Towards a Green Foreign Policy

In the last decade two politicians from outside the Green movement have raised issues which gave me pause for thought about how to build a green foreign policy. One was a prominent figure on the centre left of the British Labour Party and the other is the US Secretary of State.


The first, the late Robin Cook, upon taking up the post of Foreign secretary in Tony Blair’s first cabinet announced that he wanted to add “an ethical dimension” to British foreign policy.

The second Condoleezza Rice gave a hugely significant speech in Cairo in June 2005 in which she appeared to distance herself from half a century of American foreign policy. As Ms Rice observed: “For 60 years, the United States pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East — and we achieved neither.” She went on: “The fear of free choices can no longer justify the denial of liberty. It is time to abandon the excuses that are made to avoid the hard work of democracy.”

Robin Cook’s aspiration is one that will resonate with many Greens. However the notion is far more easily expressed than put into action.

On the surface the idea of adding an ethical dimension to a foreign policy seems both simple and attractive. What Robin Cook apparently intended was to make moral judgements central to the process of shaping Britain’s foreign policy.

However being well intentioned is one thing, maintaining the credibility of an ethical foreign policy is another. To have an ethical foreign policy worthy of the name one needs to be consistently ethical. One cannot be ethical on Monday, Wednesday and Fridays and not the rest of the week – that’s a little like the Pope taking a couple of days off a week to be a Buddhist.

In other words it’s preposterous to introduce an ethical dimension to our relations with, say, Israel, and not to our relations with Saudi Arabia or to deal ethically with Venezuela at one moment and then not ethically at another. Do we cancel a technology deal with the Saudis because they abuse human rights? ‘Of course,’ you might argue. Even if that means that Saudi expertise in ‘deprogramming’ Islamic militants though religious engagement is forfeit? Or what about supplying surveillance equipment to Israel that on the one hand might be used to prevent suicide bombings against civilian targets and on the other might be used to track and then kill radical, but non-violent, political leaders? Do we boycott an Israeli university that has a poor record of admitting Palestinians if that would end cooperation between that University’s medical research department and a British counterpart which promises to lead to a treatment for cystic fibrosis?

Tough choices are ethically messy because there is often no absolute right and wrong and making a choice means weighing the relative merits on outcomes; the needs of cystic fibrosis sufferers against those of Palestinians denied adequate access to higher education for instance.

It is simply difficult to be consistently ethical and because an avowedly ethical stance is to invite failure I would counsel caution. Better to resist the temptation to make grand gestures than risk ridicule and the entire project’s discreditation the first time that one has to make a pragmatic rather than an ethical choice.

However formulating a principled foreign policy need not be quite such a doomed cause. Here Ms Rice’s ‘confession’ that the US’ pursuit of stability at the expense of democracy was misguide is useful.

The promotion of democracy wherever and whenever ought, by rights, to be central to any Green foreign policy. There will still be hard choices but fewer are likely to be insurmountable.

Green support for the spread of democracy is a given. Greens must acknowledge that politics is the art of persuasion and that democracy is the least bad way of doing that upon which humanity has thus far hit upon.

Yes, Greens should acknowledge that not every society may be able to adopt a fully fledged Western model of democracy from a standing start. If any culture of democracy or any democratic institutions are lacking then imposing European style democracy from the outset could be counter-productive. However that is no excuse for failing to take active steps to encourage undemocratic societies to take steady and substantive steps towards a system of government which is properly answerable to its people and is there as its citizens’ servant.

One problem that some governments have with promoting democracy is that it might lead to a friendly autocratic regime being replaced with an unfriendly democratic one. This is really the acid test of any country’s commitment to democracy – the ability to accept that others make democratic choices one may not like.

The important line of distinction is while we should accept a democratically elected government is the legitimate representative of its people, we do not have to approve of its actions or engage with it if its actions are truly unacceptable.

The election of the Hamas government by the Palestinian people is a case in point. Despite Ms Rice’s statement of intent two years later she and President Bush approved a plan to support with arms a Fatah lead attempt to overthrow the Hamas government. In the light of such actions it’s hard to take Ms Rice’s earlier remarks entirely at face value.

For a start they fail to recognise why Palestinians and other Muslim societies might vote for an Islamist party (as often or not the corruption prevalent amongst incumbent secular parties, and in the case of Hezbollah and Hamas the fact that they provide social services where otherwise they would be absent or inadequate) but more crucially they fail to accept the legitimacy of a people’s democratic choice and thus left Ms Rice’s words ringing rather hollow.

Recognition of a Hamas government does not necessitate that a Green government engage with Hamas. It’s not unreasonable to insist on an administration stopping a campaign of violence, especially one that targets civilians (albeit one that has to be considered in its wider context) or dropping its stated aim of destroying an internationally recognised state before there is any meaningful diplomatic intercourse.

But such riders aside the key signal Greens must send is that democracy lends legitimacy to those properly and fairly elected as representatives of their people, even if we don’t like those representatives.

Human rights are in certain respects easier to take a firm stand on. Even those who have grown up in profoundly undemocratic societies can understand the notion that people should not be subjected to violence or torture and that they have a right to such shelter, food, warmth and security as is available. Why can they understand that? Because no sane person would wish to be cold or hungry or beaten or tortured. It is no great leap for that person to appreciate that others feel the same.

Yet should we expect higher standards of human rights from small countries, susceptible to external pressure, than we might from China, say. If we cannot demand the same of China as Sudan for fear of upsetting a superpower then what does that say about our principles?

I would argue that the principle should again be couched in terms of the possible – that a Green foreign policy encourage adherence to international human rights standards wherever possible and that it avoid any action which could facilitate or lead to the abuse of human rights even where it is powerless to prevent such.

Then we progress to territory where Greens should feel quite at home; those aspects of foreign policy that arise out of the recognition that a major, if not the major cause of conflicts through history has been competition for resources.

A century of instability in the Middle East can be linked to the West’s appetite for oil. More ancient conflicts can be traced to climate change or the need for food, water or farmland or trading markets.

Indeed there is a strong case to be made that by the end of the 21st century the desire to secure water rather than oil supplies will be the greater cause of conflict.

Greens recognise that global stability is in large measure founded on international justice and that in turn recognises the needs of all peoples to have access to the essentials of life.

So a third plank of a Green foreign policy would be to work to ensure that resources do not become the cause of instability and conflict. This might include making sure that developing economies have access to renewable energy technology at an appropriate scale. It might include encouraging the UN to broker agreements about water supplies. It might include encouraging countries to move towards self sufficiency for all the essentials; food, water, energy. It might also include an attempt to tackle the very difficult issue of population growth given that growing populations act as a multiplier on all the other problems we face.

Finally a Green foreign policy needs to address climate change. However to do that matter justice I will the subject in a future posting.



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