activists. He also hoped
that human rights could become civil rights entrenched in law.
The UK for instance is committed to ratify the statute for an
international criminal court.
I feel sure that Cobden could have accepted
these emendations of his original statement. But what do we do
today if powerful governments do not follow Britain in accepting
this new court? It is not only Russia or China that refuses to
do so, but also the United States. We are then back to the Kosovo
dilemma. Do we wait for an effective system of worldwide law;
or should a smaller group of countries accept and enforce the
There are numerous arguments that can
be given to support the non-interventionist position. Historically,
moral self-righteousness has led to doctrines such as Unconditional
Surrender. These tend to prolong bloodshed and suffering compared
with a willingness to negotiate a peace treaty at an earlier stage.
They may even have played a part in establishing Communist rule
over parts of central and eastern Europe at the end of World War
There is also an element of self-deception.
The late Professor Herbert Butterfield recalled "the tremendous
shock which Hitler's invasion of Norway in 1940 gave to people's
moral susceptibilities. "A pupil of mine, who had been one
of the most authentic of conscientious objectors, and had been
exempted from military service, was so appalled by the attack
that his whole attitude was shaken and he died not very much later
in naval service. I have wondered sometimes what his reaction
would had been if he had lived to know that Great Britain had
had a prior intention of invading Norway - and this even irrespective
of the desire to help Finland - and that Hitler, initially unwilling
to undertake the adventure, had decided to forestall us.".
Another consideration is that it is presumptuous
to suppose that we know enough about the affairs of other people
to intervene successfully in their affairs. Often, with the best
of intentions, we make matters worse. As Cobden once wrote: "In
all my travels ... three reflections constantly occurred to me:
how much unnecessary solicitude and alarm England devotes to the
affairs of foreign countries; with how little knowledge we enter
on the task of regulating the concerns of other people; and how
much better we might employ our energies in improving matters
The pragmatic objection to high principled
intervention can never be absolute. But it does suggest that we
should be extremely careful before embarking on righteous crusades.
The Crusades of the Middle Ages were themselves examples of actions,
which were at least in part high-minded, but led to the pillaging
and destruction of civilisations far more advanced than western
Perhaps the worst example of the moralistic
approach is that it tends to deprive diplomacy of its normal function
of attempting to ease disputes without recourse to war and of
negotiating a settlement when war has broken out. For once a dispute
as seen, not as a conflict of interest, but of struggle between
good and evil, then bargaining with the other side is seen as
at best an odious expedient, and at worst a betrayal of all that
is sacred. This process was at work during the 17th century wars
of religion. In the 20th century its most disastrous fruits have
included the war guilt clauses of the Versaille Treaty and the
doctrine of unconditional surrender employed by the Allies in
World War II.
There is an opposite kind of error. This
is to smother with embraces an unpleasant dictatorship. We obviously
need to deal with Communist China; and it would not help either
us or the Chinese dissidents to cut off trade or diplomatic relations.
But welcoming these awful people to Buckingham Palace is surely
an unnecessary act of self-degradation. It is reminiscent of the
way in which the Royal Family were forced to embrace the rulers
of the Soviet regime which had murdered the Romanovs, who happened
to be their cousins.
There will always be exceptional cases
when the evil being done is clear and obvious and the dangers
of counter-productive action much smaller. An example of the moral
absurdity of the conventional diplomatic view is the alleged reluctance
of the British Foreign Office to take action to save Jews in Europe
at a time the Holocaust and the tendency to play down about what
To come to more recent history. It is
not realistic to criticise the American public for not giving
the same weight to the life of an American soldier as to a Serbian
civilian or a Kosovan victim of Serb atrocity. But American policy
can be criticised for behaving as if the lives of these non-Americans
had zero weight by comparison with those in their own armed forces.
The British prime minister, Tony Blair,
has suggested five considerations which should govern intervention
in favour of human rights (Speech at the Economic Club of Chicago,
April 22, 1999).
- We must be sure of our case.
- We must have exhausted all diplomatic options.
- There must military operations which "we can sensibly and
- We have to be prepared for the long term, so as not to have
to return for a repeat performance.
- The case for intervention is strengthened if national interests
These considerations are an attempt to justify some military intervention
without going to the extreme of "trying to right every wrong
that we see in the modern world, in which case we would do little
else than interfere in the affairs of other countries."
