Prime Minister Boris Johnson (L) signs a Strategic Partnership Agreement with Mohammed bin Salman Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. Picture Credit: Stefan Rousseau - Pool/Getty Images

The moral chaos of Western foreign policy

You can’t take a stand if you don’t know where you stand

Artillery Row

It was the political historian James MacGregor Burns who observed that “divorced from ethics, leadership is reduced to management and politics to mere technique”. To be fair, politics is all about compromise, and on an international level diplomacy is about securing our “national interests”. But everything has its limits. The recent scenes of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe finally being reunited with her family offer a stark reminder that what constitutes our national interests can be politically subjective. Held hostage for six years, the reason for her sudden release can be summed up with one small word: oil. 

With supplies from Russia shut off for the foreseeable future, and markets in turmoil, an energy crisis is now apparent. It could not come at a worse moment. Just as economies were looking to recover from the carnage of Covid-19, governments are now faced with skyrocketing fuel costs and the very real prospect of the elderly and impoverished freezing next winter. 

In the UK parliament, the political responses to the impact of resource nationalism are mostly divided between principles or pragmatism. The former rightly calling for trade to be based on human rights and civil liberties, and the latter understandably positing the need to keep the lights on.

Despots are back in the driving seat

While Putin’s invasion of Ukraine confirms that we urgently need to reduce dependency on resource-rich authoritarian regimes, it also confirms a new realpolitik which raises some challenging ethical questions. How can we justify sanctions against Putin for crimes against humanity, but not against Xi Jinping who leads a country which our parliament identifies as pursuing genocide? How do we feel about trading with Narendra Modi’s India, with its fierce persecution of religious minorities through the Hindutva “anti-conversion laws”? Or what about Imran Khan’s Pakistan, which brutally represses Christian, Ahmadi and Hindi minorities, yet receives a huge slice of UK aid? 

As for Saudi Arabia, which recently beheaded 81 people in a single day, the Foreign Secretary Liz Truss insisted that the UK was “absolutely right” to “look at alternative sources of oil and gas”, and that while the UK did not agree with “every single policy of Saudi Arabia or the UAE”, they “do not pose a threat to global security in the way that Vladimir Putin does … We need to bring those countries into the circle of influence of the UK and pull countries away from dependence on Russia,” she said. 

Here is leadership reduced to management and politics to mere technique. The fact that we are now negotiating new fuel deals with Saudi Arabia and Venezuela suggest that business with the unsavoury appears to be for the most part “business as usual”. If so, despots are back in the driving seat, or as Anne Appelbaum noted in The Atlantic “The Bad Guys are Winning”. 

With further economic and social crises set to unfold ahead of us, we can expect some vital ethical questions to crystallise for UK trade and foreign policy: who are “the bad guys”? Where are our “red lines” for doing business, and on what basis do we discern and decide them? Finally, and crucially, what material cost are we willing to pay: what, as a people, would we sacrifice or suffer, to do the right thing? 

The answers to these questions will reveal much about our national identity, humanity and resilience. No doubt many will seek to revert to the “business as usual” politics of utility and consensus. However, we already know that this “liberal” (increasingly illiberal) faux-demos simply does not deliver. It just reduces everything down to the lowest common denominator of the individual — with the market seeing people as consumer units and the state seeing people as regulatory units. 

“Europe’s holiday from history is over”

This reductive ritual is not only uninspiring, but also proof positive that as the West has lost its faith and lost its way. Lacking a moral compass and faced with the insufficiency of utility and consensus in preventing an accelerating eclipse of democracy by autocracy, the moment is crying out for a unifying vision. To turn a crisis into an opportunity, we need political leadership for a public conversation about our values in relation to what Edmund Burke saw as “the dead, the living and the unborn” — our debt to those who in past-times have sacrificed for us, our responsibility to love our neighbour today, and our obligation to consider what we leave to future generations. 

Only from this transgenerational perspective will our red lines begin to come into view about who we should trade with and not trade with. Without political leadership for such a renewal of national identity and purpose we will remain subject to the vagaries of “events”, and the will to power of tyrants — because “where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18).

Bereft of the anthropology of Imago Deo and the Bible as a basis for truth and virtue in human relations, we are, in the words of the former Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks, suffering from “arteriosclerosis of culture” — an old, hardened, and perishing civilisation. Sacks’ prescription that we “need to relearn the moral disciplines of freedom” — by which he meant tending to the Judeo-Christian roots of our culture, rather than just living off the diminishing fruits, is prescient. But will we seize the day?

As journalist James Forsyth bluntly puts it: “Europe’s holiday from history is over”. There’s trouble ahead, and there are questions hurtling towards us that future generations need us to face and not fudge.  

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover