Battle in Print: What future for Britain's 'ethical' foreign policy?

David Chandler versus Alan Mendoza

Dear Alan

I know that you are a keen advocate of Labour’s ethical activism. However, I think that ethical or moral frameworks do not necessarily make a good guide for political policy-making. Political action of its nature means making choices, trade-offs and compromises; the more engaged with the real world and its problems politicians are, the less luxury they have for moralising. I have three problems in particular with the idea of ethical foreign policy (FP):

Firstly, there is the obvious problem that politics is reduced to the sort of soundbites, waffle and platitudes that clutter New Labour’s ‘policy’ agenda - saving Africa, saving the environment, ending war, ending poverty etc. This is cheap PR, whereby the government’s agenda of saving the world has nothing to do with framing strategic policy-making.

Secondly, I worry that where these platitudes are turned into policy practices, they are less geared towards helping people on the ground than satisfying the Western politician’s need to express their own moral purpose or ethical mission. This can lead to ill thought out and ad hoc policy-making shaped by short-term needs.

Thirdly, there is a concern that governments will evade responsibility for the consequences of their policy-making, either by hiding behind the claim to have been acting ethically or with good intentions, regardless of the outcome; by blaming other international actors; or by demonising those they initially set out to ‘save’.

Best wishes

Prof David Chandler


Dear David

Thank you for your suitably wide-ranging opening salvo on the subject which, while enjoyable, I fear pigeonholes ethical foreign policy into far too constricting an edifice.

You suggest that ethical or moral frameworks do not necessarily serve as a good guide for political policy-making, and that moralising is divorced from the reality of grubby compromise. However, the purpose of such frameworks is merely to provide the over-arching emphasis behind policy, not necessarily to act as the be-all and end-all itself.

Nobody is suggesting that it is possible or practicable to adopt ethical policies one hundred per cent of the time. The fact that compromise is inevitable in politics does not diminish the value of a putative FP being guided by principles in the first instance. After all, if there is to be compromise, it is surely better to start from a position of moral strength in any bargaining or decision-making process, than from one of moral weakness.

The largest reservation I have with regard to your argument is the label ‘Labour’s ethical activism’. This suggests to me a greater preoccupation with this particular government’s handling of FP than with whether ethics and morality are suitable guides in and of themselves.

New Labour did not invent ethical FP, even though it has been an enthusiastic exponent of it. Just this year, for example, we are celebrating the bicentennial anniversary of one of the first ethical foreign policies, the British abolition of the international slave trade. The British decision was enforced on the high seas through intervention. Since then, there has been a long and proud ethical strain to British FP, encompassing practitioners of every political hue. Therefore to restrict this discussion to New Labour is to do a disservice to a far more widespread phenomenon. 

Now, to move on to the specific points you have raised, I am not sure that ethical FP is any different to - for want of a better term - unethical FP, at least with regard to being framed through soundbites. For example, the US isolationist movement of the 1930s was known through the slogan of ‘America First’. And the modern day ‘Stop the War’ movement is characterised by the same waffle and platitudes that you find so offensive. If your argument is thus designed to re-inject a note of seriousness into FP decision-making, then I am with you. But let us not confuse this with the broader practice of morality and ethics.

Similarly, it seems to me that your suggestion that the pursuit of an ethical FP can lead to policy disasters is actually an argument for better contingency planning, rather than a wholesale rejection of that approach. Neither of us would support policy-making ‘on the hoof’. But once again, this applies as much to other forms of FP as ethical ones.

Finally - and sorry to be a bore on this point - I fail to see how the pursuit (or not) of an ethical FP can be linked to a government’s acceptance of policy failures. Show me a government willing to take the rap for a failed policy, of any kind, in the stark terms you propose, and I will show you a government that has lost the will to remain in office! Now which of us is divorced from reality?

I look forward to your response, and, in particular, to learning more about the alternative framework you would propose for dealing with ‘the real world and real problems’.