These five considerations were not written
by Alastair Campbell. They were obviously an early attempt to
rationalise what governments have drifted into doing; and pedantic
quibbles are out of place.
The first four considerations are to my
mind broadly acceptable. The fifth, about the existence of national
interest, is an attempt to offset the first four by more hard-
headed considerations which could limit the degree of intervention.
But there is some obfuscation on what national interest means.
The Prime Minister interpreted it to mean
that the Kosovo atrocities and expulsions were "taking place
in such a combustible part of Europe." An alternative justification
is that we have a special sympathy for people who are geographically
close to us and with whom we can identify - but unfortunately
this would not have been regarded as a "politically correct"
way of putting the matter.
Let me try to draw some tentative conclusions
about recent events. It is far too early to say anything final;
and in any case I am not enough of a Balkan expert -- and still
less of a military expert -- for any convincing judgements on
the Kosovo War (6a). What I would really like to do is to offer
a sort of template -- some pointers to look at -- which could
have been helpful at the time and which might help in judging
Let me start by saying that the murder
and torture of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo was prima facie an international
crime. If one were looking at the pre-history of the episode,
the real Nato blunder was not to intervene much earlier after
Milosevic started his campaign against Kosovan Albanians. It was
the failure to act then which made the Serb leader suppose that
he could get away with it and also led to the shift of support
from the earlier moderate Kosovan leadership to the KLA. I wish
I could suppress the thought that these errors of timing had more
to do with President Bill Clinton's domestic political agenda
than with faulty Balkan intelligence.
But we need to tread carefully here. Earlier
American blunders were water under the bridge: and continued US
unwillingness to risk lives was a hard fact which the British
Prime Minister was told in the strongest possible terms to take
Accepting this background, I will take
a sample of the common objections to the military campaign, not
in any particular order, and indicate what I think their force
The most basic objection is that governments
should not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries.
I have dealt with this earlier. It is a good rule of thumb. But
it is not an absolute principle and can have exceptions. We have
the word of the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan that "nothing
in the UN charter that precludes a recognition that there are
rights beyond borders(2b). If we are very confident that the suffering
resulting from turning aside is greater than that of involvement
- even when putting a higher value on our own fellow nationals
- then the rule of thumb should be suspended.
But in making the assessments we have
to allow for the damage done to the presumption in favour of non-interference
and the danger that the intervention would encourage a crusading
mentality in which various demagogues felt free to disrupt the
peace of the world in the pursuit of their own proclaimed views
of political justice. Intervention by regional blocs such as Nato
has the advantage of bypassing the Security Council's veto, but
has the danger in Annan's words "of setting dangerous precedents
for further interventions without a clear criterion to decide
who might invoke these precedents and in what circumstances".
A more convincing principle is that we
should not attempt to impose by force our own systems of western
democracy on countries that reject them or are not ready for them.
But what was at stake in Kosovo was not the absence of elections
or free speech but a reign of terror on a whole ethnic group.
"No national interest was involved."
The Prime Minister obviously thought there was. Former Yugoslavia
is opposite Italy, a founding member of both Nato and the European
Union. If Milosevic had been allowed a triumph first in Bosnia
and then in Kosovo, his destabilising influence could well have
penetrated into western Europe. But my argument does not depend
on Blair being right on this point. Even if we want to say, for
the sake of argument, that there was no national interest at stake,
that still does not give us leave to turn the other cheek.
Incidentally, it is entirely in accordance
of what I have been saying about successive circles of obligation
that Australia should take the lead in East Timor just as western
European countries should have done in the former Yugoslavia.
The heavy American involvement came from the inability of the
European Union countries to get their act together, but that,
thank God, is a separate subject.
The anti-interventionist argument that
instinctively appeals to me most strongly is that there is so
often an element of hypocrisy. East Timor is perhaps a better
example here than Kosovo. One of the most forceful comments I
saw was a cartoon in The Times in which Tony Blair says "We
need a hawk. Here is one." And he was shown piloting one
of the Hawk aircraft which the UK had been sending to Indonesia
for many years for the use of General Suharto, the unscrupulous
dictator of Indonesia. As Amnesty International put it in a masterful
piece of understatement: "Despite the leadership of the Prime
Minister... the Department of Trade and Industry, in particular,
is not meeting its responsibility to promote trade in a manner
which is not harmful to human rights."
