Towards a more ethical foreign policy – where now for the Left?

Jeremy Corbyn, a man of long-held principle, is now responsible for leading the opposition against the Tory government on all areas of policy, including foreign affairs. Corbyn should develop an ethical foreign policy to challenge Cameron, but this will almost certainly require him to reconsider some of his positions.

An ethical foreign policy refers to promoting national self-interest by placing moral standards and fundamental values at its centre and with the aim of pursuing national self-interest through moral means.

It is fundamental that Britain has an ethical foreign policy because if we do not we are in danger of being seen to talk the talk but not walk the walk of our socially liberal values, opening ourselves up to the charge of hypocrisy, and potentially hindering our leverage in international institutions. Perception of your country is fundamental to diplomacy and as a result Britain must be perceived to, and actually practice, an ethical foreign policy. The most effective way in which to both build and implement such a policy is to be as objective as possible in all situations.

In certain areas Corbyn can boast the groundwork for building an ethical foreign policy and can immediately challenge the Conservatives. Firstly, Corbyn is opposed to replacing the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights. The Human Rights Act incorporates the European Convention of Human Rights into British law, acting as a regional extension of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. By abandoning the ECHR the UK shall be rejecting the principles of universal minimum rights. On a foreign policy level this will severely hinder our diplomatic influence and our own diplomats will no longer be allowed to hold those countries that reject fundamental rights to account. Corbyn also clearly supports independent checks on the executive by rejecting Parliamentary vetoes. This is certainly an area where Corbyn can challenge the Tories and set a precedent for his own ethical foreign policy.

Undoubtedly, the most brazen expression of hypocrisy within Tory foreign policy is its support of the arms trade. Corbyn should and must take full advantage of challenging this Conservative weakness, which included Britain hosting the Defence and Securities Equipment International arms fair in September 2015. The UK has made £12 billion from selling arms to oppressive regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, both of whom provide the most lucrative opportunities in the arms trade whilst also subjecting their citizens to the most extreme brutality, including the death penalty and torturing those prepared to stand up to an oppressive regime. This is completely antithetical to any kind of foreign policy with ethical objectives. Corbyn has made it clear he is opposed to such sales emphasising human rights as not being ‘tradeable,’ and that rights are either universal or meaningless. This is an argument that Corbyn must emphasise if he is to form an ethical foreign policy and challenge the Conservatives disregard for a congruent policy.

Corbyn can also mount a challenge against mass surveillance and, the collection and storing of communications data supported by the Conservatives. Whilst this might not seem strictly within the bounds of foreign policy, mass surveillance has enormous implications for the perception of the UK abroad and our intelligence services should be more accountable to reflect our own democratic values. The more open, democratic and accountable Britain is seen to be, the more it can lead institutions and the world in achieving a more democratic global society. However, national security must be maintained and our intelligence services must also be able to function, this is a particularly important area in which Corbyn must find both an ethical and practical balance.

Having made these points, if Corbyn is to truly challenge the Conservatives and develop an ethical approach to international relations, he must reconsider some of his positions and accept the importance of practicality in diplomacy. An ethical foreign policy will remain objective and not allow ideology to cloud considered judgment. Corbyn’s principles have meant that he has opposed many interventions, which because of failed political strategies have been disastrous, usually on the grounds that they lack a UN mandate. But he has also opposed successful intervention, for instance preventing Milosevic’s continued ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. If humanitarian intervention has a mandate from the UN and a credible long-term political strategy then intervention can contribute to an ethical foreign policy, and he should thus refine his policy.

Corbyn has also been committed to opposing NATO expansion, having postulated that expansion into democratic ex Warsaw Pact states such as Poland was a mistake. NATO is an essential institution for protecting the autonomy of democratic states that are potentially under threat from expansionist Russia. Yet Corbyn claims to support self-determination. NATO has, and continues to be an organization which can effectively counter security challenges which have ethical consequences, for instance extreme nationalism, ethnic, racial and religious hatred as seen in the former Yugoslavia. Moreover, as I have emphasised, Britain’s position in global institutions is fundamental to exerting influence that can be directed towards producing consensus based ethical policies.

Finally, as part of an ethical foreign policy, Corbyn must consider a more objective and pragmatic position on Israel and Palestine. Israel is the most progressive democracy in the Middle East that promotes LBGT rights and women’s rights, two areas that Corbyn believes to have significant importance in foreign policy. If Corbyn wishes to be rightly critical of Israel, he must also defend against the deeply growing trend of anti-Semitism. Corbyn must become more objective and pragmatic on the issue of Israel and Palestine if he wishes to create a more effective ethical foreign policy position.

Now Corbyn has the responsibility as leader of the Labour Party, he is responsible for both challenging a deeply unethical Conservative position by advancing many of his positive positions. But if Corbyn is to be truly successful in the field of foreign relations by developing an ethical position he must reconsider some of his own less objective positions.

Steven Male, Defence & Diplomacy Editor

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