Kind regards

Dr Alan Mendoza


Dear Alan

Many thanks for your response, which I think is helpful in clarifying the areas of disagreement. Essentially, you argue that ethical FP is the best way to (re-)establish a clear and principled UK FP agenda and that my opening critiques miss the mark in not applying specifically to ethically-driven policy-making.

I understand that you don’t want the discussion of ethical FP to be tarred by its association with New Labour and I assume you would also not wish to dwell too long on liberal interventionist support for the war on Iraq. Fair enough - let us then shift on to the grounds of your broader (and more abstract) call for an FP agenda formulated from the starting point of positions of ‘moral strength’. To my mind, the idea of starting from the basis of moral principle when dealing with complex political problems is a bizarre one, reflecting an essentialising and inward-looking approach. I will try and briefly outline why this is counterproductive and why it has increasingly become a mainstream preoccupation in this policy area.

I would argue that the problem is precisely that the UK government appears to have a surfeit of principled, abstract ‘moral strength’; so much so that it seems incapable of pursuing any clear or coherent policy agenda. This is reflected in the lack of policy prioritisation: one week Iraq is held to be the UK’s central moral concern, the next it is Afghanistan or climate change or poverty in Africa. A variety of disparate claims are all held to be based on the UK’s current (and historical) moral standing; only a few months ago (then foreign secretary) Margaret Beckett was at the UN Security Council in New York proclaiming the UK’s leadership in the ‘first global war of interdependence’ against the threat of climate change, alleged to be similar to the global threat posed by Nazi Germany.

The moralisation of every FP issue into a global struggle of right v wrong and good v evil is somewhat different to the traditional presentation and pursuit of strategic interests under ethical banners. Today’s ‘free-floating’ global ethics appears to have little to do with ‘moral strength’ or deep ethical convictions; it seems to have even less to do with clear strategic interests. It would appear that governments find few traditional moorings and frameworks to guide their foreign policy-making, so that policy in this area is hard to predict, reactive and largely ad hoc.

I would be interested to know why, Alan, you think that the UK government is so keen to wear its heart on its sleeve and to talk up the need for greater intervention to tackle the problems of climate change, Afghanistan or Sudan? True, the calls for stronger ‘moral’ stances in these areas may be useful in shifting the media focus away from Iraq, but it seems to me that the real dynamic behind ethical activism is to be found at home - in the search for political purpose, moral legitimacy and standing - at a time when few people are engaged in formal politics and political parties appear void of ideas and inspiration.

Unfortunately, the problem of policy coherence cannot be resolved or even properly grasped at the level of foreign policy-making. The attempt to ameliorate domestic political problems through foreign activism is a flight from dealing with ‘the real world and real problems’, both at home and abroad. It is the government’s domestic weakness which simultaneously drives and undermines FP activism. This is why the three problems I highlighted in my opening comments are inherent rather than accidental attributes of moral FP stances. FP motivated by a search for domestic purpose is inevitably going to have an air of artificiality, be ad hoc and irresponsible, and have potentially destabilising consequences.

Best wishes



Dear David

A most intriguing rejoinder on your part, particularly as you have successfully dodged the question I mischievously posed as to what you would put forward as a more suitable framework for FP than ethics and morality! As we are running out of space, I shall let that one slip, perhaps to be answered on another occasion.

I cannot, however, avoid returning to the subject of New Labour versus the broader history of ethical FP, especially as you have again made it a central point of your thesis. To repeat my earlier point, I do not agree that the concept of ethical FP can be classed as synonymous with New Labour’s particular practicing of it, just as it would be equally unfair to equate all forms of ‘Realist’ FP with that of France under Chirac, for example.

So let us not throw the baby out with the bathwater. There is far more diversity to both trains of thought than that provided by one particular government’s interpretation of them, whatever our opinion of each might be. For the record, I am more than happy to defend the basis of New Labour’s ethical FP action, as expressed in Tony Blair’s Chicago Principles of 1999. And yes, that includes the Iraq intervention.

