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Britain abroad must temper idealism with pragmatism

In an interview for the New Statesman, the Archbishop of Canterbury quizzes Foreign Secretary William Hague about Bin Laden, Libya and the role of moral values in foreign policy.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

This article appeared in the New Statesman online edition on 17 June 2011.

How does foreign policy balance national interest and global responsibility? National interest alone can mean a short-sighted and reactive style that compounds long-term problems. And too much focus on global responsibility can lead to an unrealistic, often destructive ambition to “police” other societies.

The present Foreign Secretary, William Hague, is more likely than most people to be aware of the tensions, given that he has written a major biography of William Wilberforce (whose campaign against the slave trade prompted just these questions two centuries ago). So I was interested to try to tease out how he saw the priorities.

But our tour of the world’s troubled areas began with some thoughts about means and ends in foreign policy, and whether there are real absolutes to hold on to. RW

Rowan Williams Over a decade ago, people started talking quite a lot about an ethical foreign policy. It turned out to be a lot more complica­ted in practice. But if you had to define “ethical foreign policy” where would you start?

William Hague Well, I think it should be a foreign policy based on values - I hope all our policies are based on values. Where defining foreign policy as “ethical” went wrong was that it implied that all decisions would be exclusive in every respect of any dealings with unethical regimes. And then it was easy to pick holes in it. I have always thought that foreign-policy idealism has to be tempered with realism. You do have to do business with and to try to influence people you don’t agree with, or find disagreeable, so it’s important to stress that balance.

But I think it’s vitally important to have strong values in foreign policy, so I always think of it that way round. It’s got harder, as new powers have emerged, for the UK to think it can impose its will on other nations. So our focus is more on our own behaviour: we have to be an inspiring example ourselves of our own values and how we support those values around the world. This government has responded to allegations of intelligence agencies being complicit in torture. I’m sure by announcing an inquiry we can say to other nations when we’re criticising their human rights records that we respond in a transparent way.

RW And that example you’ve just given - torture - is a clear line in the sand, is it?

WH Absolutely, yes.

RW Would you say the same thing about extraordinary renditions?

WH Yes. Absolutely. Actually, in opposition I criticised Guantanamo Bay and rendition flights that were thought to have led to people being tortured. And British governments have a strong record on the absolute prohibition of torture, or complicity in torture. We have published the guidelines for intelligence officers in the field and I have published for the first time Foreign Office guidelines to our own officials.

RW So there is the question of intelligence that you may receive that has come from a rather doubtful source.

WH Yes. And you can’t always know the source, of course. But it is now built into our system that ministers and their officials and the intelligence agencies place enormous importance on these questions and spend a lot of time thinking about these issues. I don’t deny that there are problems in the intelligence world, but I would argue that in the UK we try to uphold the highest standards in the world.
We cannot cut ourselves off from all sources of information that might be unsavoury. Nor can we ever say that there is no risk attached to actions that we take - that somebody in another country could, through no action of our own, be mistreated in some way. But we can go to every possible length to minimise those risks.

RW If I heard you correctly, you’re saying that what matters is that you are open to scrutiny on these issues?

WH Well, I think several things matter. One is ministerial accountability: accountability to the democratically elected government. The operations of MI6 are approved by me or not - and I don’t always approve them. And there is a Commons intelligence security committee, so MPs are able to ask questions about how the whole system works, and there is an intelligence services commissioner who assesses every year whether we are following the correct procedures. So I think that is a very robust system of accountability. These things are not absolutes. Sometimes there are risks at the margins, but we’re very clear we don’t take part in torture; we don’t sanction it or condone it. But you can’t eliminate all risks of information coming from a source you wouldn’t have wanted to be closely associated with.

RW So there is an absoluteness about the principle, therefore?

WH Yes.

RW We should address the shooting of Osama Bin Laden.

WH Absolutely. My own view is that it was right for the United States to do what it did, because he was responsible for the deaths of thousands of people and could have been responsible for many more. It’s a very difficult situation to find him and then to get to him and confront him. He made no attempt to surrender at the time. This is not a man proceeding with a white flag towards those who have entered his compound. And it is becoming evident from what was found there that he was still exercising some command over al-Qaeda. So I think, in a case like that, the action the United States took was right and that is why we have supported the US in doing so.

RW I don’t think there’s any question at all about the man’s guilt - it was pretty clear and self-confessed, and that is not the issue here. But I do remain very uneasy about the process of law and at what point it becomes dispen­sable. After all, we held the Nuremberg trials. People say, “Do you want a media circus surrounding a trial?” But the trouble is the point at which the rule of law becomes, as it were, suspendable - and how much ground that gives to the enemy to deal with. Those are my concerns.

