Foreign policy isn’t about good and evil


By Gareth Evans

Václav Havel, the Czech playwright and dissident turned president, and Kim Jong Il, the North Korean despot, 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-vs.-evil typecasting – the kind to which former President George W. Bush and former Prime Minister Tony Blair were famously prone, and of which we have had something of a resurgence in recent days – carries two big risks for international policymakers.

One risk is that it limits the options for dealing with those cast as irredeemably evil. The debacle of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq should have taught us 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 military intervention the only option, as with Moammar Gadhafi’s planned assault on Benghazi. 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 for those of us involved, but the talks secured a lasting peace in Cambodia. And it is only negotiation – albeit backed by good, old-fashioned containment and deterrence – that can deliver sustainable peace with Iran and North Korea.

The second risk of seeing the world in black and white is greater public cynicism, which makes ideals-based policy-making even harder. Expectations raised too high are 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 much of “values” are often most likely to stumble. Think of the lamentable response by Bill Clinton’s administration to the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

Then there is Western governments’ highly selective embrace of democracy when it results in the election of those (like Hamas) they find unacceptable; the unwillingness of almost every nuclear state to match its disarmament rhetoric with credible action; and the almost universal double talk on climate change.



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