More often than we’d like to admit, foreign policy is decided on an ad hoc basis: sometimes pragmatic, sometimes panicked, rarely principled. Since the end of the Cold War this has only increased. The certainties of old fell away as the Berlin Wall crumbled, particularly for the centre-left. As the world has changed, the UK centre-left has struggled to build a new foreign-policy philosophy.
There have been attempts in the past two decades to solve this conundrum. In the late 1990s, two of the UK Labour party’s biggest beasts laid out overlapping visions. Robin Cook, then foreign secretary, argued for foreign policy with “an ethical dimension”, one where the government no longer did deals with dictators. A year later Tony Blair argued for “liberal interventionism”, making the case that western democracies should be prepared to use force to protect democracy elsewhere. Cook’s ethical dimension fell apart when it emerged that Britain was still selling jets to Indonesian dictator Suharto. Blair’s doctrine lasted longer – until the war of choice in Iraq.
Which brings us to Syria – and further confusion. During the emergency parliamentary debate on Syria earlier this year the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, seemed keener on inflicting a defeat on David Cameron than finding a solution to a civil war. There was a collective wringing of hands and shrugging of shoulders, an attitude as understandable as it is troubling. With no underlying principles, foreign policy becomes a series of pragmatic day-to-day decisions, or non-decisions.
Despite these failures, I would argue that both Blair and Cook were right. 800,000 Rwandans would have preferred a western military intervention. Five million Congolese would too. Kosovars seem to think the 78-day bombing campaign against Slobodan Milosevic was worth it. Sierra Leoneans are pretty happy the Brits helped to get rid of Charles Taylor.
Foreign policy can be ethical, too. On the issue of weapons sales there is no reason why not. Don’t sell arms to dictators. Ever. Not a single tear-gas canister or rubber bullet. It’s a simple policy and it’s right.
The arguments against such a move are appalling amoral: there are UK jobs at risk and other countries will sell them instead so it might as well be us. When people calling for freedom are shot and killed by guns made in UK factories, is that something to be proud of?
There’s something else that needs to be pushed through: reform of the UN Security Council. China and Russia should not be able to block action against fellow autocracies. Then there’s the UN army, supposedly ready to intervene in conflicts around the world. In reality, UN peacekeeping operations are underfunded nightmares. It is here that the UK can make a positive difference: a UK-led UN intervention in the Democratic Republic of Congo would have more impact than the current mix of developing world armies.
It boils down to the fact that there is nothing wrong with a principled foreign policy. It doesn’t just have to mean a list of things a country won’t do. It can be positive. It can make a difference.
Steve Bloomfield is Monocle's foreign editor.