WH Yes, but the rule of law provides for self-defence.

RW Interpreted perhaps a little liberally in this instance.

WH We are dealing with people in the al-Qaeda leadership, several others of whom have been killed by western military action, who don’t want to be taken alive. And that doesn’t leave much choice to us if the threat from them is to be eliminated. But I do, of course, recognise that this should always be a last resort. In every situation, use of force should be a last resort.

In the case of Libya, if we thought there was any other way left of protecting the lives of those people in Benghazi in the middle of March, other than passing a UN resolution and taking immediate military action, then of course we would have done something else, but that was the only option left to us. And so I would argue, from the point of view of governments with a responsibility to protect the millions of people who live in their countries, that sometimes it is necessary to do these things.

RW I’d like to broaden this out a bit. Democracy is presumably a system whose values make a virtue of its capacity to be self-critical. Do you agree that one of the values of democracy is its openness to self-examination?

WH Yes, I think that is a virtue in all walks of life. As politicians, we’re more open to criticism than most people - even more than archbishops! It’s how we live and breathe, through constant criticism of what we do. We take the rough and tumble and we understand, hopefully in a good-natured way, that the government will alternate. And that’s still what is missing in some countries. Democracy doesn’t just mean that people get to vote. It means the government changes from time to time and people on the losing side accept that, because they know that some years down the track they’ll be on the winning side. I think that’s a strength of Britain’s political system.

RW That’s an interesting way of putting it, because I think there are some styles of talking about exporting democracy which sound as if it is just about the vote or the system. What you’re really talking about here is a cultural shift, a civic argument, which takes a lot longer to embed.

WH It does. Look at the Arab nations. For the people in Egypt and Tunisia, where they have strong aspirations for real democracy, the process now is as important as the timing of elections. They can set a date for elections, but they need to have real choices, they need poli­tical parties available that are of sufficient strength for people to choose between them, a free media that gives them that choice and an independent judiciary so that the rule of law can be applied in elections. Those things are harder to create, and easy to take for granted in this country.

RW What does a country like ours do to help Egypt have that kind of public argument?

WH Well, we mustn’t lecture them. Egypt is a proud nation with a longer history than ours and Egyptians are not easily going to be told from London or Paris or Washington what their democracy should look like. Yet there are two things we can do to help.

One, we have started what we call an Arab Partnership Fund, which is funding connections between, for instance, our Electoral Commission and Egypt, helping us to pass on our expertise about how things work in a more open political environment, without telling them how to try to structure things.

Then there is something much bigger, which is a bold and ambitious change in the policy of the whole of Europe towards their neighbours. One of the greatest strengths of the EU over the decades has been the effect it has had on the countries that have aspired to join it or to be closely associated with it. And we have to work out how to have that effect on the countries of North Africa, to act as a magnet for positive change. It requires quite an imaginative reorientation of European policy.

RW So there’s a moral dimension to Europe’s identity. More specifically, are we likely to be able to reinvent the Mediterranean as a cultural unit, if you see what I mean?

WH I hope so, yes. We should be optimistic. You’ve met people who are involved in these revolutions - you went to Egypt quite recently. On the whole they are not unrealistic. They are young people who want freedom and choices in life and dignity for their countries. These are good things. There can be a great advance in human freedom if this all goes in the right direction.

But if it goes in the wrong direction, if these countries lapse back into authoritarian government or into state collapse, then they will be new breeding grounds for terrorism and extremism. So I think it is a good idea to think of reinventing or reuniting the Mediterranean. And to do that really requires the Middle East peace process to be brought to fruition. We’re placing a lot of emphasis on that.

RW Two things come to mind about the Middle East peace process. One is the difficulty for Israel in seeing itself as a regional partner, rather than a regional exception. The other is the Hamas situation. It does underline the difficulties some nations in the world have when the voting process elsewhere delivers a result that isn’t strategically welcome to them. Those are just two of a huge number of problems, but I think those two combined make it very challenging sometimes for anyone in the Holy Land to think forward more than nine months.

WH It is difficult. And both Israelis and Palestinians have missed major opportunities for peace or at least to test whether peace was really available over the past 15 years. It requires a continued and sustained international effort.

It always requires the leadership of the United States because only the Americans can guide Israel into an eventual two-state solution and long-term peace in the Middle East. But we’re very actively engaged in the UK, too. We have voted for the Palestinian resolution on settlements. The United Nations Security Council called for a solution based on pre-1967 borders and we have stressed the urgency of this. Unless we get a two-state solution soon, the prospect of it will disappear.

