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The Perse Sermon 2022 Should we have an ethical foreign policy?

Dr Perse’s Sermon ~ Sunday 6th February 2022

Preacher ~ Sir Malcolm Rifkind

I have over the years been called upon to speak in many places, forums and institutions but I think I can say with confidence, and I suspect you’ll all believe me, that this is the first time I have been called upon or invited to preach a sermon in a chapel during evensong. I think the nearest I can recall of such an experience was many years ago as a school boy when I played the part of Cardinal Wolsey in a Man For All Seasons by Robert Bolt – but that was quite a long time ago.

One recognises that when you have to give a sermon, sometimes they can go in all sorts of extraordinary directions. Some years ago I came across a minister of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland in Stornaway in the Western Isles, a church which is not exactly known for its tolerance of other denominations, but he had been required to preside over an ecumenical service which he thoroughly disapproved of. but at the appropriate moment, he stood up in front in the pulpit and in the pews in front of him there was an Anglican, a Methodist, a Baptist, a Catholic, an Episcopalian, and various other denominations. He began his sermon by saying, “Gentlemen, we are all here to serve the Lord, you in your ways and I in His” and I don’t think he was joking at the time.

It is an enormous privilege to be invited to give the Perse Sermon. It goes back some 400 years as you all well know better than I do, and I want to share with you some thoughts, but I can assure you right at this very stage that I have no intention of preaching a long sermon. I shall follow the wise precedent of King Henry VIII who apparently said to each of his six wives “Please don’t worry, I don’t intend to keep you long”. I also recollect a parliamentary colleague who spoke for so long in the House of Commons that, when he eventually did sit down, the speaker said that the honourable gentleman had exhausted time and was now encroaching upon eternity. So I will try not to make that foolish mistake.

So what is my sermon going to be? I was advised that it need not be on a theological theme which is just as well but I’m going to really tap into my own background and my own experience having been Foreign Secretary and indeed served as a junior minister in the Foreign Office for a number of years before then. And the subject I want to speak about is: Should we have an ethical Foreign Policy?

It is something which many of us aspire to. When my successor as Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, took over in 1997 when Mr Blair became Prime Minister, Mr Cook announced that now we have a new Government, we will have an ethical foreign policy and many applauded it and it sounded a very fine aspiration, which it was.

What I want to explore is the practical implications that have emerged over the years that sometimes make this a more challenging objective than is otherwise perhaps assumed.

So what would we mean by an Ethical Foreign Policy? I’m not going to give an exhaustive list, but the four main components you would imagine would exist. The first would be that our allies would be countries that share our values, and we wouldn’t have alliances with dictatorships and despots and so forth; but we would have people of like-mind with shared values, in order to spread these values across the world. That would be one component. The second component would be that we did not spend too much time consorting with dictators, despots, and those who use torture or who might deny human rights and matters of that kind. We would certainly not, as a third component, sell arms to such governments or such countries because that would be improper given the sort of systems that they represent. Also you then have to try and work a formula that enables you to meet that requirement.

Now it has been said that diplomats are rather curious sorts of people. I was once told that diplomats are people who could be disarming especially when their countries were not. Harold MacMillan, remembered as our Prime Minister, but he was also briefly Foreign Secretary, once pointed to the problems that all Foreign Ministers have when they’re dealing with these sensitive international issues. So a Foreign Secretary, when he speaks, is in a cruel dilemma: his speeches hover between the cliché and the indiscretion. Then he went on to say they are either dull or dangerous. In my experience, some are actually both, but I won’t go into it at this moment in time.

But the problems I really want to focus on are as follows: What, first of all, is the purpose of diplomacy? The purpose of diplomacy I have to say is not to spread ethical values, it is essentially to resolve international issues, international crises, hopefully by peaceful means rather than having to resort to armed force. If armed force is required, if it is inevitable and unavoidable, if there is what we sometimes refer to as a ‘just war’ then those who are on the side of virtue, if I can put it that way, will prevail.

