The age of the ethically correct death squad
Monday 12 May: Foreign Secretary Robin Cook announces New Labour's ethical, humanitarian foreign policy with the launch of his mission statement.
Thursday 10 July: the SAS puts Cook's fine words into practice by launching an undercover operation and shooting dead a Bosnian Serb, Simo Drljaca, accused of crimes against humanity.
Some cynical observers have expressed fears that the government will not really attempt to implement its new, high-minded foreign policy principles. The far bigger danger to freedom and democracy around the world, however, is that New Labour will try to do exactly what it says.
Cook's mission statement contains many of the buzzwords beloved of today's crusading foreign reporters and non-governmental organisations: New Labour has a 'moral responsibility' to ensure there is an 'ethical dimension' to foreign policy and so 'make Britain once again a force for good in the world'. It sounded rather like the gospel according to St Martin of Bell, the war correspondent-turned-MP whose maiden speech in parliament in May called for the government to take a stand against evil in the world and return to 'a diplomacy of honour'.
The Blair government has already put its money where its morals are by announcing a ban on the use and sale of landmines, extra funds for the War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague, and a review of the role of women and homosexuals in the British armed forces. The forces themselves appear to be on a similar ethical kick, trying to recruit young people to act as humanitarian missionaries in uniform.
A recent Royal Air Force advertisement updated the old recruitment slogan to read 'their country needs you', with pictures of warplanes dropping aid parcels rather than bombs. Army recruitment adverts show British soldiers helping to clean up all kinds of natural disasters and human tragedies. One such ad asks the nation's youth to sign on, not as square-bashing squaddies, but as 'surrogate fathers' to the world's tragic children.
The assumption behind all of the changes is that foreign policy can no longer be about the narrow pursuit of dog-eat-dog self-interest. Instead the global role of a state such as Britain should be redefined so as to serve a higher ethical purpose, working alongside NGOs in pursuit of worthy, altruistic ends. The angelic Princess Diana is the perfect ambassador for the new regime, crying her way around the world's minefields wearing body armour supplied by the suitably-named Halo Trust, and assuring the media that she is not a 'political figure', she is just 'a humanitarian' who cares about the victims of evil.
Of course, as others have pointed out, when ethics clash with economic interests, hard-nosed realpolitik is likely to prevail in foreign policy. So, for example, New Labour's commitment to stop selling military equipment to repressive regimes quickly runs up against the fact that arms exports are one of British manufacturing's few remaining success stories (25 per cent of the world market). The government may well block the sale of some police vehicles to Indonesia, but is likely to find a suitably ethical excuse to maintain Britain's multi-billion pound defence contracts with the authoritarian rulers of Saudi Arabia.
It would be a mistake, however, to imagine that New Labour is merely paying lip service to a new approach to foreign policy. The soul-searching over Britain's proper role in the world is genuine enough; the trauma has reached the point where the foreign office can even criticise itself for 'appeasing' the Chinese regime during the handover of Hong Kong.
One general rule of life in the nineties is that public bodies tend to issue mission statements when they do not really know where they are going. The British foreign office is no exception. Like many other established institutions, it has lost its bearings in the confused post-Cold War world, where it is searching for a coherent identity that could recreate the certainties of the old anti-Soviet days. Encouraged by the NGO-types, broadsheet journalists and other fashionable worthies who are a natural New Labour constituency, Tony Blair's government has latched on to the notion of a humanitarian foreign policy in the absence of anything else.
In the process, the New Labour regime has found itself a rationale for intervening around the world in a new ethical, environmentally-friendly spirit of empire building.
The adoption of an ethical foreign policy involves an assumption of moral superiority on the part of New Labour. It is saying that Blair's government, unlike the self-serving and sleazy Conservative regime it replaced, represents no special interests. Instead it is concerned with upholding the Greater Good around issues such as human rights and the environment.
There is, of course, only room for an exalted few on such moral high ground, from where they can look down on the rest of the world and pontificate on how to put it to rights. In that sense New Labour's ethical foreign policy represents a nineties' outlook that is every bit as elitist and repressive as old-fashioned imperialist ideologies. It is a world-view in which 'us' in Britain and the West represent, in Cook's words, a moral 'force for good in the world', whose mission is to save 'them' in the immoral societies of Africa, Asia or Eastern Europe, whether they want to be saved or not.