Such arm sales are utterly wrong. Perhaps
it takes a market economist to realise that it is not even a regrettable
necessity to safeguard British jobs. The Blair Government has,
to its credit, tightened restrictions on the sale of arms and
taken the lead in setting up the European Code of Conduct, adopted
in 1998. The view that this or any other country cannot prosper
and provide employment, without arms sales belongs not to real
economics, but to the second rate version (which I call Lumpeneconomics)
pedalled by governments and self-interested businessmen.*
* British arms sales of £2bn p.a.
in 1998 may be compared with total exports of goods and services,
which amounted in the same year to £224bn. If all arms exports
had been stopped and it had been necessary to replace them with
either exports or import substitutes, what would have been the
consequences? Many international trade studies assume an export
elasticity of demand of two. This means that the UK would have
had to shift nearly £4bn of extra resources into civilian
exports or import substitutes. Some £2bn of these could
have come from workers and equipment previously devoted to arm
sales; but another £2bn of net exports would have been required
to offset the deterioration in the terms of trade. This £2bn
represents less than ' per cent of gross domestic product.
The estimate is probably a big exaggeration,
as a large proportion of arms go to NATO or EU allies or Australia
and can be justified on grounds of division of labour. Even a
once-for-all loss of 1/8th of a per cent of GDP does matter. But
it is still a small price to pay for stopping the sale of limb-destroying
mines or long-range guns to odious dictatorships.
At this point I have to suppress my emotions.
We need to make a distinction between our judgement of people
and our judgement of actions. It is a distinction that I have
only begun to appreciate properly in the course of preparing this
lecture. The sale of arms to dubious dictatorships was a stain
on the record of the last government. Their continuation is a
stain on the record of the present government; and one that is
particularly difficult to take calmly after all the talk of an
ethical foreign policy. But bygones are forever bygones. It would
be far far better if Indonesian forces did not have British or
any other western arms to shoot down opponents. We are where we
are; and the question is whether more net harm or good is done
by sending in a armed peacekeeping force.
The charge of hypocrisy is a valid reason
for not embarking on a conflict, only if the hypocrisy relates
to the effects of the action itself. It is for this reason that
I am completely unrepentant about having opposed the Vietnam War.
It was supposed to be to prevent a Communist takeover of south-east
Asia. Yet the only legitimate reason for using military force
against Communism was the suppression of human rights. The political
or economic system of former Indo-China was the business of the
inhabitants. In fact so far from protecting human rights, the
American forces propped up a corrupt dictatorship, which inflicted
as much harm as the Communists did; and in the course of the action
villages were burnt, forests set on fire and atrocities committed,
the total impact of which was in my view much more harmful than
allowing a Communist regime to take over - which, in any case
the War did not prevent from happening.
One instance of alleged hypocrisy is that
there has been no intervention in Chechnya, where to assert the
abstract principle of established national boundaries and to prevent
secession, thousands of civilians have been killed. The worst
immediate after-effect of the Kosovo campaign was indeed likely
to be the licence that it appeared to give to the Russian wars
against Chechnya. These have already almost certainly led to far
more death and destruction than Serbian activities in Kosovo,
but are now justified even by moderate Russians as comparable
to the Nato war against Serb terrorism. As the historian, Norman
Davies, has remarked: "After a decent interval the liberators
of Chechnya can expected to be feted at Buckingham Palace like
the liberators of Tibet."
The support that the West insisted on
giving to the Yelstin regime when it was long past its moral sell-by
date well illustrates Cobden's dictum against ignorant involvement.
Nevertheless it would not be possible to intervene in conflicts
such as Chechnya without risking a Third World War -- which is
the reason General Sir Michael Jackson rightly gave for disobeying
an order to remove the Russians from the airfield in Pristina.
But without going that far it would be
possible for the West to stop treating the Yeltsin regime as a
friendly one, to whose misdeeds we can turn a blind eye. At the
very least, while actions such as the Chechnya war continue, all
western aid for that regime should be suspended -- including aid
from the IMF and World Bank, which in this case are just a front
for American involvement.
