Distilling an ethic for the foreign policy jungle

No weapons of mass destruction found and time is getting on. Not a good look for George Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard who gave WMD as their top reason for invading Iraq.

WMD may yet be found. But the United States has moved the target: the evidence will come from “the scientists not the sand dunes”, academic and former United States presidential adviser Richard Allen, still influential in Washington, told the Otago University foreign policy school on Sunday. The issue is capability to produce, not actual existence.

Maybe — but was it ethical to build a case around WMD suggesting a large and imminent threat? This question is pertinent: “the ethics of foreign policy” was the foreign policy school’s topic.

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman is interesting on the point. The real, unstated reason for the invasion, this well-connected journalist wrote recently, was to show the Arab-Muslim world that Americans will fight to defend the open society.

Iraq was targeted because Saddam Hussein was “vulnerable, deserved it and was in the midst of that world”, Friedman wrote. Neighbouring governments have got the message: don’t harbour, tolerate or even tacitly encourage terrorists.

That sounds like naked power politics. Allen demurs.

The new terrorism is stateless and the Islamist version is fuelled by “religious schools that teach hatred of the west and promote violence and terror as a means of wiping the world clean of Jews and western culture and influence”, he said.

“Soft diplomacy” won’t counter this. “Only if we begin to think in these [Islamist] terms — within the concept of irreconcilability — will we begin to grasp the dimensions of this larger conflict.”

This is the basis of Bush’s “war on terror” launched after September 11 2001. It is a “long-term project”.

Iraq, on this reading, was an incident in this long war. Its object: change the regime. Its ethic: the defence of democratic values.

The latter has had some resonance in this country. It was a driver in Helen Clark’s rapid commitment of troops to Afghanistan. She is a warrior on terror. Her difference with Bush on Iraq was over means and targets.

But was she right? Can the ethic of multilateralism, reliance on the United Nations, work against the new terrorists?

Barry Cooper of Calgary University told the foreign policy school that the new terrorists know they are doing wrong — killing innocents — but do it for some fantasised greater good or apocalypse which is in fact unattainable.

They cannot be reasoned with. They may be alongside, for example, a freedom-fighting movement but they do not share those more rational combatants’ realisable aims and ability to compromise.

And, being stateless and networked rather than hierarchical, decapitating their leadership does not necessarily disable them.

Hence Allen’s aggressive message: “The United States will not sit passively by as the capacity to traffic in such weapons grows.”

But is the response commensurate with the threat? And does it warrant the damage to the rule of international law the unilateral invasion may have caused?

No, says Campbell Craig, an American teaching at Canterbury University. Islamic terrorism is “not fundamentally threatening to United States civilisation”.

So, adjust Allen’s “democratic values”. Michael Smith, of the University of Virginia, noted to the foreign policy school that the United States’ justification had shifted since the war from WMD to the humanitarian value of having removed a nasty dictator.

This opens up a different can of ethical worms. At the foreign policy school was Nick Wheeler of Wales University, who advised the Canadian-sponsored international commission which developed the notion of states’ “responsibility to protect” their citizens, failing which others states might (ought to?) responsibly intervene.

But no national leaders, including Clark, invoked that doctrine for Iraq. Why? It strikes at the centuries-old convention of inviolable nation-state sovereignty.

This convention turns foreign affairs into the pursuit of self-interest — realism, rather than ethics. As dominant superpower, the United States can — and now intends to — enforce its self-interest.

For a small country like New Zealand, Craig (whose paper was on realism) suggested a realist response to such an American policy is to work through diplomacy and the United Nations to uphold international law. (He did not suggest Australia’s realist alternative: line up with the United States.)

Now turn this round. In the South Pacific New Zealand is a big country. It is about to send police and troops to the Solomon Islands. Isn’t that a bit like Iraq?

No. It is at the request of the legal Solomons government, has United Nations officials’ and Commonwealth officials’ endorsement and is contingent on regional Pacific governments’ approval yesterday.

So it is ethical in law and on humanitarian grounds. And, you might say, it discharges the “responsibility to protect”.