Take, for example, the campaign to ban landmines, fronted by Princess Diana with keen New Labour support. Why are people suddenly competing to see who can make the landmine problem appear most horrific? On the eve of Diana's August trip to Bosnia, the television news made the wild claim that there are a million mines buried in that former war-zone. The next day in the Mirror, Robin Cook claimed that there are in fact six million mines in Bosnia - which would be around one-and-a-half mines for every man, woman and child. Any advance on six million?
The notion that suffering around the world is caused by 'the evil of landmines' is childishly daft. There is no such thing as an 'evil' landmine, any more than there is a bad bullet or a naughty knife. They are just weapons; deadly yes, but demonic no. Take them away and those who have to fight will use something else. It is instructive that Cook's own ban on landmines only commits the British Army to destroy its stockpile by 2005, giving plenty of time for the armed forces to develop some alternative means of killing enemy soldiers and civilians.
What the hysterical campaign against landmines really symbolises is the fashionable trend to moralise conflicts, depicting what are struggles for social and political power as if they were fairy tale battles against the forces of evil. As ever, the assumption is that the evil is to be found over there, in Angola or Bosnia, rather than in our own societies. That is one reason why attention is focused on the landmine, a cheap and inefficient anti-personnel device mainly used by the world's poor, instead of on the kind of hi-tech 'smart' weaponry which can destroy entire populations, but is the exclusive preserve of military powers like Britain (1997-98 defence budget: £21 billion). The mines are, as Cook has it, an 'insult to a civilised world'. The Cruise Missiles, on the other hand, are presumably crusaders for civilisation.
The same assumed divide between the moral West and the immoral rest underpins every aspect of the ethical foreign policy. The proposal to restrict arms sales ultimately rests upon the notion that a mature, peace-loving nation like Britain should not be handing dangerous toys over to irresponsible and violent children elsewhere. What starts as an emphasis on cleaning up the global environment generally ends up as an attack on the polluters in the developing world. And Robin Cook's ethical foreign policy statement included a commitment to publish a sort of annual 'league table' of human rights abuses around the globe, to show which of the world's peoples are living up to the standards of behaviour which New Labour has set for them.
Whenever moralistic judgements are being handed down, the threat of corrective punishment is never far behind. From its assumed position on the high ground of humanitarianism, the New Labour government - like the Clinton administration in the USA - can feel free to hand out however severe a punishment it sees fit. Nobody can accuse Blair and Cook of fighting a war for oil profits, or as a party political stunt to win an election. These New Labour men are, after all, selfless crusaders for the Greater Good of humanity, summoning all the authority of a vengeful god with which to smite the wicked of the Earth.
It turns out that a government espousing the ethical, humanitarian foreign policy of the nineties can get away with committing atrocities which would have provoked public outrage in another time. All the authorities need do is to brand their targets as evil men from societies in the relegation zone of the human rights league table, where the streets are paved with landmines, and they are assured of loud support, especially from what would once have been considered the liberal-left.
So it was that New Labour felt able to do what the Tories would not, sending in the SAS to snatch one Bosnian Serb and execute another. Even the revelation that Simo Drljaca had not been formally accused of any war crimes, but was the subject of a 'secret indictment', failed to shake the widespread support for the assault in Europe and America. The ethically correct death squad had arrived on the world stage, and everybody from army commanders to Amnesty International cheered and called for an encore.
So it is too that, in this atmosphere, the Western authorities can maintain their air of moral superiority and their international support while conducting the kind of showtrials which are described elsewhere in this issue of LM, in our investigation into the injustice being perpetrated by the Rwandan genocide tribunal.
Faced with the soft words and warm charms of the ethical foreign policy, much of the world seems to have lost its head - or a least its critical faculties. Princess Diana's romance with Dodi Fayed might have stirred up great controversy in the papers. But the same media cheers on her role in the anti-landmines crusade, which has reduced real human tragedies to just another pretext for some cheap tabloid sentimentality and salacious, human interest, photo stories.
Reproduced from LM issue 103, September 1997