The kid glove treatment of the Yeltsin
regime is an example of the biggest single error of western foreign
policy since the fall of the Berlin Wall. This is to pick out
a particular regime to back, as happened with Gorbachev and has
continued with Yeltsin. How much better would be a degree of disengagement;
and if international organisations have to make decisions, for
instance on the dispersement of aid, they should be based on clear
principles rather than keeping in office favoured individuals.
I am more uneasy about the lack of decisive
action in Rwanda, where far more people were probably killed than
in any other of the cases. At least 100,000 people - nearly all
civilians - were killed in the town of Butare alone in April and
May 1974. (10). As they say in the playground, two wrongs do not
make a right. The failure of the West to intervene in Rwanda -
explained but not excused by an earlier US humiliation Somalia
- was not an argument for continuing the neglect in East Timor
"The British bore a disproportionate
share of the responsibilities and risks compared with other Europeans."
This cannot be decisive. The Good Samaritan in the familiar story
could have said that he was taking too many risks in helping the
man who had fallen among thieves and that others should have shared
the burden. So they should have. But this does not make the Samaritan's
act a mistake.
"The unwillingness of the Americans,
without whom the action could not have taken place, to risk any
serious casualties." Early in this lecture I risked offending
more rigorous moralists by saying that it was reasonable to put
a greater weight on one's own circle than those more distant from
us. But this does not justify a zero weight on the lives of either
Kosovans or Serbs. The unwillingness to launch a land war probably
did result in a prolongation of the conflict and a greater number
of casualties, even though they were not Allied ones. The mass
bombing of Serbia and the inevitable civilian suffering were a
partial substitute for a land campaign.
To my mind there is only one genuine objection
to the Kosovo undertaking. This is that it caused more suffering
than it prevented. According to one of the most thorough studies
of the war so far, "had Nato not bombed, Yugoslav president
Slobodan Milosevic still would have moved against the Albanian
population (as he had the previous year), but the Serbians might
not have accelerated the killing or expanded their deadly reach
to so many communities for fear of provoking Nato intervention."
Exposure of the myths about mass graves should not lead us to
minimise the extent of Serbian atrocities both before and after
the Nato bombing. The head of the Spanish forensic team attached
to the International Crime Tribunal, Emilo Perez Pujol, has frequently
been quoted saying that he found a total of 187 bodies; but he
did estimate that 2,500 Kosovans were killed altogether by Serb
action - below the upper limit previously mentioned. John Pilger
has probably got it right when he says that "the numbers
of dead so far confirmed suggest that the Nato bombing provoked
a wave of random brutality, murders and expulsions, a far cry
Nor can we ignore Serbian casualties.
The Economist Intelligence Unit reported that Nato, during its
11-week bombardment produced an estimated death toll of 1,500
civilian deaths and 8,000 wounded. At least 450 of the deaths
were due to admitted Nato mistakes. In addition there were the
civilian casualties in Kosovo due to unexploded cluster bombs,
estimated by The Times to number 14,000. In the first month after
the bombing ceased such bombs are estimated to have killed or
maimed an average of five persons a day. It is indeed possible
that Nato killed more innocent civilians on both sides than the
As Davies has said: "The smart way
to wage wars these days is to...bomb and blast the adversary from
heights where tanks cannot be distinguished from tractors and
Chinese embassies can be mistaken for command posts... Sooner
or later, one can claim victory amidst a sea of rubble and refugees.
No matter that Milosevic, like Saddam, is still in office."
While questions of cost should not be
decisive when human rights are involved, it is at least worth
noting an estimate of the cost of the war at almost $100bn. Of
this some $60bn was accounted for by economic damage by Serbia.
This means that the war costs the equivalent of $50,000 for every
inhabitant of Kosovo.
A subsidiary question is whether the Kosovan
Albanians wanted allied intervention. My impression is that most
of them did, despite the additional suffering. But this cannot
be decisive. If you are going to take risks with your own life
to prevent harm, you must be the judge of whether you are preventing
it or not.
At the end of the day the Kosovo intervention
appears to me on balance harmful and the East Timor one beneficial.
Hindsight is terribly easy. The question in Kosovo was: could
the result have been reasonably expected beforehand?