But I digress. I think that there is a fundamental problem with the assertion at the heart of your argument, namely that New Labour’s drive for an ethical FP is based on its domestic weakness and a desperate search for political purpose, moral legitimacy and standing; and that it is this ignoble objective which condemns FP conducted on such terms to failure.

The above is manifestly untrue. The crucible for the formation of New Labour’s ethical FP was the period 1997-2000, which saw the interventions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone, as well as the formulation of the aforementioned Chicago Principles. If you cast your mind back to that time, you will recall an electorally dominant Labour Party, riding high on a wave of public admiration, and which was applying its dynamism in equal measure across the whole spectrum of political priorities. You have argued that this vigour was misplaced and vacuous - and I might agree with you in the field of domestic policy - but it can in no way be said to be derived from the motives you identify given the triumphal circumstances New Labour found itself in.

Equally, you only need fast forward to the dog days of the Blair administration in 2006-7 to see that a need for domestic purpose could not possibly have been central to New Labour’s ethical FP. If this were indeed the case, Blair would have succumbed to the easy option of bringing the troops home in order to win plaudits, rather than face the inevitable brickbats occasioned by his sticking to the principle of building a democratic Iraq.

Your argument about ethical FP suggests that populist one-liners are wheeled out in order to distract domestic attention from problems at home: the modern day equivalent of the Marxist concept of the ‘window dressing’ of democracy to confuse the masses. But in this case, the liberal intervention in question was by now extremely unpopular, meaning that the government was taking considerable risks in continuing to uphold it - risks that magnified domestic discontent rather than pacifying it.

No, to answer the question posed above as to why the UK government feels the need to wear its heart on its sleeve and highlight the need for greater foreign intervention, the truth - whether palatable or not - is not that the policy is being conducted from a position of moral vacuum, but rather from a clear and defined set of principles which it has followed since at least 1999, and which were derived from a broader tradition which both preceded Blair’s Chicago speech and which will long outlast it.

It is belief in Britain’s ability to make a real and significant difference in making the world a better place that has driven the latest bout of ethical FP. Long may it continue.

All the best



Dear Alan

As this is my last mail, please excuse my bluntness. There is not a meaningful moral position on issues such as African poverty, Afghanistan, Iraq and Darfur. The reason is that, for policy-makers, they pose complex sets of political - and not moral - problems. Moral judgments and expressions of ethical concern can only be either 1) well-meaning expressions of an individual’s feelings or concern, or 2) attempts to make the person appear ethical or moral in juxtaposition to whoever is being implicitly or explicitly portrayed as immoral. Either way the desire to find a position of ‘moral strength’ would incapacitate rather than help in the formulation of a coherent framework of FP engagement.

Assertions of moral or ethical strength cannot inform policy choices in the sphere of FP anymore than in the domestic arena - for example over health provision, education or crime. In fact, for good reason the language of morality and ethics is rarely used in relation to domestic political questions. It would not be credible to argue that the best policy option was also that which was the most moral; nor would we argue that policy should be made by the most morally - or ethically - aware individuals. The formal separation of church and state was designed precisely to separate claims of ‘moral strength’ from those of political legitimacy.

Your implicit belief that the subject matter of FP can be addressed through moral principles merely indicates that your concerns do not primarily lie with events and people overseas. Anyone who would rather deal with the world as a black and white morality play than as a complex political reality clearly lacks either the desire or the interest to make policies which seek to engage supportively with their external environment. The moralisation of policy-making only makes sense if one is less concerned with foreign affairs than with the artificial creation of one’s own self-image. This, I’d argue, is apparent in the use of FP (freed, as of the 1990s, from the geo-political constraints of Cold War realpolitik) to make up for domestic deficiencies of political purpose and moral standing.

You argue that self-proclaimed ethical stances have been taken on by New Labour irrespective of whether they have been electorally popular or not. True, but the drive to moralise the international sphere should not be understood as merely a quick and easy recourse for politicians, or as a diversion for the public. Rather, it has increasingly become the preferred option for political leaders seeking to make a credible domestic political impact without a solid political programme or a coherent constituency of support. The search for domestic authority is nowadays almost entirely played out in the international arena - witness Conservative leader David Cameron’s attempt to solve his credibility problems by globe-trotting from a Norwegian glacier to Rwanda.

