Most states with active foreign policies after the Second World War sought to promote their values internationally. This was not only a matter of hard power – the way in which the United States sought to promote free enterprise and democracy, in a sometimes ruthless fashion, that also opened markets to US corporations. It was also a matter of soft power. The British Council, founded in 1934, was designed to make up for British economic weakness at a time of sharp ideological divisions in Europe.
The oldest cultural promotion vehicle for a nation state, its propaganda value in neutral countries in the Second World War was frankly recognised in its 1940-41 annual report.This stated that the aim of the Council was“to create in a country overseas a basis of friendly knowledge and understanding of the people of this country, of their philosophy and way of life, which will lead to sympathetic appreciation of British foreign policy, whatever for the moment that policy may be, and from whatever political conviction it may spring.”
Wrapped up in work for education, the English language and the arts, this organisation was funded by Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office for purposes which brought together foreign policy and what were seen as British values. And it worked: it made friends for the UK at times when they were badly needed. The example has been followed by many other states – the US, France, Italy, Germany and by the developing powers at the start of the 21st century such as China and India.
More interesting, perhaps, is the effort to create agreed international values to which states with different traditions may adhere. In this the field of human rights is striking. The UN Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, was the product of a particular time: a reaction to the holocaust and nuclear war, with a United Nations dominated by victorious powers when much of the world was in poverty, in colonialism, or recovering from wartime destruction. Nonetheless the effort to progress human rights continued after the UN itself was ‘democratised’, and in spite of the Cold War. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was agreed in 1966 and came into force a decade later, paralleled by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
The effort has continued, so that for instance human rights agreements have been extended to environmental, gender and other areas; the 1984 UN Convention Against Torture was followed by an Optional Protocol which came into effect in 2006, enabling a system of regular inspections of prisons and other establishments where torture may take place. Nonetheless it is generally known that torture and other degrading treatments have continued in many countries whose governments have signed the convention. Does this suggest that, for foreign policy, these treaties and conventions are a kind of international public relations exercise, remote from the experience of citizens who may never even know of their existence?
I have followed this issue in watching the specific performance of the Commonwealth, a group of 53 states with an origin in the British Empire which has been serviced by a multilateral Secretariat since the 1960s. Its aspirational Commonwealth Charter, of 2013, has a commitment in chapter 2 to human rights. But all attempts to build in any inspection or auditing mechanism have foundered. The reasons are various. Bigger members, such as the UK whose participation in the Iraq war in 2003 has been deemed illegal by some experts, did not wish for scrutiny. Former colonies had little desire to see a new international oversight, with any whiff of neo-imperialism. Financial limitations, and overlap with other bodies, were also arguments deployed against any commission or commissioner that might actively promote human rights. A Ministerial Action Group, which was set up as a rules committee for membership of this voluntary association, has rarely condemned human rights abuse.
One may conclude that the international commitments to human rights, through the UN, have benefited from the power and velocity of history. In the Commonwealth, a partial grouping, it is easier to block intergovernmental progress; however the non-governmental and linguistic links in the Commonwealth can still be effective, as is shown in the gradual crumbling of homophobic legislation which survives in the majority of Commonwealth states. Whether, in the era of Donald Trump, this human rights aspect of internationalism may continue is a matter of active debate. The US withdrew from compulsory jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice in 1986. The sharp response of the US president to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi suggests that even he is not totally blind to a selective concern forhuman rights.