We are told that elements in the US government
really did believe that Milosevic would surrender after a few
days of bombing. As we know from discussions of recent accidents
in this country, failure to brief oneself adequately, when human
lives are at stake, is indeed culpable. For what it is worth,
I never thought myself that a few days of bombing would be enough
and was indeed surprised that Milosevic retreated when he did;
and the possibility, even if not the probability, that the Americans
might land after all, was at least one factor in his final decision.
Thus although my emotional sympathies
were much more with Blair than with his opponents on Kosovo, in
the end the action was probably a blunder, and one from which
we need to learn.
The Pinochet Precedent
Let me come to a last uncomfortable example.
At least until recently, General Pinochet could not be tried in
Chile because of the settlement which restored democracy and civil
rights to that country. One aspect of this was that neither Right
nor Left would try to settle old scores.
Does that give the authorities of any
other country the right to try the general? In this specific case
a Spanish judge applied to extradite him from the UK because of
atrocities alleged to have been committed on Spanish citizens
in Chile during his period in office.
I feel tempted to say it is a very good
principle that anyone who believes that he may achieve his ends
by torture should know that he cannot rely on being safe from
justice wherever he goes in the world. The attraction should not
lie in the pleasure at the thought of punishment but in the deterrent
effect it might have on anyone contemplating atrocities in future.
Let me give another example of how the
principle might work. Terrorist thugs have been let out of jail
in Northern Ireland because the government believes that however
distasteful the process, it will help bring about a settlement
which will lead to fewer killings and other outrages in future.
Governments have always negotiated with terrorists, whatever they
say to the contrary.
Suppose however - as is perfectly possible
- that some of the victims of Ulster victims were Australian nationals
and one of the terrorists was rash enough to go to France. The
principle would then suggest that, although the British government
has decided to let bygones be bygones, the French should be prepared
to extradite him to Australia. My own inclination would be to
accept this implication. But we need to think this through carefully
together with an any other difficult implications.
What I have been attempting to do in this
lecture is not to provide a cut and dried answer to every problem,
but to suggest a few guidelines to aid the exercise of judgement.
I started off by querying one popular
form of the golden rule: that we should love our neighbour as
ourselves. Most attempts to follow it in practice lead to a very
narrow definition of "Who is my neighbour?", which only
reinforces group conflicts and the terrible crimes committed in
their name. It would be just as immoral to say that that we should
have some regard for the interests of others, although this cannot
be as much as for ourselves, our families, our immediate circle
and our own nation.
If I had had time and knowledge I could
have tried to take this principle into many different areas, including
charitable work, relief operations and so on. I could also - as
no doubt some of you were expecting - have tried to work out the
implications for domestic government policy in areas such as poverty
relief and income and wealth distribution and also entered on
the vexed question on the value or otherwise of overseas official
Instead, I have tried to concentrate on
the area to which I have devoted most thought over a long period:
namely ethics and foreign policy; and even here I have confined
myself mainly to military intervention in aid of human rights
and not tried to cover much of the material of conventional foreign
policy, such as the formation of alliances, armaments and disarmament
and so on. Nor have I even covered economic sanctions.
I have rejected the metaphysical principle
that foreign policy can have no concern with human rights or any
other matters affecting the well being of non-nationals. There
is however a pragmatic argument for thinking many times before
we try to introduce justice into the affairs of other people.
This is simply that - even assuming our leaders are always well
intentioned - they do not know enough to do so and the result
is often more misery than following a presumption in favour of
non-intervention. I do not know what has done more harm: the belief
in the inviolability of national sovereignty; or the moralistic
urge to intervene when we do not know what we are doing.
But a presumption is only a presumption.
It can be overthrown by a sufficiently compelling circumstances,
such as genocide in Nazi Germany, the present day Balkans or in
Indonesia. Judged by facts and probabilities which ought to have
been knowable in advance, the recent war in Kosovo was a blunder,
while the peacekeeping force in East Timor is so far a success.
These are all of course provisional judgements which could be
overthrown in the light of further information and events.
My personal view is that the first priority
in foreign policy, as in many other matters, is the negative utilitarian
principle "Do not do harm." Let us start by putting
a stop to the worst of British arms sales and refrain from entertaining
at a royal level leaders of unsavoury dictatorships. If we did
make a start here, we might then be in a better position to appreciate
those occasions when carefully considered intervention might do
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