RW I get a strong sense when I go to the region that the window of opportunity is closing fast.

WH Yes, it is.

RW You mentioned the Israeli settlements. That is one thing that Israel could address to break the deadlock. Do you think there is one thing the Palestinians could do to break it?

WH That is a good question. I think the single thing that Palestinians could do is to return to direct negotiations if we are able to set out clear parameters. But that requires agreement on a two-state solution, agreement on borders based on pre-1967 with land swaps, and it requires
a just settlement for refugees and agreement on Jerusalem being the shared capital of both states. On the one hand, these sound phenomenally difficult things to do and they are. On the other hand, they have come quite close to being able to agree these things before - at Oslo, for instance - so it’s not impossible.

RW I know that you have an interest in min­ority rights. One of the big questions for someone like me, which is on my desk day after
day, is what is, in effect, the ethnic cleansing of Christians from the Middle East. We had a visit a few weeks ago from an Iraqi Christian leader who described in vivid detail what his people were going through. He lives daily with death threats. The Christian population in the Holy Land is eroding at a phenomenal rate. And it does seem to me, as it does to many Muslim friends of mine in the Middle East, that part of the significance of Christian communities there is that they prevent Muslim and Arab identities just collapsing into one another. They retain some memory of the days when cultural pluralism was a reality in the region. How do you respond to the particular challenge of the homogenisation of these majority Muslim societies?

WH I think we have to raise this whenever we can, especially with new leaders in the Middle East. I was in Cairo recently and I raised with Egyptian leaders, including Field Marshal Tan­tawi [head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces], the tension between Salafists and the Coptic Christians. Unfortunately, since then, we’ve seen new and terrible instances of violence and killing. We have to make the case that societies are much stronger for encouraging all faiths to live alongside each other. It’s important not just for their own countries, but for the perceptions of the rest of the world. We can’t enforce that ourselves, but we can point to the strength it brings.

We have many disagreements with the government of Syria, but the ability of Christians to live peacefully alongside Muslims there is very pronounced. Again, we must make the case that democracy is not just about elections. It is also about people of different opinions and, in this case, different faiths and habits, being able to live peacefully with each other, understanding each other’s right to have their views. I also agree that the position of Christians in the Middle East is very concerning. We’re very active in taking up the subject in Iraq, for instance.

RW One of the great difficulties is that some of the pressure on Christian communities arises, frankly, from the false identification of Christians on the ground with the supposedly Christian powers of the west. One of the effects of the Iraq conflict has undoubtedly been to
cast local Christians in that role. The same thing happens in Pakistan. The Christians are regarded as the strangers, the traitors within the gates, and that does leave both you and me in rather a difficult position in knowing how to apply pressure from the outside without reinforcing that stereotype.

WH We have to find our allies among the Muslim nations, of which there are many to be mobilised. In the Libyan crisis, we have taken great care to be part of a broader coalition than the western nations. In fact, we could not have embarked on what we have done if it had not been for the clear call from the Arab League for action to be taken and then the support of the United Nations Security Council, including the votes of African countries in favour of the resolution. That means that the situation in Libya is not the west trying to impose our view on Libya. It’s a variety of nations, including Arab nations, responding to a cry for assistance.

RW Can we turn to Sudan? Where is the pressure going to come from which will prevent that from sliding back into chaos? As we speak, the situation in Abyei is getting more serious.

WH The situation in Abyei is difficult. Again, we’ve done and continue to do a lot of work on this. It’s a good example of our conflict prevention work. We’ve done a great deal of that in Sudan, particularly through the referendum in January. My International Development colleagues and I were constantly on the phone to both sides whenever there was a provocation to say, “You’ve got to get through this without escala­ting the situation.” Former President Mbeki of South Africa was very active in trying to get the two sides to complete the peace agreement together. That’s still not complete, hence the difficulties with the border in Abyei. We’ve come a long way, but we mustn’t be complacent.

RW You mentioned the Department for International Development there, and clearly it’s part of your view that development is inextricably bound up with foreign policy. But how do we work not just with governments, but with civil society, churches and faith organisations, to deliver development aid most effectively?

WH Andrew Mitchell, the Development Secretary, and DfID do a good job of working with those organisations and making sure that funds often flow through non-state channels. In Libya, for instance, we’ve been providing funds to get people out of war-torn Misrata and to get humanitarian aid in. DfID has done that by providing the finance for charities and inter­national organisations to do the work. Like the last government, the current government is committed to allocating 0.7 per cent of gross national income to development aid by 2013.

