CANBERRA – Václav Havel, the Czech playwright and dissident turned president, and North Korean despot Kim Jong-il might have lived on different planets, for all their common commitment to human dignity, rights, and democracy. When they died just a day apart this month, the contrast was hard for the global commentariat to resist: Prague’s prince of light against Pyongyang’s prince of darkness.
But it is worth remembering that Manichaean good-versus-evil typecasting, to which former US President George W. Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair were famously prone, and of which we have had something of a resurgence in recent days, carries with it two big risks for international policymakers.
One risk is that such thinking limits the options for dealing effectively with those who are cast as irredeemably evil. The debacle of the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 should have taught us once and for all the peril of talking only through the barrel of a gun to those whose behavior disgusts us.
Sometimes, threats to a civilian population will be so acute and immediate as to make coercive military intervention the only option, as with Muammar el-Qaddafi’s Libya, at least at the time of the imminent assault on Benghazi in March. But more often it will be a matter of relying on less extreme measures, like targeted sanctions and threats of international prosecution – and on diplomatic pressure and persuasion.
Negotiating with the genocidal butchers of the Khmer Rouge was acutely troubling, personally and politically, for those of us involved, but those talks secured a lasting peace in Cambodia. And it is only negotiation – albeit backed by good old-fashioned containment and deterrence – that can possibly deliver sustainable peace with Iran and North Korea.
The second risk that arises from seeing the world in black-and-white terms is greater public cynicism, thereby making ideals-based policymaking in the future even harder. Expectations raised too high are expectations bound to be disappointed: think of former British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook’s “ethical foreign policy” at the start of Blair’s premiership.
Political leaders who make a big play of “values” are often those most likely to stumble. Think of the lamentable response by US President Bill Clinton’s administration to the Rwandan genocide in 1994 or Australia’s shameful rejection of asylum-seeking boat people in the Tampa affair under John Howard’s government a decade ago.
Then there is many Western governments’ highly selective embrace of democracy when it results in the election of those (like Hamas) whom they find unacceptable; the unwillingness of almost every nuclear-weapons state to match its disarmament rhetoric with credible action; and the almost universal double-talk on climate change.
But if double talk were an indictable offense, there would be few left to attend international summits. The task is neither to pillory nor to sanctify political leaders caught in these traps, but somehow to reconcile what they will often see as hopelessly competing demands of moral values and national interests, and to find ways to get them to do more good and less harm.
A useful way forward in this respect may be to rethink fundamentally the concept of “national interest.” Traditionally seen as having just two dimensions – economic and geostrategic – there is a strong case for adding a third: every country’s interest in being, and being seen to be, a good international citizen.
Actively helping to solve global public-goods challenges (like climate change, human-rights protection, international piracy, drug trafficking, cross-border population flows, and elimination of weapons of mass destruction), even when there is no direct economic or strategic payoff, is not simply the foreign policy equivalent of Boy Scout good deeds.
Selfless cooperation on these issues can actually work to a country’s advantage by boosting its reputation and generating reciprocal support: my help in solving your drug-trafficking problem today will increase the chances of you supporting my asylum-seeker problem tomorrow. And a story couched in these realist terms is likely to be easier to sell to domestic constituencies than one pitched as disinterested altruism.
Countries should pursue what the great international-relations scholar Hedley Bull called “purposes beyond ourselves”: our common humanity demands no less. But the real world is a place of gray shades, not black and white, and more often than not the cause of human decency and security will be better served by recognizing and working around that constraint rather than challenging it head on.