Wielding Britannia’s dented shield

The false dichotomy between “advancing British interests” and “advancing human rights” was in evidence again at the Labour Party Conference last night. It’s time to craft a British foreign policy in the service of both.

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Britannia's shield: dented but not departed
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George Grant
On 27 September 2011 10:58

In the business world they call it the “affirming evidence bias”; the tendency to pick-and-choose pieces of evidence that reaffirm a pre-existing point of view.

It would not only be hypocritical, but downright untrue, to pretend that I myself am not infected with this dangerous malaise. To a greater or lesser extent we all are, particularly those of us who live and work in the political village.

Speaking at last night’s debate of the Fabian Society at the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool, however, I noticed the affirmative evidence bias –let’s call it AEB for short - manifesting itself in even more egregious forms than I can manage on a good day.

Amongst those sharing the panel with me to debate ‘From Iraq to Libya – What Should We Think of Liberal Interventionism Now?’, were long-time CND member and Stop the War éminence grise Jeremy Corbyn MP and War on Want’s executive director, John Hilary.

Unsurprisingly, both men were of the view that liberal interventionism is usually a very bad thing. Throughout the debate, they put forward a number of considered and intelligent points, but advanced cases of AEB in both made much more of what they said simply beyond credible.

Let us take the manner in which Mr Corbyn concluded his opening remarks as a case in point. Only a man already convinced that NATO’s presence in Afghanistan amounts to nothing more than an unjustifiable exercise in neo-colonial occupation could characterise the Taliban, a movement responsible for 80 per cent of civilian deaths in that country, as freedom fighters with a just cause.

Likewise, only a man who believes that “British interests” can invariably be used as a synonym for “abusive exploitation” would lay down the charge that because British interests were involved in the decision to intervene in Libya, that automatically serves as proof that it was morally the wrong thing to do. This was the thrust of much of what John Hilary had to say.

Now, I will be the first to recognise that the UK is very far from perfect, particularly when it comes to foreign policy. HMG’s strategy in the Arab world for most of the past half-century is a case in point.

Propping up autocratic dictatorships in the misguided belief that, no matter how unpleasant these regimes were, they nonetheless served as the surest guarantors of our security interests, was the acceptable modus operandi for a very long time. You need only go to a passing-out parade at Sandhurst Military Academy, and see how nearly half of the awards given to officer cadets are named after dodgy Middle Eastern autocrats and their families, to recognise how deep this relationship has run.

But does that mean, therefore, that whenever the British government intervenes in the affairs of other sovereign states, sometimes militarily, it must automatically be to the detriment of those who live there? Patently not. Both the UK, and Western democracies generally, can and do act in the pursuit of human rights, even if in so doing they are simultaneously furthering their own interests.

Indeed, the argument I have consistently made for a long time now is that British policymakers, and the political community generally, need to move beyond the false dichotomy between “advancing British interests”, and “advancing human rights”. It can and should be possible to craft a foreign policy in the service of both.

Democracy, as Churchill famously said, is the worst form of government, except all those others that have been tried from time to time. Promoting abroad those same values that have led to freedom and prosperity at home can and should form the core of British foreign policy in today’s world.

Not only are democracies more respectful of human rights than autocracies, they are also generally more stable, more prosperous, and much less likely to go to war with one another. If you want a safe and secure place from which to guarantee your oil supplies, look to Norway and Canada, not Libya and Iran.

Likewise, though armed intervention must always be the last resort, it must be recognised that in the interests of protecting human rights, such a course can be both right and necessary.

It may very well be that in helping to stabilise the southern Mediterranean littoral and its energy supplies, the intervention in Libya will serve British and French interests in the long-term. However, that should not detract from the reality that by preventing Colonel Gaddafi from “cleansing” his country “house by house”, NATO has done the Libyan people a tremendous service.

Persuading any government to expend millions – even billions – of pounds, and to risk the lives of its young men and women in uniform, for purely altruistic motives is almost impossible. Sad but true. Borrowing a line from Neil Kinnock, my fellow-panellist and friend Gisela Stuart MP made the point well when she argued that it is better to go into battle with a dented shield than with no shield at all.

The UK retains possession of a very powerful shield, albeit one dented with many past failures and wrong turns. Casting that shield away is not the answer. Getting better at using it is the key.

George Grant is the Director for Global Security at the Henry Jackson Society, a foreign policy think tank in London, UK

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