LONDON – Robin Cook, who was the British foreign secretary from 1997 to 2001 and who resigned from the government of Tony Blair in 2003 over Iraq, tried to develop what he termed an ethical foreign policy. He believed that this was in the long-term national interest. He resigned from the government when Blair decided to support an attack on Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein despite the lack of U.N. backing for military action. Blair argued that this was morally justified and that the British national interest made it imperative that Britain should support the U.S. invasion.
In the 20th century, most democratic countries have at least paid lip service to moral values and to upholding international law in deciding their policies. The defense of basic human rights also grew in importance. Where national interests were allowed to override moral and legal considerations, states generally at least did their best to disguise their motives, even if their defense was condemned as hypocrisy.
The long history of conflict between European powers and over colonial expansion led consecutively to the formation of the League of Nations, and when that failed to the United Nations and its organs. The Soviet threat and the Cold War led to the formation of NATO and gave an impetus to the development of what in due course became the European Union. The EU had its origin in the imperative need for reconciliation between France and Germany as the basis of future peace in the continent. All these developments were agreed in the long-term national interests of the participating states.
The international consensus, which supported these developments in the 20th century, has now been challenged by the rise in 2016 of populist nationalism in both Europe and the United States.
The advocates of Brexit argue that they want an open Britain and free trade, but their emphasis on sovereignty and limiting immigration underlines their nationalist agenda. Prime Minister Theresa May in her speech at the Conservative (Tory) Party conference in October seemed to give her backing to right-wing nationalism by castigating people who thought of themselves as “citizens of the world” who were in her view “citizens of nowhere.”
Right-wing parties in Europe such as the National Front in France and the Alternative for Germany (AfD) would be happy to see the breakup of the EU and its institutions. They admire strong leaders such as Vladimir Putin of Russia and are authoritarian by conviction.
The election of Donald Trump as the next president of the United States is even more worrying for those who advocate cooperation over confrontation and adherence to international law and international agreements.
The president-elect is frighteningly unpredictable and he may be constrained from some of his more extreme policies, but in his interpretation of “America first” and making “America great again” he seems to have ditched much of what made America the preferred destination of immigrants from around the world.
The greatest concern in Europe is Trump’s admiration for Putin and his failure to condemn the Russian threat to Ukraine and Russian actions in Syria. His rejection of the CIA reports of Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election suggests at the very least complacency. There is no indication that moral considerations or obligations to other countries e.g. over climate change will have any influence on his foreign policy. He seems to see foreign policy as being analogous to making business deals.
Another major element in the 20th century consensus was that world prosperity and national interests would be promoted by the expansion of world trade. This consensus was not easily achieved in the face of outdated mercantilism in some countries and reluctance to recognize that trade expansion could not be achieved without disruption and difficult adjustments in where and how products and services were provided.
World trade is still subject to numerous tariffs and nontariff barriers, although these are significantly less than in the past. Trade is also constrained by controls on capital, intellectual property and migration. It seems certain that for the foreseeable future such constraints will remain in some form or another, but world trade cannot now be viewed as simply an exchange of goods and services between two states. In almost every area of production goods and services form an integrated pattern. A motorcar or a computer may be built in one country but designed and developed in another with parts manufactured in many countries.
Protectionist policies being advocated by Trump will damage the long-term interests of America, its consumers and workers even if such policies can temporarily assuage a few people in America’s Rust Belt. It should be obvious that if a huge tariff increase is imposed on, say Chinese steel, U.S. carmakers will have to raise their prices, making them less competitive. The Chinese are likely to retaliate and in due course a trade war may be kindled, leading ultimately to a decline in trade and prosperity.
Trump has also accused the Chinese of manipulating exchange rates for their benefit and threatened action against the renminbi, but he needs to recognize that Chinese holdings of dollar bonds are huge. Targeting a currency can be dangerous for the targeter as well as the target. Instability in currency markets could have serious repercussions for world trade, much of which is conducted in dollars.
We have to accept that in the final analysis a country’s foreign policy will be determined by the government’s assessment of where the national interest lies. We must hope that in reaching conclusions, policymakers will give due weight to ethical considerations, to international law and international agreements. We must also hope that decisions will be made not on short-term electoral advantage but on an assessment of what in the longer term will be to the national advantage.
I remember once as ambassador in Tokyo being rebuked by a senior Japanese official for arguing that something was in Japan’s national interest; he asserted that was for Japan to judge. Yes, but perhaps Britain and Japan can try to persuade the new administration in the U.S. that some of Trump’s policies are dangerous and will not work to America’s advantage.
Sadly in this 21st century post-truth society where experts are scorned, facts denied and scientific analysis rejected, it will not be easy.
Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.
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