Don’t blame politicians for pragmatic foreign ties

February 28, 2011


By Laurence Copeland

There are times when even a cynic like me has to feel some sympathy for politicians. Take the case of Libya, for example. Over the forty years of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, relations between Britain (and our Western allies) and Libya have varied from lukewarm to cold and back to lukewarm again.

Now that this particular dictator appears to have reached the end of the road, some people are asking why the previous Government ever allowed our relations to rise above freezing point, which sounds rather as though they are trying to resurrect our long-dead (and possibly mythical) Ethical Foreign Policy. Is that feasible?

Starting with the commercial issues, how much of the world’s oil is buried under the soil (or sand) of countries that could reasonably be regarded as democracies? A glance at the statistics suggests no more than 20%, which leaves precious little scope for picking and choosing among suppliers. In exchange for oil, we sell the supplying countries a range of goods and services, notably armaments, which unsurprisingly gets the boycott lobby even more incensed.

However, their rage is likely to have little impact, given that the arms industry employs many thousands in poorer parts of the UK. Of course, if we had a properly functioning labour market undistorted by generous welfare benefits and restrictions on employers’ freedom to hire and fire – something the boycott lobby is probably in no hurry to see – we could have some confidence that cutting out arms exports would divert resources of capital and labour into other, perhaps even into new industries. But since reform is ruled out in a country as wedded to welfare as Britain, the process of reallocating resources away from the arms industry could take decades, with even more unemployment in the interim in places like Preston, where current levels are already quite high.

Moreover, as Libya explodes in rebellion, we should remember that when Colonel Gaddafi replaced King Idris, his revolution appeared to be extremely popular, and indeed lubricated by oil wealth, he seemed to enjoy considerable support until relatively recently. At which point ought we – Britain, the West –  to have decided that the popular demagogue had turned into a tyrant?

Let me make clear – I am not saying Gaddafi ever seemed to me anything other than a thug disguised as a clown, but simply that, however obnoxious he may have appeared to me, he seemed to enjoy the support of a majority, or at least a substantial minority, of his own people.

The situation in many countries is even more complicated than in Libya. Only too often, Governments abuse the human rights of political, ethnic or religious minorities with the wholehearted support of the majority, though of course one can rarely be sure because in these circumstances there is unlikely to be an uncorrupted electoral process. Presumably, it is the job of the Foreign Office to make its own assessments of the state of opinion in the rest of the world, but their fallibility has been repeatedly exposed by subsequent events (in for example Iran, the ex-Soviet Union, not to mention the upheavals of the past few weeks).

Beyond the current narrow focus on the Middle East and the Maghreb, consistency would appear to mean writing off relations with sub-Saharan Africa, where there are very few countries with a stable democratically accountable government, South Africa being a notable exception (though the true test will come if or when the ANC loses an election). Critically, cutting off trade relations with regimes we regard as unpalatable creates a situation where there is neither a moral nor a practical basis for maintaining anything more than the minimum of diplomatic relations with them – which means an end to trade and a return to cold war relations with China and Russia. To do otherwise would clearly be to maintain a double standard. Is this what we want to see?

In the end, there is no alternative to pragmatism. In their degree of respect for human rights and accountability to their citizens, governments can be (and are nowadays explicitly) ranked from best to worst. There is plenty of room for argument over where exactly to place each individual regime, but in general the further down the ranking a country is located, the more distant (arm’s length?) should be our relations with its government. As the saying goes, when you sup with the Devil, you need a long spoon. In the real world, there are many devils, so we need spoons with a range of different lengths.

Recent events in Libya make it obvious that, in terms of popular mandate at least, the Gaddafi regime ranks far lower than previously seemed the case (to me, at least – recall the scenes that greeted the return of the Lockerbie bomber less than two years ago). That may mean it’s time to take out one of our longest spoons, but we still have to sup from the same pot.

— Laurence Copeland is a professor of finance at Cardiff University Business School and a co-author of “Verdict on the Crash” published by the Institute of Economic Affairs. —

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