Thus as soon as ethical policy meets with difficulties, the lack of political will to follow it through becomes evident. The vacuous and free-floating desire to be seen as a ‘force for good in the world’ can only lead to destabilising and ad hoc policy-making which will make the world neither a better nor a safer place.

Best wishes



Dear David

Well, as the spirit of bluntness is the order of the day, I must respond in kind. There is only an incompatibility between what you have termed political and moral problems if you persist in insisting that they are mutually exclusive in scope. In actuality, the practice of FP cannot possibly be divided into such neat terminologies as ‘the political’ and ‘the moral’. This is why I have consistently argued that ethics and morality can only provide a framework for FP, and not for the totality of its formulation. There will always be times when hard political realities dictate a course of action that might not be the most ethical in nature, or when a simple black and white morality play is confused by shades of grey. I accept that.

However, I fail to see why, conversely, you have such difficulty in acknowledging that the notion of ethics or morality can at the very least be a legitimate factor in the decision-making process; that this can be driven by real beliefs rather than ‘well-meaning statements’; and that evil exists in the world and should be highlighted, not hidden. Why is it that you feel that our basic humanity can be denied a role in the debate? Why should a sound and well-acknowledged concept such as the ‘responsibility to protect’, for example, not constitute part of the formulation of a coherent framework of FP engagement? Indeed, I would argue that only an artificial barrier of the type that you have created between the political and the moral can prevent the two from walking hand in hand.

I am also astounded that you believe that ethics and morality play no part in domestic policy. In fact, what is the domestic policy debate if not a quest to better the living conditions of the nation? There may be so-called ‘political’ factors involved in this process, but it is indisputable that ethical and moral concerns also play a major role.

Witness two examples from the last hundred years: the Liberals introduced the social insurance state before the First World War, and Labour created the welfare state from the Beveridge Report following the Second, in order to combat poverty and destitution and engender a universal set of minimum standards of living. And now the Conservatives are championing issues such as the National Health Service to ensure that decent healthcare remains available to all.

In each case, the moral and ethical desire to improve the lot of fellow citizens has been used as justification for the transformation of domestic policy. Substitute the words ‘fellow citizens’ with ‘fellow humankind’ and you have the basis for a legitimate ethical FP, whose concerns do primarily lie with events and people overseas, contrary to your assertions.

Finally, I would suggest that your repeated focusing on issues such as New Labour’s FP one-liners and David Cameron’s globe-trotting serves as a distraction from the real substance of ethical FP today. If you have bought into the above as constituting ethical FP’s entirety, then you will have the spin doctors laughing, if nobody else. In reality, the desire both political parties have to be a ‘force for good in the world’ is neither vacuous nor free-floating, but based on the sound principle that in the twenty-first century it is no longer acceptable to turn a blind eye to genocide and oppression when we have the capacity to speak out and act against it.

There is nothing ‘ad hoc’ about taking this principle as the guiding light for the practice of FP. And the only destabilisation it will cause is to those miserable regimes threatening their neighbours and their own populations who have prospered under the very kind of FP you appear to still be advocating.

It has been a pleasure.

Kind regards


David Chandler is professor of international relations at the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster and is the founding editor of the Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding. Professor Chandler is the author of a number of books, including most recently Empire in Denial: The Politics of State-Building (Pluto, 2006) and Constructing Global Civil Society: Morality and Power in International Relations (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2004, 2005).

Dr Alan Mendoza is co-founder and executive director of The Henry Jackson Society and co-founder and president of the Disraelian Union, a London-based progressive Conservative think-tank and discussion forum. Dr Mendoza has a PhD in Anglo-American relations during the Bosnian War, 1992-1995, from Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge and is a local Councillor for the London Borough of Brent.


This correspondence was conducted by email during August 2007.

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