I think that’s setting a really good example to the world. It ought to be quite shaming to some countries, but perhaps they don’t feel the shame enough yet.

RW As we’re talking about some of those emergent relationships in Africa, China’s presence is enormously and increasingly important there. It’s sometimes been pretty ambivalent in places like Sudan, or Zimbabwe, or Angola. I’m sure you’ve had conversations, as I have, with people in the Chinese administration about how China sees its role in Africa and whether there is any way it can be encouraged to see it more constructively, rather than simply economically. I’m sure you’ve heard the nostrum that China is a developing economy and its relations with African countries are just a matter of developing economies working together, but that doesn’t seem to cut the mustard in Africa.

WH No, you’re right. Chinese leaders say that they’re a developing country and need access to resources and that’s what being involved with Africa is about. I made the point to Chinese leaders that, yes, per capita, you are still like a developing country, in rural parts particularly. But take all the Chinese people together and it’s an enormous presence in the world, with an enormous influence. A big house is still a big house, even if it’s made of small bricks. And so it does have wider responsibilities.

By the way, this is also one of the central challenges for foreign policy in the next couple of decades - how to bring the emerging powers
of the world, who have ever-greater political, economic and military power, into what we think of as a sense of global responsibility in terms of development aid and conflict prevention. I think that’s a major challenge and I don’t just mean China. It’s important to have a strong human rights dialogue with the Chinese and to be frank with them, as they are frank with us. The standing of China will be affected by how the rest of the world sees the implementation of policies towards the continent of Africa. The emerging powers will become increasingly sen­sitive as the years go by to public opinion in the rest of the world.

RW So you’d say there really is such a thing as a global shame culture?

WH Well, without some faith in that, it’s quite a bleak outlook for the world. But will it happen quickly enough for us to be able to work together in a responsible way for global peace and security? That’s the question.

RW It has a bit to do with how far any nation thinks in a five-to-ten-year scheme of things, rather than in the one-to-two, to its immediate advantage. That does seem to be a problem.

My impression is that China is extremely cagey about the middle to long term, for very understandable reasons. It’s vast and very complicated, and nobody wants to make big guesses that are going to be hugely wrong. And yet, one way into this argument might be to ask how China would imagine a middle-to-long-term future in Africa which required some constructive building of state and civil society.

WH And we do have those discussions. We must respect that the Chinese have achieved an extraordinary amount in their own country over the past 30 years. They don’t share our political system and there have been some vigorous exchanges about the nature of democracy and so on. But they have undoubtedly achieved an enormous improvement in the economic opportunity and, in many ways, the social and economic rights of hundreds of millions of people. I think it’s always very important to appreciate that in dealing with China.

But you’ve travelled a lot as Archbishop of Canterbury. What are the foreign-policy challenges you most wish we could solve in the next few years? I think we’ve probably covered the Middle East peace process.

RW I’m personally very interested in the China/ Africa connection from both ends because we have close connections with Sudan, and with Angola and Zimbabwe, and we’ve also been building up steadily over the past few years some regular contacts with the churches in China.

One thing I’ve encouraged is African church leaders visiting China, so that some people in China get a sense face-to-face of what the Church’s concerns are for people on the ground in Africa. It came to a head a few years ago when I first went to Sudan and the man who is now Archbishop of Sudan had spoken out about his anxieties about the Chinese presence in central-southern Sudan. When I was in China not long afterwards, it was an opportunity to say to some people there, “Why not try to engage with the Church leadership in bits of Africa and see whether there are conversations that can open new doors there?” So that’s a significant concern of mine.

Within Africa itself, we have quite a close relationship with Burundi, where our Church is quite small, but doing rather more than you might expect. One of my most vivid memories is from just after the first election in living memory that hadn’t produced another round of civil war. And talking to both the outgoing and incoming presidents gave me a sense of what an extraordinary culture shift it was for someone to be willing to go peacefully and someone willing to come in peacefully. It wasn’t a fairy-tale happy ending - things did go a bit wrong afterwards - but something held. A possibility had been put there.

WH Ghana is another example. And I think in Cote d’Ivoire it didn’t happen peacefully, but it did show a clear election result and there’s a strong will for that in large parts of Africa - and that should be respected. I think that’s a step forward.

RW As we were saying, it’s partly a question of shame from neighbours. But it’s also a question of political sustainability, certainly in countries where a regime is dramatically oppressing its population.

