The Apollo Project
Liberal Ideas for the 21st Century
Thursday, December 01, 2005
The limits of internationalism
by Peter

Simon Mollan has posted an interesting piece on foreign policy. His starting point is Ming Campbell's Observer article on Iraq, and Simon's argument can be fairly summed up by the title of the post: trying to make political capital while failing to advocate action is no way to make foreign policy.

I had read MingĀ“s article myself, and in a more benign frame of mind than Simon. Okay, it is another trot through the reasons we should never have gone to war in the first place and this argument fascinates about 2% of the population and bores the pants off the rest (it did us little good in May). And I share Simon's general view that while this war should not have been fought, not all liberal interventionism should be tarred with the same brus). But not all political activity is policy-formation - a lot of it is salesmanship: Ming is surely entitled to rub some salt into NuLab wounds.

Nor would I go as far as Simon in advocating intervention. His (rhetorical)conclusion is that:

If being a Liberal Democrat does not involve standing up for liberal democracy across the world, wherever, whenever and however it begins to emerge, then what does it mean?

Well it depends on what you mean by "standing up" I suppose. If Simon means that Liberal Democrats should support intervention whenever liberal democracy appears to be about to emerge or about to disappear, then I cannot agree. I think one should only intervene when intervention is likely to be effective: idealism needs to be tempered by some Realpolitik.

Simon is on stronger ground (closer to my own views!) when he notes that:

The transatlantic alliance has provided the security architecture for Britain for the last half century, and provided the framework for noted instances of successful humanitarian intervention that, similarly to Iraq, did not adhere to UN imprimatur.

Iraq has been a ghastly failure. But it is not an excuse for ditching the transatlantic alliance. Nor is it a reason to conclude that any action has to be sanctioned by international organisations.

Lib Dems are too prone to be dewy-eyed about international organisations. Kennedy made a (generally good) speech back in July. Press comment focessued on his comments on the motivation of terrorists. But the bulk of the speech was devoted to setting out four Liberal principles:

1. To be pro-European and pro-European Reform

2. The support and development of the system of international law and institutions.

3. To focus on international development

4. To care for the global environment

Now this is an authentic strand of Liberal though (but by no means the only one as I argued back in August). It has us in ecstasy. But it leaves the general public (even journalists) cold.

Who can blame them? The UN Security Council is no haven of the elect. The run up to the decisions on Iraq showed us just how much members are influenced by national self-interest (aid dollars or oil concessions). The EU - still a good thing - is essentially a forum in which national interests are played out. Other Member States may accuse the UK of being uniquely nationally-minded. The truth is that we have simply been less effective at clothing our policy preferences in the appropriate language.

The tendency on Iraq has been to berate the US and its allies for being too immoral: only in it for the oil. There is something in this. Certainly within the US, oil seems to have been a factor in building support for the war. But the final judgement on Blair may well be the opposite: that he committed us to war on the basis of moral certainty rather than an evaluation of the evidence and the potential for achieving the desired outcome.

Liberal Democrats are going to need to expand their vocabulary. International organisations primarily provide a forum for the pursuit of national interests, and voters have a right to expect their politicians to play the game on their behalf. Simon is right to argue that there is a case for liberal intervention. There is also a case for liberal patriotism.

We should not shrink from making it. The simple truth is that Labour have not been very good at foreign policy - look at the EU budget dispute, look at Iraq. We can do better. We should say so - in terms all voters can understand.
posted by Peter Pigeon @ 2:42 am  
  • At 01 December, 2005 11:08, Blogger James said…

    Simon's argument would have more of a solid base if the party - and Ming himself - hadn't vocally supported military intervention in Kosovo and Afganistan and hadn't advocated such action for Bosnia.

    Certain breeds of goldfish would appear to have longer memories.

  • At 01 December, 2005 14:00, Blogger Simon said…

    James, why would my pro-interventionism argument have a more solid base if Ming/the party hadn't advocated intervention in Kostovo, Afghanistan and Bosnia? Surely if they hadn't advocated intervention (which they did) they would find my argument even less appealing because at least they would be able to claim consistency if they hadn't? One of my points, of course, was to remind or repeat the case for liberal interventionism which previous to the Iraq war the Liberal Democrats had a good record on.

    My worry, of course, is that by confusing the flawed case and cause to go to war with the entirely different case for the current intervention in Iraq, we have handed the formulation of foreign policy to a peacenik / appeasement tendency who mistakenly think they are advocating an ethical stance that will lead to peace more quickly. Peter rightly talks about realism and the need for what is a realistic policy. Luckily, in terms of the strategic need to establish a working democracy in Iraq and the required need for continued military intervention I am in good company:

    And if prominent American democrats don't float your boat, The Economist leader this week was entitled 'Why American Must Stay':

    Peter raises a good point with regard to the UN and blind faith in it. The fact remains that we were one gallic shrug away from Security Council approval for the war in Iraq. If France had agreed to go to war, this would not have transformed the moral landscape of the casus belli. WMD would still not have been found, the post-invasion situation would still have been a mess, a terrorist insurgency would still have occured. Perhaps it would have precipitated a (long overdue) assessment of UN decision making, or called into question why some people imbue the UN Security Council with having a monopoly on morality. These questions are still valid, however,
    and still need to be answered.

    In a recent article in Guardian, Nick Clegg argued that current UK foreign policy was 'incoherent' while Liberal Democrats would be 'principled not populist'. Difficult to see how this critique isnot easily thrown right back in Ming's face.



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