The Necessity of Morality in Foreign Policy
"We must never turn a blind eye to other governments’ human-rights abuses."
By Cris Patten*
It is easy to be wise after the event. But perhaps, as the old adage goes, the best way to prepare for the future is to learn from the past.
I was thinking about this the other day, after seeing Ken Burns’s outstanding The U.S. and the Holocaust, a three-part documentary series that explores the response of the United States and Europe’s liberal democracies to the rise of Hitler and the persecution of Jews under the Nazi regime. In addition to an unflattering portrait of America’s foreign-policy decisions, the series offers important lessons for Western policymakers seeking to address today’s humanitarian crises without repeating the mistakes of the past.
First, we must never turn a blind eye to other governments’ human-rights abuses. Moreover, we should always listen to brave journalists on the ground, rather than trust authoritarian leaders who insist that they have done nothing wrong.
Second, trying to appease bullies who violate international rules and norms will get us nowhere. While some may believe that doing business with tyrants will encourage them to change their behavior, history shows that this course of action can lead only to a loss of moral authority and, ultimately, to disaster.
Third, we should not separate foreign policy from ethics. Doing the right thing is not just a moral imperative; it is also a far more realistic approach to foreign policy than a never-ending series of delusional compromises masquerading as realpolitik.
So, when countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and, above all, China flagrantly violate their citizens’ human rights, liberal democracies must unite to constrain their behavior. Ultimately, it is up to those of us who believe in the universality of human rights to expose crimes against humanity and to uphold liberal-democratic values in the face of authoritarian threats.
It is not in our interest to look the other way when journalists are murdered and locked up, when women are denied their rights because of their gender, or when ethnic minorities are persecuted as the Jewish people had been. We should take every opportunity to remind the world of the Chinese authorities’ persecution and incarceration of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, as well as their use of forced abortions and sterilizations to curb the country’s Muslim population.
By the same token, liberal democracies have a shared responsibility to support the Ukrainians fighting to defend their homeland and to protect their rights to self-determination and statehood in the face of Russian aggression. Western governments must not be intimidated by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nuclear threats and provide Ukraine with the weapons it needs. Germany, in particular, must heed the lessons of its own history. Failing to stand up to a ruthless dictator is not only a betrayal of democratic values; it is also a surefire path to greater insecurity. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s decision to deliver tanks to Ukraine, announced last week following months of tense discussions, is a step in the right direction.
When the late British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, a clever man and a brilliant parliamentary debater, said in 1997 that UK foreign policy “must have an ethical dimension,” he was harshly criticized for inadvertently suggesting that previous governments did not consider the moral implications of their foreign policies. Years later, after then-Prime Minister Tony Blair and his cabinet failed to uphold their own rigorous standards and supported the US-led invasion of Iraq, they were inevitably derided as hypocrites (though not the principled Cook, who delivered an extraordinary resignation speech in the House of Commons).
But as Immanuel Kant observed, we are all made from “the crooked timber of humanity.” Integrating morality into foreign policy is easier said than done, and it often involves painful tradeoffs. Nevertheless, this should always be the goal of liberal democracies, not least because it is in their best interests.
Former US President Jimmy Carter was often mocked for allegedly prioritizing human rights over national security. But in Carter’s view, the two are inseparable. “Human rights,” he once said, “is the soul of our foreign policy, because human rights is the very soul of our sense of nationhood.”
If liberal democracies are to survive in their current form, they must live up to the values they espouse. Failing to defend the principles that underpin the political and cultural identities of open societies would endanger both their national security and the rules-based international order. As former US Vice President Hubert Humphrey memorably put it, foreign policy is “really domestic policy with its hat on.”
*Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and a former EU commissioner for external affairs, is Chancellor of the University of Oxford and the author of The Hong Kong Diaries (Allen Lane, 2022).