Values in Foreign Policy

Values in Foreign Policy

The strong do what they can, the weak suffer what they must.

In any debate about foreign policy and its foundations, consideration will turn on some of the following: values and their concomitant rights; ethics and morality; principles; and interests. While specificity is usually attributed to the last (and to some extent to the second) given that they are more readily definable, it is not easy to delimit the others; they merge into one another with protean ease. Indeed, they are often employed as interchangeable. For the purposes of this brief introduction, it may however be helpful to rank them with a greater if somewhat arbitrary precision.

In this matrix, values can be defined as those absolute, anti-relativistic qualities that concern the life and well-being of human beings, and rights their ensuing, generally accepted, entitlements. Ethics revolve around respect for the obligations and activities of societies and their members. Principles can be defined as individual perceptions of morality. Interests are generally held to be the definable concerns of states, entities or individuals.

In discussing values in the context of relations between states, it has been argued that there are no absolutes. Thus The Sermon on The Mount may represent the last word in Christian apologetics, but is not necessarily a good guide to the conduct of foreign policy. In any event, the values of Asia, Latin America and Africa are not identical – or even co-terminous – with those of Western Europe. Contrast for example the Asian emphasis on the importance of the family and of traditional morality or African respect for elders with European narrowly-focused preoccupation with individualism. This does not of course imply that there are no generally agreed international standards of conduct. The precedents of Nuremberg, Tokyo and the present arrangements at The Hague suggest otherwise. Nor need we accept the reductionism of Thucydides or Churchill. Certain values can be regarded as paramount, however much they are criticized as western intellectual constructs, usually by those who choose not to be bound by them. But the validity of a proposition does not depend on the circumstance of its appearance. These values are identified in the Preamble to the UN Charter, the UN Declaration on Human Rights, or numerous other international declarations; and are enshrined in popular democratic tradition. They include for example the right to a family and a home, freedom of religion and expression, the right to choose one’s leaders and non-interference in the affairs of other states.

Yet these values remain signposts rather than a route map, convictions which should not slip from the mind rather than presenting prescriptive courses of action. Attempts formally to incorporate values into foreign policy initiatives lead to charges of attempted hierocracy. They did great damage to American President Woodrow Wilson and US foreign policy after World War 1. In our own time, attempts at constructing – or seeking to justify – an ethical foreign policy by Foreign Minister Robin Cook under Prime Minister Tony Blair have led to ridicule and dismay. Such efforts reflect neither the untidiness of history nor the knotty complexity of current events.

Against the background of these shifting sands, what markers can we discern of permanent value? The answers in 1945 as post 9/11 remain constant if not sharply definable. Pace Thucydides and Churchill, in formulating their strategies towards others, states should have regard to those common values which concern – or should concern us all. Beyond these, and at different levels more pressing and more easily readable factors will come into play, not least principles and, above all, national interests. Given our inability to foresee events, these factors are likely to prove beyond our our ability to organize to our advantage in the longer term. But policies shaped with an eye, if no more than that, to generally agreed values should continue to point the way. All politics end in failure, it has been argued, in the sense that their objectives are so rarely met in full. Yet the pulls of precedent, conscience and ambition oblige us to try. We shall not cease from exploring Little Gidding and the end of all our exploring, will be to arrive where we started.

Sir Roger Hervey, KCVO, CMG, is a former British Ambassador, with wide experience in Asia, Latin America, Western and Eastern Europe.


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