‘I have no illusions about the basic selfish thrust of all foreign policy’

by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha MP

To cite the preamble to this dialogue between Asian and European Liberals, we agree that, ‘from a liberal standpoint, it is mutually beneficial for countries to engage in trade, and free trade is one of the means to lift countries out of poverty.’

Unfortunately this ideal is under attack for a variety of reasons, and most of the attacks come, it should be noted, from powerful countries. Thus we need to worry – and I hope Liberals in the West will help us to overcome this worry, given their own ideals – as to whether, again to cite the preamble, ‘trade, instead of forging a mutually beneficial partnership between developed and developing countries, has been a mechanism to subject the latter into a dependent relationship.’

The most obvious example of this in recent times is the pressure exercised by the United States to force countries to stop trade with Iran. The excuse for this is suspicions about Iranian nuclear ambitions, but there is little doubt that there are no reasons for these suspicions, given the international mechanisms to deal with these, except intrinsic American hostility to Iran. Given that on the previous occasion on which America acted because of purported suspicions with regard to nuclear weapons, the pretext turned out to be palpably false, a process of induction suggests that now too the world is being dragooned into conflict – and in the process the ideal of free trade is being traduced, with no concern for development as opposed to vindictive dogma.

What I find saddest about such actions is the total silence of our Liberal colleagues around the world about this appalling behavior. It is true that most of Europe refused to be dragged into war in Iraq, and it was a British Labour government that proved President Bush’s staunchest ally. The British Liberal Democrats behaved much better on that occasion than the main Conservative opposition. But their failure now, when in government, to demand accountability, to pursue more carefully the appalling fate of David Kelly, to look into the strong evidence provided by the former ambassador to Uzbekhistan, Craig Murray, now a member of the Liberal Democratic Party, of collusion in human rights violations by the British and American governments, is most disappointing. In such a context, to fail to speak out loud and clear about the current American policy towards Iran seems to me culpable, and I hope our colleagues here will strive to remedy the situation.

But, while I believe, which is why we are here, that the idealism of our fellow Liberals is not in doubt, I also have no illusions about the basic selfish thrust of all foreign policy. Thucydides put it succinctly long ago when he noted that countries acted in their own interests, and it was only to make things look better that they sought pretexts, in moral discourse, for what they wanted to do to benefit themselves. Still, I also believe we need to do our best to work towards our common goals through the space left by such discourse, by ensuring that it is not selective, that aberrations are focused upon, that principles are always kept in sight, and that we do not simply keep quiet when all these are forgotten.

This will not be easy. A strange mixture of ruthless determination by the unashamedly selfish few, accompanied by ignorance and / or carelessness on the part of the rest, can lead to frightening injustices. If I may cite the case of Sri Lanka, it seemed crystal clear to us, when we were discussing the renewal of GSP+ a few years back, that the agenda was being driven by the British Labour government which had made it clear to the Americans that their concern with Sri Lanka was dictated by electoral considerations. Even though we gave what seemed to us very clear answers with regard to the particular issues raised, the goalposts kept changing.

The problem, we felt, was that, far from being concerned with Labour Rights, or even with Human Rights in general, our interlocutors were pushing a political agenda, which involved trying to stop Sri Lanka from dealing firmly with the terrorism that had plagued the country for so long. In short, while bending over backwards to excuse George Bush and his collaborators within Europe for violating all norms and international law in what he claimed was his war against terror, the British government at the time was trying to keep the terrorist pot boiling in Sri Lanka.

When despite this we managed to overcome the terrorists, instead of welcoming this whilst also endeavouring to ensure a better future for the Tamils of Sri Lanka, together with a better general approach to Human Rights, the British proved vindictive. Though our ambassador thought he had negotiated a reasonable settlement with the Trade Ministry here, headed by a Liberal, the office of the High Commissioner for Foreign Relations, headed by a British Labour appointee, changed the terms of the agreement, with disastrous effect. Of course our ambassador may have been mistaken in his interpretation of the cordial discussions he had held with those concerned with trade, but a process of induction, given the appalling bad faith of the British Foreign Ministry at the time, suggests he was correct.

