My starting point is that values, specifically ethical values, are absolutely necessary in government policies. Without ethical values, government policies are merely subject to “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, responding to events and crises, and to the winds of political fashion or ideology. In essence, that is probably the default position of most, if not all, nation states. One exception was the British Labour Government of 1997 under Tony Blair. Foreign Secretary Robin Cook promoted an ethical foreign policy but resigned from the Government in 2003 over the decision to go to war against Iraq.
As someone born and bred in a country which is both historically and culturally Christian, and being myself a committed Christian, my position is that the basic principles of our British foreign policy should express the values of the Christian faith. This not to propose an exclusively Christian policy, but to acknowledge that religious views are fundamental to a culture from which policies may be constructed to meet the changing needs of our own society, and the wider world.
Millie Polak, who with her husband, lived for some years in the Gandhi household during his years in South Africa, records many conversations she had with him. In one of them they discussed religion.
Gandhi: If a man reaches the heart of his own religion, he has reached the heart of the others too. There is only one God, and there are many paths to him. What do you think is the essential lesson for man in the teaching of Christianity?
Millie Polak: I could think of two or three; but the one that stands out strongest in my mind at the moment is love.
That is more or less my own standpoint.
But how do we begin to work out a foreign policy that is shaped by Christian values? Does the command to love your neighbour as yourself make any kind of sense in a world that is inevitably unpredictable and dangerous in the extreme? And are there obvious and necessary limits to applying such principles to foreign policy? George Kennan, who had a major responsibility in helping to shape the USA’s foreign policy of ‘containment’ during the Cold War from the 1940s until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, wrote an article in 1959 on “Foreign Policy and Christian Conscience.” Though inevitably dated, he proposed some useful guidelines. He argues, rightly in my view, that questions of method are “generally a much more fitting subject for Christian concern than questions of purpose.”(my italics). He contends that it is very difficult for us to know which “specific undertakings might have Christian significance and which might not.” This is because in international relations, it is extremely hazardous to establish in advance what are the likely results of one’s own acts. There is often a large gap between the purposes and intentions of politicians and the results they achieve. In other words, the law of ‘unintended consequences’ becomes a fatal flaw in any policy which purports to be for the greater good of the people who are most affected. It is therefore better, Kennan says, to be guided by firm and sound principles, instead of “depending on a particular statesman’s farsightedness and powers of calculation.” This is where, Kennan argues, the significance of method as a key guideline in establishing a ‘Christian’ foreign policy is so vital. He writes: “The government cannot ever fully know what it is doing, but it can always know how (my italics) it is doing it; and it can be as sure that good methods will be in some ways useful, and that bad ones will be in some way pernicious.”
It is here that I would claim, with Kennan, that the Christian virtues of love, patience, respect, compassion, honesty, decency and humanity (to name some of the more obvious ones) will figure large. The alternative ways of deviousness, dishonesty, ruthless and oppressive behaviour, self-righteousness, self-aggrandizement, bring pollution and destruction, even when the purposes are worthy. Possibly it may be thought that Kennan goes a little too far when he suggests that “sheer good manners will bring some measure of redemption to even the most disastrous undertaking.” But the principle of love must include the abandonment of any assumption of superiority, or arrogance.
As already suggested, how to apply these admirable values to actual specific policies is a question that, for the most part, only diplomats and politicians have the expertise to answer. However, there is a middle ground between principles and policies. Archbishop William Temple, probably the most outstanding Christian leader of the mid-twentieth century, was notable for his insistence that it is not the task of Christian leaders to pronounce on the merits of particular policies but rather to promote certain ethical principles or ‘middle axioms’ upon which policies might be based. His teaching was concerned with the policies of a government within a nation, but can be extended to international relations. It embraced such values as education, health, well-being, the abolition of poverty, creating a more just society. As Kennan pointed out, the well-being and prosperity of one nation cannot be entirely separated from that of the wider world. That is even more true today in our globalized world than it was 60 years ago, as is recognized by those, for example who look to the United Nations to promote sustainable development goals.
It is here that the so-called four cardinal virtues of justice, temperance, prudence and fortitude come into the debate. All the great religions recognize their significance in shaping character and behavior, not only between people, but as necessary for the health and well being of society at large. People who show genuine respect for justice, and are willing to work for a fairer society and a less unequal world are rightly admired. Similarly, those who show temperance or self-control are widely held up for praise; people who have learned to transcend their natural anger when frustrated or who can come to terms with disappointment when they fail, so well illustrated by Kipling’s popular poem “If”, are the best leaders.
The virtue of prudence, when it is not an excuse for cowardice, or procrastination, is again rightly admired. In one of his ‘wisdom sayings’ Jesus advised, “what king going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand?” (Luke 14.31) Again, we are moved to see and hear of stories illustrating the virtue of fortitude, whether physical valour or moral courage. Foreign ministers who are ready to admit that there is no quick or easy solution to a complex problem but are ready for the long haul earn our respect.
Robert McNamara was the prime mover in advising the USA to wage war against the Communists in Vietnam, a decision which turned out to be disastrous. Yet, paradoxically, his advice to the American soldiers fighting there was [not to demonize the enemy, but] to empathize with them. Is that advice so very markedly different from what Jesus taught? “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5: 44; Luke 6:27). So it seems that the Christian virtues of love and compassion and the rest are extremely relevant when it comes to framing the principles and values of foreign policy. It would be interesting to see the Foreign ministers of Russia and the UK stepping back from the current slanging match to examine together how their common Christian heritage might lead them to a more fruitful relationship.
How such principles are best applied to specific policies may best be discerned by close attention to the criteria of the four cardinal virtues in the actual circumstances which prevail at the time. Inevitably, mistakes will be made because human beings are fallible and events can overwhelm us, but when mistakes are made, that is never the end of the story, a reason for despair or inaction, but a summons to return to our core values, and to regroup.