It’s Bad to Talk

Government today often boils down to a mindless activism, manifest in endless initiatives which evaporate once the news agenda has moved on. In foreign policy, such activism consists of a free-floating moralism, divorced not merely from national interest but from the wellbeing of the objects of concern, about whom all of us also “care”. 

The former diplomat and minister George Walden once wrote that morality is to moralism what “art is to artiness, sentiment to sentimentality, and faith to religiosity”. It is the “evasion or abandonment of ethical responsibility”. 

There has been a proliferation of agencies that seek to butt into any conflict, from human rights lawyers to groups devoted to conflict resolution. At its worst, this can consist of tourism for the self-righteous, often with dire consequences for the people who have to exist amid conflicts that such interventions inadvertently prolong.

Small countries, such as Ireland or Norway, have punched above their weight by acting as the emotionally-literate consciences of the world. Now that Britain is no longer a global military power, this seems to be the role espoused by our current Foreign Secretary, although his jejune moralism had a precedent in the “ethical foreign policy” of the late Robin Cook.

Several personalities from the Blair-Brown era think that they can export the experience of Northern Ireland — where it took 30 years militarily to neutralise a terrorist organisation before democratic politicians could talk — not just to our EU partner Spain, where the problem with the Basque ethno-nationalist Eta terrorists has some superficial affinities, but to more exotic locations. 

British ministers have been prodigal with their advice to the Israelis, Pakistanis and Sri Lankans. Former terrorists have got in on the act, too, with Martin McGuinness, the former IRA commander, popping up in Finland to reconcile Iraqi Shias and Sunnis. The former MI6 agent Alistair Crooke has ensconced himself as a freelance conflict mediator between the Israelis, Hamas and Hizbollah, although his involvement is certainly unwelcome to the first. 

Severally these personages represent the view that it is good to talk. They forget that Churchill was not Bob Hoskins in a BT ad and did “war war” as well as “jaw jaw”. There seem no limits to interlocution. Mo Mowlam once recommended that the US government talk to al-Qaeda, a line we have heard more recently from Tony Blair’s former chief of staff Jonathan Powell when he had a book to promote.

From 2002, successive Sri Lankan governments entered into ceasefires and Norwegian-brokered negotiations with a totalitarian death cult called the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. This organisation murdered moderate Tamil politicians, used child “soldiers” to carry out indiscriminate suicide bombings and financed itself from kidnapping, piracy and heroin. Its supporters among the large Tamil diaspora have an influence on the Labour Party through a number of elected councillors, to range no higher into the party nomenklatura. This may explain why Tiger supporters have been allowed to bring chaos to Westminster. 

Before the Tiger leadership was decapitated by the Sri Lankan armed forces in May, it ran a Pol Pot-style state within a state based on the strange personality of its leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. Interference by human rights lawyers, some NGOs, and the British Foreign Secretary, conflated as one interfering entity, would have meant — had the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa taken any notice — loss of sovereignty over one-third of the island. As in the case of Israel’s incursion into Gaza, the international moralists fail to grasp that terrorists misuse ceasefires to escape, rearm and regroup. They also use civilian bystanders as hostages and shields.

Having obeyed bien pensant Western opinion by talking to the Taliban, the Pakistani government forfeited control of the Swat Valley only to find itself menaced in Buner province and even Islamabad. It is currently fighting a bloody campaign to regain control. 

International moralism is like a household fragrance sprayed from a cheap aerosol; it makes the sprayer feel good, but the environmental effects are deleterious. Such interventions often perpetuate conflicts, and their death toll, sustaining the misrule of criminals and maniacs. 

It also harms Britain’s influence, since countries like Sri Lanka have turned to China, India, Israel, Iran and Russia for support that our moralising government withheld, even as it claims to oppose terrorism. Doesn’t it know that the Tigers were linked to Hamas, Hizbollah and al-Qaeda? It is a case of abandoning our national interest as well as our ethical responsibility.

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