Magazine article Contemporary Review

'An Ethical Foreign Policy': Pinochet's Chile

Magazine article Contemporary Review

'An Ethical Foreign Policy': Pinochet's Chile

Article excerpt

John K. Hickman

Robin cook, the, New Labour Foreign Secretary, announced his 'Mission Statement in May, 1997, with something of a fanfare and the implication that he was thereby breaking new ground. He stressed the strong ethical content which was to be a central element in his policy, referring, for example, to 'our new goals and our new direction' and to making 'Britain once again a force for good in the world.' Under New Labour there would be 'an ethical content to foreign policy and the national interest would not be defined only by narrow realpolitik.'

Of course there is nothing new in this kind of claim or in politicians expressing noble aspirations. In nineteenth-century Britain, Mr Gladstone may have started the trend by his crusade in defence of Christians in Bulgaria against ill-treatment by their Islamic rulers in the Ottoman Empire. Even earlier Britain had taken the lead in suppressing the slave trade in response to moral pressures and in the face of general international resistance.

These were exceptions to the normal approach to bilateral foreign policy which, when not openly aggressive, usually concentrated on strictly national interests. There has long been a certain consensus that civilised states should behave in a civilised way towards each other but it was often ignored and usually limited to Christian European countries. The idea of developing a system of international relations and state policy based on clear moral foundations has only become general during the twentieth century.

Perhaps the most deeply committed prophet of this ideal was President Woodrow Wilson. Even before the United States entered the World War in 1917, Wilson was propounding his view that relations between states should be conducted on the same principles as relations between individuals. Although considered naive and unrealistic by the Allied war leaders, Clemenceau and Lloyd George, Wilson's idealism appealed strongly to public opinion in a Europe sickened and devastated by war. The League of Nations was crippled from the start by the refusal of the US Congress to back Wilson, but the aspiration of most of the world to create a better international order revived strongly during and after the Second World War.

Almost all governments now subscribe (at least in theory) to these ideals and, even if honoured more in the breach than otherwise, there is a generally accepted international consensus in favour of them today.

Most modern statesmen who have made much of the 'ethical' content and motivation of their foreign policy have been more restrained in their rhetoric than men such as Gladstone and Wilson. However, leaving rhetoric aside, what are the practical implications of adopting such a policy? And what results are likely? This article offers some limited conclusions based on the author's experience as a diplomat, particularly during five years as British Ambassador in Chile. Chile under the rule of General Pinochet has once again burst into the headlines as the General, no longer in power, was arrested last month in a London hospital. A Spanish judge is seeking his extradition to Spain to answer charges about the death of Spanish citizens.

The basic principles for the conduct of international relations - indeed the only ones generally accepted since the post-war settlement - are those in the sections of the UN Charter dealing with the peaceful settlement of disputes, abstention from the use or threat of the use of force, respect for peoples' rights of self-determination and the territorial integrity of states, etc. Since then, these have been supplemented, and in some ways amended, by other principles expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948.

Despite pressure from many sides to widen the field for coercive action against states considered to offend humanitarian and other basic principles, no formal change has taken place in the last 50 years: but the explosion of information and media comment on human rights issues figures much more in the formation and presentation of foreign policy than formerly and often seems to force governments into actions they would prefer to avoid. …

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