Ian Williams

Written By: Ian Williams
Published: September 27, 2015 Last modified: October 25, 2016

As Robin Cook said, foreign policy must have an ethical dimension. He was cannily aware that nations have interests and that rules are, shall we say, guidelines. If Jeremy Corbyn is in Number 10 in the future, he too will have to confront real life ethical conundrums – and dare one commit thoughtcrime in this new age? Tony Blair was sometimes right. His action outside the United Nations chain of command in Sierra Leone was beneficial and effective in relieving the misery. He was also right over Kosovo where faced with unreasonable vetoes in the UN Security Council, it was right for Nato to threaten to invade – and if Bill Clinton had not disclaimed that option early, Slobodan Milosevic would have folded without the messy diversion of high level bombing designed to minimise American casualties. Without Blair’s efforts, the ethnically cleansed Kosovars would probably still be in refugee camps across the Balkans.

Iraq was different. The last invasion was disastrous for Iraq, the region – and for international law. As the Chilcot Inquiry should show, even through the layers of whitewash it has been accumulating over the years, it was an unnecessary and illegal war. Blair did serious damage to the growing concept of Responsibility to Protect by invoking humanitarian intervention as an excuse for Iraq, when he realised that the nebulous weapons of mass destruction were not going to solidify.

As an MP with an internationalist outlook, who has show deep concern for human rights and violations of international law, one would hope that a Corbyn administration would actively support moves to implement R2P, perhaps Kofi Annan’s greatest achievement, which is actively supported by Ban Ki-moon.

Annan got the 2005 summit of world leaders to declare that the UN’s enforcement clause, Chapter VII, is not restricted to conflicts between states, but also applies to mass violations of humanitarian law within states. That creates obligations on all members of the UN, and even more so on permanent members, to be able and ready to answer such calls for assistance. That should be taken into consideration as we correctly question the size, cost and purpose of the armed forces.

There might be pragmatic limits, but the United States veto on behalf of Israel in the Security Council should not inhibit a Labour government from taking action to deal with trade and aid for illegal settlements to implement existing resolutions.

Fulfilling Britain’s full potential in the United Nations might also involve a much more active role in the European Union. For a start, a joint declaration by Britain and France renouncing or limiting the conditions under which they use the veto could send an ethical signal to other existing or potential permanent members. On many issues, especially in the Middle East, the EU members collectively return resounding abstentions, and one reason cited has been Britain’s deference to American positions of unconditional support for Israel. More active British diplomacy would actually have a leveraged result in the general assembly and send the clear signals that Benjamin Netanyahu is currently not getting.

Which brings us to relations with the US. Pragmatically, when people talk about the special relationship in Washington it is the one with Israel, not with Britain. There is no British lobby in Congress to threaten electoral defeats.

However, it is also true that US administrations do genuinely want to have Britain onside for parlous initiatives. It is likely that British resistance to Iraq would have headed off the war instead of egging it on as Blair did.

The fervent ineptitude of Washington against Cuba and Venezuela, or indeed Putin’s Russia, should not blind us to the genuine authoritarian cast of those regimes. The 1945 Labour Government’s attitude to Russia was moulded by Moscow’s treatment of socialists in Eastern Europe and none of these icons of the far left have shown much more tolerance for dissent. A Labour prime minister has to steer between fostering delusions of grandeur of Britain’s reflected power from the so-called special relationship, and a Chomskyite world view that not a sparrow falls without the CIA targeting it. Geopolitics calls for nuance, not slogans.

About Ian Williams

Ian Williams is Tribune’s UN correspondent