RECENT EVENTS, PARTICULARLY in the Middle East and Central Asia, have aroused much debate about the moral principles that should underpin the foreign policy of the Western democracies. When New Labour, for example, came to power in Britain, in 1997, it committed itself to what Robin Cook called an `ethical foreign policy' but that concept proved difficult to define and even harder to apply to complex international issues. The problem is not a new one, however, for it has bedevilled British foreign policy for over 200 years.
No major British statesman has been more associated with the concept of a moral foreign policy than William Gladstone (1809-98), the Victorian Liberal leader, who was four times prime minister (1868-74, 1880-5, 1886, 1892-94). In 1879, when he was out of office, he laid down what he called `the right policies of foreign policy', which included the preservation of peace, the love of liberty and respect for the equal rights of all nations. Gladstone did not just formulate these principles, he also applied them to international issues of the day--most famously in his concern for the plight of oppressed peoples including the Neapolitans (1851), the Bulgarians (1876) and the Armenians. But Gladstone's most telling humanitarian statement related to the Afghans. In 1879, during the famous Midlothian election campaign in which Gladstone skilfully to attacked Disraeli's policies and leadership, he made a simple moral observation that still has resonance today:
Remember the rights of the savage as we call him. Remember that ... the
sanctity of human life in the hill villages of Afghanistan among the winter
snows, is as inviolable in the eye of Almighty God as can be your own.
Remember that ... mutual love is not limited by the shores of this island,
is not limited by the boundaries of Christian civilisation, that it passes
over the whole surface of the earth and embraces the meanest along with the
greatest in its unmeasured scope.
Gladstone's remarks were occasioned by British military action in the Khost Valley in south-eastern Afghanistan--the same area where both the Americans and the Royal Marines carried out operations against al-Qaeda earlier this year. The parallel between recent events and those in the Victorian period is striking, for in both cases events on the other side of the world suddenly and unexpectedly propelled Afghanistan into the political limelight. Just as the attacks in New York, on September 11th, 2001, led to the war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, so the Russo-Turkish war in the Balkans (1877-78) led to the Anglo-Afghan war of 1878. In both cases the rulers of Afghanistan were regarded by Western powers as the local stooges of hostile forces with world-wide influence.
In the nineteenth century Afghanistan was a crucial chess piece in what was known as `the Great Game'--the competition for territory and influence between Britain and Russia in Central Asia. The first British intervention in Afghanistan, in 1838, was prompted by the decision of the ruling emir to receive a Russian envoy. This was regarded as a threat to British India by the viceroy, Lord Auckland (1784-1849), who mounted an invasion of Afghanistan, which deposed the emir, Dost Mohammed, and restored a former ruler, Shah Shuja. But in 1842 the troops were forced to retreat from Kabul and were then massacred by the Ghilzais in the Kyber Pass. Out of 4,000 soldiers and 12,000 camp followers only a handful survived. This was the most serious defeat suffered by British imperial troops during the Victorian era, but the Indian army restored imperial prestige by returning to Kabul and obtaining the release of British prisoners before withdrawing.
Gladstone, who was then a young member of Peel's Tory Cabinet, welcomed the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan because he regarded the intervention as not just an error but a crime. …