WH That brings us back to the Middle East, in a way, because one of the arguments I make about the change there is that it is going to go on to affect many other countries. This is not just about the Arab world. Of course, there is a combination of factors that we can now see has brought about these changes - rulers being in power a very long time, a demographic bulge that means there is an enormous number of disaffected young people, the rise of social networking sites, the rest of the world advancing economically. All these things come together to produce these revolutions, but the effect will be felt in other countries, perhaps in sub-Saharan Africa, perhaps elsewhere in the world, where people think there is poor governance or high levels of corruption.

I’ve said before that there is no instance in the world of a government successfully resisting demands for democracy from the mass of the population. Other countries in the world are going to have to accustom themselves to that idea.

RW We were talking about what it might mean to reinvent the community of the Mediterranean. But even before the Arab spring, countries such as Greece were bearing a monumental burden in the shape of floods of migrants coming from destabilised countries further east. There is going to be more of that, I would have thought, in the immediate future.

WH Here we’re back to the importance of an ambitious policy towards the neighbourhood of Europe. Because it’s not the answer for vast numbers of people to move into European countries. That will create additional tensions. We’re already seeing that Italy and Malta are very, very anxious about the position they’re in. It just underlines the importance of making it possible for people to prosper in their own countries. There must be a big response from the global financial institutions to support small and medium-sized enterprises in countries that face tremendous economic challenges. If we’d allowed Colonel Gaddafi to reconquer Libya, that would have destabilised the region to an even greater extent and led to uncontrolled migration out of North Africa.

RW What intrigued me in Greece was to see both the very large number of migrants and the remarkable generosity of a lot of the Greek people who cope with them. But also the strain they were under as Greece’s own economy collapsed. That is a fairly lethal combination, even with the goodwill.

WH And if European countries feel that they are facing bigger and bigger flows of migrants, that will make them much more defensive and inward-looking.

RW It spirals down into popular attitudes that can be pretty toxic. I think one of the untold stories of the past 20 years is what happens
in conflict regions to neighbouring states that aren’t in the firing line. Not just what happens in Iraq, but what happens in Syria and Jordan in terms of vast displacement into economies that are already buckling.

And when you turn to Central Africa, again you see vast numbers. The Great Lakes region remains a pretty complex picture, doesn’t it? Part of the complexity there is the relative porousness of boundaries, so that the Lord’s Resistance Army [LRA] can exist in northern Uganda, in Chad, in Sudan, and it’s almost impossible to address in a co-ordinated way. Any thoughts on the LRA and how it might be contained?

WH The UK cannot intervene to control that situation, although we’ve been active diplomatically. The answer there is to build up the capacity and the prosperity of the states involved. There is no short-term answer.

RW Sadly, when it comes to the LRA, I think some people have looked for a short-term military answer, which hasn’t worked.

WH No, and we cannot really be part of that. Indeed, we have enough military commitments at this time.

RW My final question concerns the continuity of foreign policy. Are you confident that, whatever happens in the electoral cycle, there is a hard core of values-driven foreign policy of the sort you’ve described?

WH Continuity is a great strength in any country’s foreign policy. And I think we do have a lot of that continuity in terms of what Britain stands for unequivocally - human rights, democratic values, free trade. These are constants, whatever government is in power. There are other things that change - alliances and so on. And I’ve just been changing things in the diplomatic service, reopening embassies where the last government closed them. But that doesn’t mean our foreign-policy values have changed. That’s a great strength for the United Kingdom.

RW What’s at the strategic heart of the opening of the new embassies?

WH It’s recognising that, in the 21st century, power is shifting east and south. Power is becoming more networked - the world is not concentrating into blocs of power any more. And it’s actually becoming less polarised. It’s a more complex lattice of the connections between many overlapping groups of nations and civil society and businesses. And, of course, families are much more interconnected all over the world. So we have to make sure we’re at many different points of the hubs of this lattice, which means that, alongside our strong involvement in multilateral institutions in the UN, in Nato and the EU, we have to reaccentuate our bilateral relations - with Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia, Mexico all countries that are going to be a bigger force in world affairs. So we’re trying to make sure we’ve got the diplomatic presence, the bilateral links, strong economic and political relations with those countries.

RW Do you expect that new pattern to be reflected in, say, how the UN is constituted?

WH Yes, it means there are more surprising groupings. The UN is a topical example - European, North American, Arab and African nations together supported its resolution on Libya.

RW So, not the usual suspects, then?

WH No, and I think that’s a welcome development in world affairs.

This article first appeared in New Statesman on 17 June 2011. Read the original article here.

Published 17 June 2011