Twelve thousand merchant seamen gave their lives in the Great War, or so said the memorial that the author stumbled upon walking back to the hotel in London one warm November night. As a self-proclaimed obsessive on most-things-historical and with a particular reverence for World War One, to still encounter a chilling and unexpected reminder of the colossal loss of that conflict was a sober reminder of what has been at stake in this country and may be again.
As we shall see below, the parallels a century on are frightening as we stand on the edge of another abyss – the current repeat of the Sudentenland being played out over the bones of Victorian British dead in the Crimea and the repeat of the Munich Agreement with Russian incursion into Eastern Ukraine. Sadly, Putin is likely to see through our finger-waving. The West has tied itself up in knots, uncertain when to stand firm and when to turn the blind eye. So how should we respond? We lost our way when we began an experiment to tutor the world.
A moral foreign policy
Our foreign policy has taken twists and turns over centuries but has been driven by guiding principles that remain as relevant today as in the days of Castlereagh and Canning – defending British interests and upholding the international rule of law (“the European Balance of Power”). Hence we had fought Louis XIV for most of his long reign, continued to do so for most of the eighteenth century and could not rest while Napoleon controlled most of the continent.
The British dead lying in Crimean soil from the war fought from 1854 to 1856 are also testament to the balance of power. It was critical for British interests that no one nation dominated the continent of Europe. Russia had been throwing her weight around in a succession of crises over the previous twenty years – largely targeted against Britain’s ally, Turkey. When Russia finally got too big for her boots, Britain and France joined Turkey’s war against Russia.
Preventing domination in Europe was the undertone in needing to stop the Kaiser and Hitler.
Of late, a new principle has been added – or resurrected – into our foreign policy – morality. The Labour Party rejuvenated its constitution after Tony Blair became leader following the tragic early death of John Smith (modern politics is unlikely to have become so despised had he and the earnest integrity he represented survived). Included in that new constitution was a new commitment to a moral foreign policy. Who could object? And no-one did.
We had not always worried too much about morals in our foreign policy. Murderous regimes in Indonesia, Vietnam, most of South and Central America were supported by the United States and its Western allies, including Great Britain. Despite the universal hatred of apartheid, it remains remarkable that the UK Government maintained extensive trading and diplomatic relations with South Africa throughout the life of that obscene regime. Thatcher finally relented to the most minor of sanctions by the Commonwealth against South Africa. No suggestion at any time that Britain should do whatever it could to overthrow this most immoral of governments.
We had watched on the side-lines as Bosnians were massacred in Srebrenica and genocide erupted overnight in Rwanda. The deep unease at our inactivity, the greater confidence in the supremacy of our way of life following the collapse of the Soviet Union (was it not “The End of History”?) provided the opportunity to assume moral superiority. We know best. We can decide what is morally wrong in other nations and do something about it!
The dangers inherent in this were obvious at the time and tragically realised in recent years.
Claiming a moral aspect for our foreign policy is not new.
Long before Tony Blair stomped from Sierra Leone to Kosovo and Iraq via Afghanistan, William Ewart Gladstone had seriously undermined Disraeli’s support for the Ottoman Empire in its war with Russia. Gladstone asserted that the Turks’ “horrors” against the Bulgarians required that they should be defeated irrespective of the impact on Britain’s interests. Later, as Prime Minister, Gladstone was extremely reluctant to intervene in Egypt and only belatedly imposed British control to preserve the interests of international holders of Egyptian bonds. Despite the reality of British rule, Gladstone kept searching for ways to return Egypt to Egyptian control.
Before Gladstone, Britain had transformed itself from the lynchpin of the Atlantic slave trade to its most vociferous opponent. Britain was not the first country to ban the slave trade, but it was the first to seek to end it wherever they encountered it in the growing empire and positively root it out on the high seas. The Royal Navy dedicated a squadron to the African coast to do nothing else but search out slave traders and restore the pitiful cargo to freedom – Freetown, in Sierra Leone.
Much of our foreign policy has of course had very little do with morality. The annals of the Empire are thick with examples of horrific incidents, some premeditated like the defence of the opium trade in China in the mid-nineteenth century or the Amritsar massacre of 1919. When massacres were visited on the Armenians in 1896, Gladstone was on his death bed. Britain and the West turned a blind eye.
The Boers of South Africa were in the way of the dreams of a Cape-to-Cairo British hegemony in Africa. Under Joseph Chamberlain’s connivance, a proxy invasion failed against the Boers. Britain manufactured the Boer War in 1899. It felt un-British and divided the nation.
Morality had nothing to do with going to war with Hitler. We didn’t fight Hitler when he murdered the Jews on Krystallnacht in November 1938 and talked about “destruction”. We fought Hitler when he broke international law one too many times – invading Poland on 1 September 1939.
The Cold War firmly ruled morality out of the Realpolitik. Britain and France didn’t invade Egypt in 1956 to preserve the democratic state of Israel but a blatant attempt to retake control of the Suez Canal and overthrow the Nasser regime. No matter how sympathetic we were to the Solidarity trade union movement, there was no question of NATO intervention in Poland despite the crushing of Solidarity when martial law was imposed in 1981. The Prague Spring was swiftly suppressed by Soviet Tanks in 1968. The West protested but morality stopped at the Iron Curtain. The silent truth of morality in foreign policy is that it only applies against weak powers.
China’s murderous suppression of the Tiananmen Square democracy movement in 1990 led to China opening its borders to foreign investment and a generation of spectacular growth in China. Western leaders flocked to build factories to undercut the wages, civil rights and social welfare of workers at home in the hope that the enriched Chinese will buy their bonds. We cannot apply moral foreign policy to China without risking bankruptcy.
When the Egyptian army overthrew the unpopular but democratically-elected government of Mohamed Morsi in 2013, Britain criticised but never dreamt of doing anything further.
The confusion in using a phrase like morality is that it is not really what we mean. In reality we feel we are acting morally as a nation when we preserve and defend international law. Let us call it such and avoid the dangerous expectation that we will throw the brave men and women of our armed forces into any part of the globe that may be considered to act immorally. To be even more specific, in reality, for Britain, this means doing whatever is necessary to preserve the international rule of law in Europe.
There was no question of the legitimacy of the first Iraq war in 1990. Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait in August 1990. The United Nations supported the immediate response by the United States and UK, amongst others, to defend Saudi Arabia (triggering the fury of an unknown Islamic militant group, Al Quaeda), build up the armed forces and retake Kuwait in a lightning land war in a matter of days in February 1991.