The weekend debate: How ethical should our foreign policy be?

Here’s your starter for ten in our weekend slot where we throw up an idea or thought for debate…

The military coup in Egypt was met with widespread international support – because it deposed President Mubarak. Similarly, the sending of troops into Libya by Britain and other countries to help people leave has been met with barely a whisper of concern about whether or not troops should be sent into another country without any UN motion or similar. Yet pragmatism and self-interest is hardly all the rage – for Tony Blair’s attitude to Libya has been coming under much criticism as has Britain’s record in the arms trade.

So can principles be applied to the arms trade whilst also pragmatically welcoming armed coups when they suit? And how ethical should Britain’s foreign policy be anyway?

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • LSE (my employer) has been attacked for running courses to educate Libyans. If it is unethical for us to take Libyan money, does it mean that every British oil worker was also acting unethically when they accepted work in Libya? And that every British firm supplying goods, whether arms or otherwise, to Libya is also unethical? Should a lot of chief execs follow Howard Davies example and resign?

  • gramsci's eyes 5th Mar '11 - 2:16pm

    Whilst “call me Dave” was in Egypt with arms traders I heard a lib-dem MP on the radio claim that they were only selling tear gas for “training purposes”. I wonder how they will use this training-mmmh the delivery of medical aid perhaps?

  • Foreign policy can not be ethical ever. Ethical foreign policy was a dreadful reductivism that viewed shifting conflicts through an over-simple moral prism.

  • Any foreign policy can be ethical (following pure “national interest” could be an ethic, though like ethical national interest is extremely vague). If an ethical position that is not achievable is not a meaningful position and pragmatism requires analysis and objectives (or values) be they security, economic growth, rights, stability or utility (eg environmental impact). Cynics will aways dismiss ethical arguments as a cover for selfishness, principles are important to me and I have seen people acting in other benefits for the reward of doing something good, so I have the opimistic view they are important to others.

    The idea of making ethics a sub group of foreign policy (or anything) dismisses ethics, does not understand it or is someone not willing to defend a policy.

    The question could be not how ethical but what ethic or maybe how much altruistic is ethical.

  • Patrick Smith 6th Mar '11 - 12:52am

    The answer is not a simple one and the attempt of good government to commission and activate an ethical British Foreign Policy is dependent on a few important factors:

    1 Government has to appoint an ethically minded Foreign Secretary.

    2.The primary task of the Foreign Secretary is to serve the interests of his own Country and Government.

    3.The Foreign Secretary has to respond to different world leaders where some he knows in advance of meeting have imposed their will on thier own people by ruthless acts of tyranny i.e.Col.Gadaffi/Hussain and others have a democratic mandate.

    I believe as a Liberal that the key consideration in diplomacy is the reputation of a foreign power, in terms of human rights practices or abuse and that in reality this is in turn refracted by trade and commodities, like the scarcity of oil.

    Churchill said,

    `Jaw,jaw is better than War War’ .

    Foreign Policy is dependent on its powers of diplomacy to influence governments to accord with a line of behaviour that is consistent with the European Human Rights Convention and UN Charter that has been set and cemented post 1945 and `Cold War”.

    It is not tenable for any sanction in Foreign Policy to achieves anything worse than the elimination of international Human Rights abuses or crimes against humanity and these must be dealt with by an International Court of Law that will appoint ethically minded judges.

  • I think Tim Leunig makes a good point about different standards. I would argue it’s hypocritical to condemn the UK for working with dodgy regimes whilst also supporting the United Nations – lots of its members are nasty regimes led by dictators who terrorise their own people, including one of the permanent members of the Security Council (which therefore enjoys veto power over authorising the use of force).

    Despite this however many of the holier than thou critics of realpolitik are amongst the biggest cheerleaders for the UN, without seeing the irony.

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