And no corrective action is taken. Instead I had the rather sad phenomenon of officials here, on the last occasion I was in Brussels, suggesting that perhaps a change of leadership in Sri Lanka would be a good thing. In effect, far from there being commitment to democracy, the assumption amongst those in authority here was that they knew best, and if the people of a country have a different idea, that must be suppressed for their greater good. This is not, I should note, an isolated phenomenon, given the horror that greeted the idea that Greece might hold a referendum on the recovery package that had been negotiated.

All that was accompanied by efforts to ensure Chinese financial support for Europe, which suggested, as I noted at a meeting of the Alliance of Democrats in Rome last November, that ‘democracies are unable to cope with the demands of their voting population for greater indebtedness, and the solution has to come from a country criticized for not being democratic’. All this is understandable in terms of self-interest, and it is foolish to expect more. But when it is practiced along with sanctimonious pronouncements on the importance of democracy and human rights, one wonders whether the practitioners really believe they are taking in the victims, or whether this is simply another example of naked power being exercised.

The hopeful factor in all this is that some of the window-dressing as it were is clearly for the benefit of the genuine believers, who would like to think their ideals are being fulfilled. I count most of the Liberal Democrats in that category, but I regret that very often they – or at least the British amongst them, of whom I have the most experience – tend to be taken in by superficialities and do not study the facts. They also, as we have seen in the case of those now in government who cannot ensure transparency and accountability about the Iraq adventure they opposed so honourably nearly a decade ago, tend to quieten down when faced with the intransigence of the more powerful. But I am not surprised, because it was precisely through studying this phenomenon in India, when the brutal British betrayed the promise of their more civilized peers, that Paul Scott argued that that was where Liberal England came to its end.

What then can we do about this? Should we simply, as Thucydides suggests, accept that this is human nature, and nothing can be done to improve the practices of powerful nations? The answer is emphatically not, and I think Thucydides himself believed, as his thoughtful analyses indicate, that greater understanding can lead to stronger moral purpose. So I believe we should do our best to understand each and every situation as it comes up, and argue forcefully against ad hominem or ad patriam policies. We should promote democracies, but be prepared to work with them if the people want a different government or different policies from those we ourselves would prefer. We should avoid clauses that allow for subjective assessments, since we know full well that getting the assessments we want is the easiest thing in the world, with the interdependence now of officials and politicians and purportedly independent agents, whose funding often comes from those very officials or politicians.

And we need to go back to basics. Free trade does provide not only economic development, but also social upliftment, and it must be encouraged. I should note that free trade should also include the free movement of peoples, since such arrangements should deal with what we in developing countries are good at, namely people, as Senator Pimentel of the Philippines once memorably put it, and not just goods, which is what developed countries are good at, as well as services and finances.

I was delighted that, for the first time, in Mongolia a couple of weeks back when the Civic Will Green Party there hosted a seminar of Liberalism and Freedom, I heard a European Liberal advance this thought on his own. The Treasurer of Liberal International – and who should know better about Liberalism, about Internationalism, and about Finance from the perspective of the poor – made the point, and added that the movement of workers could be more feasible if separated from settlement and citizenship entitlements. I hope very much then that the membership of ALDE will take up this matter, and promote globalization also with regard to people, since that will also eliminate much of the hype we hear now about oppressive countries whereas the main problem is economic deprivation.

Trade and free exchanges will do much more to alleviate such problems than sanctimonious pronouncements, and sanctions that seem of dubious validity. Where there are problems that seem to require stronger action, they should be addressed through discussion and better understanding. We should long ago have passed beyond confrontation, when consultation and consensus are obviously better options. I hope all of you will persuade the Americans to work on such lines, though I cannot expect you to engage in sanctions if such persuasion fails, given the realities of power politics.

(Text of Speech by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha in the session on
Clauses for a Sustainable Political Relationship in Trade Agreements: Effective Against Possible Threats to Democracy?At the Summit of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats with theAlliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, Brussels)