Too many trade deals spoil Robin Cook's ethics broth

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 May, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 May, 2000, 12:00am

WHEN ROBIN COOK became British Foreign Secretary three years ago, he promised that the winds of change were at last going to blow through the corridors of Whitehall. Commercial self-interest would be abandoned in favour of an 'ethical foreign policy'.

Central to the new policy was Mr Cook's promise that the Government would no longer permit the sale of arms to regimes that might use them for internal repression or international aggression. But a string of diplomatic blunders has left the impression that foreign trade is still the main factor governing relations with other countries.

One of the first signs that ethics were being put on the back burner came with the continued sale of weapons to Indonesia. In 1998, as British-manufactured water cannon, armed personnel carriers and tanks were being used to repress pro-democracy protests in Jakarta, Mr Cook announced that more arms would be sold to the Indonesian Government.

Despite the British Labour Government's strong words earlier calling a halt to overseas arms sales, more than 60 licences for the export of arms to Indonesia were approved. Indonesian army officers were also brought to Britain for military training.

There has been a marked difference between what the Labour Party said while in opposition and what it has done since coming to power. In opposition, for instance, Labour promised to impose sanctions on Burma. In government, it has refused to do so, and has in fact made little secret of its wish to protect British business interests in the country, primarily those of oil companies based in Britain.

In dealings with China the British have spared no effort to try to pander to Beijing, as witnessed during President Jiang Zemin's state visit to Britain last year, when police confiscated Tibetan flags and masks worn by Chinese pro-democracy activists.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair is known to be anxious to develop a special relationship with China which he hopes will boost exports. Ethical foreign policy would be something of an inconvenience. 'Constructive engagement' is now the favoured phrase used by the Government to describe its foreign policy, a convenient term used to explain negotiations with despots and dictators.

Many in Britain were uncomfortable with the way in which newly elected Russian President Vladimir Putin was feted on an official visit to London last month while Russian troops were allegedly slaughtering civilians in Chechnya.

More recently, Britain's foreign policy has come under scrutiny regarding Britain's relationship with African countries, many of which are former colonies. Britain has played a key role in trying to negotiate a peace settlement in Sierra Leone, but its backing of the use of mercenaries has been criticised.

Earlier this year Mr Cook appeared to be watering down his commitment to an ethical foreign policy, saying international relations should be governed by 'enlightened self interest'. He spelt out four principles he said would guide his approach to diplomacy - building bridges and tearing down barriers, global interest becoming national interest, universal values, and the boosting of Britain's status in Europe, and in turn the world.

But while dismissing criticism of his record on human rights, he admitted there was a limit to what Britain could achieve. 'I flatly reject the cynical view that because we cannot make the world perfect, we should give up on trying to make it better,' he said. 'The obligation on us is not to put everything right but to do what we can to make a difference. We will take every realistic step to pursue diplomacy for democracy.' Simon Macklin is the Post's London correspondent