Principles and Practice in Foreign Policy

Principles and Practice in Foreign Policy

We are constantly reminded these days that we live in a globalised world; that most of the really intractable problems confronting humanity are no respecters of boundaries, indeed that they cross them with the ease of the mosquito or the tetse fly. It follows – or so liberal opinion will have us believe – that we need a new universalism, a reassertion of the shared principles of a common humanity that will somehow allow us to prioritise our universal international interest over the parochial national interests that divide us.

And yet! Somehow we still regard with suspicion the rootless cosmopolitan – the citizen of nowhere who has no difficulty in loving humanity but has problems with understanding, let alone empathising with, the problems of ordinary people. Moreover, while for some globalisation and universalism are one and the same thing, proving beyond reasonable doubt that the principles of open markets and the free movement of people and capital will put an end to national divisions and conflicts, for others they are polar opposites. On this second view globalisation is a new and aggressive form of imperialism, designed to subject the world everywhere to the deadening logic of the profit motive. Albie Sachs, one of the leading architects of the South African constitution, draws an analogy with apartheid. The one good thing about apartheid, he insists, was that it created the anti-apartheid movement; similarly he hopes that the one good thing about globalisation will be that it will create the conditions for a genuine universalism, in which people everywhere will gradually acknowledge the necessity of recognising each others’ rights on the basis of their common humanity.

So far as I can see there are two major problems with this courageous but optimistic vision.  The first I will call the problem of contested histories and positional goods. Many intractable problems in international relations arise because the stories we tell each other about them on each side of the border cannot be reconciled. Think of the tragic consequences of the stories told by Israelis and Palestinians, most recently on the occasion of the seventieth anniversary of Israel’s foundation; but there are many other examples from all parts of the world.

I listened recently to a researcher in Portugal explain how he and a group of colleagues were trying to apply a principle derived from property law to conflict resolution. Within some countries we find the concept of a condominium, a property, which is covered by two coexisting jurisdictions, one governing those aspects of the property held in common, the other the rights and obligations of individual holdings. The idea is to apply this principle to the management of the global commons in the context of climate change in the first instance and if it can secure traction there to extend it to other kinds of conflicts such as those involving self-determination claims and separatism. But whether it can overcome the obstacle of sovereignty seems unlikely, for now at any rate. It seems even less likely in the context of territorial disputes, where the positional good principle – only one person/country can claim possession – applies.

The second problem arises as a consequence of nationalism. It maybe that all nation-states are pursuing the same goals – the welfare and security of their populations – but the fact that their languages, political cultures, and social customs, differ enormously, creates obstacles to cooperation and maximises the chance of even well-meaning efforts getting ‘lost in translation.’ So how should we think about resolving – or at least managing – the problems that arise from conflicting principles, whether real or imagined, and national practices and world views that divide rather than unite humanity.

It is, I believe, to the diplomats that we should look for guidance. Diplomats do not always enjoy a good press in the era of social media and the internet. Just as dog owners often tend to resemble their dogs, so people complain that diplomats often seem to have more in common with each other than with the people they allegedly represent. This is often true I believe, but rather than seeing it as a weakness I regard it as a great strength. As the great strategic thinkers all recognised long ago, empathy is an indispensable attribute of generalship. It is necessary to see the world as the opposing general sees it, to think his thoughts and understand his motivations, to walk a mile, as the native American proverb has it ‘in his mocassins.’ But it is not only on the battlefield ,that one needs to understand not only those whose interests are opposed to our own  but even those with whom we wish to cooperate but whose historical experience, world view and cultural assumptions and practices  are not only different from our own but may create unintended obstacles to harmonious relations across frontiers. Diplomats are those we send abroad, not merely , in the words of the old saw, ‘to lie for their country’ but to walk in their hosts’ mocassins and so minimise the inevitable dangers of misunderstanding in an increasingly integrated but still amazingly diverse world.

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