It's when you approach the objective of foreign policy, as first of all the peaceful resolution of international disputes, and, secondly, if we have to use armed force, then let us at least ensure we win that conflict. That’s when it becomes more complicated for the following reasons. First of all, the world is not a binary world. It’s not just a bunch of good guys on one side and a bunch of bad guys on the other. When, let me be slightly controversial, Donald Trump was President of the United States, was he a good guy? The United States has always been perceived by us as a country that shares our values. Was that true at that time? And on the other side of the equation, when Gorbachev helped lead the Soviet Union towards a peaceful end of the Cold War, the best leader of the Soviet Union there has ever been, did that affect our judgement as to the kind of countries because he still led a dictatorship, even at that time. Let me give just one or two examples which perhaps illustrate why this is more complicated than some might wish and certainly perceive.

Think of second world war and think of how during that war Churchill and Roosevelt formed an alliance - with whom? with Joseph Stalin. One of the mass murderers of the twentieth century. Responsible for millions of people dying in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, yet they formed an alliance with them and the judgement of history has been that they were correct to do so because that provided the best prospect of defeating Hitler and the Nazi and fascist conflict that we were already facing, already dealing with. So sometimes, in order to win a war when a war has become unavoidable, it is foolish to be too choosy who your allies are; because sometimes they will be allies who for their own reasons share your objective on this occasion. Is that an ethical Foreign Policy or is it a pragmatic one?

Let me give you another example. During the Falklands conflict, one of the most important sources of intelligence that the United Kingdom received was from Chile. Chile at that time had President Pinochet as its ruler, a dictator himself, but because Chile and Argentina were old enemies, it suited the Chileans to give very sensitive information of Argentinian air movements in the south Atlantic which were of crucial importance to us when we came to liberate the Falkland Islands.

Let me give a third example. You’ll be familiar with the caliphates, so called, that ISIS, the extreme terrorist organisation, created in northern Syria and northern Iraq and which spread terrible terrorism throughout that part of the world and elsewhere whenever they got the chance. That was crushed in the sense of them being able to control large swathes of territory. But in order to do so we have to use as our allies – it wasn’t just Americans and Brits and other faithful Democrats that were doing it – we had to use local militia, local forces, Kurdish forces and other groups that were not particularly democratic but shared our distaste (to put it mildly) of the ISIS extreme terror organisation.

So in the difficult and imperfect world in which we live, allies sometimes have to be chosen where you can find them, because otherwise a greater evil prevails. Let me just look at one or two things at this very moment. We see, for example, you have an unusual alliance between the Israelis and the Saudis; sworn enemies for the last 60 years and yet, because they both see Iran as a threat to their national existence, to their national interest, for the time being they’re working closely together. On the issue of the possible threat of China over the years to come, we have an extraordinary growing partnership, wait for it, between the United States and Vietnam. Vietnam is still a Communist government. Remember the history of the Vietnam war and yet today Vietnamese leaders have said publicly, given the threat as they perceive it from China, “we see America as our partner and China as the country we’re worried about.”

So it is incredibly more complicated than one might expect. Remember how Nixon and Kissinger decided to go to Beijing and they formed an understanding with Mao Tse Tung because both at that time saw the Soviet Union as a threat to their common interest. So it is not possible in the real, imperfect world in which we live to simply say “surely we should have an ethical foreign policy, surely that should be the criteria we apply.”

Now let me come to the latter part of my remarks because I am not suggesting this evening, certainly not in this sermon, I am not suggesting that ethics are unimportant in politics. Far from it. What I am gently trying to suggest and share with you is that what is needed in any real-time situation, if you are a democracy, if you believe in human rights and the rule of law, then what we must do is have an ethical dimension to our foreign policy. But it’s a dimension, it’s not the whole foreign policy because of the kind of circumstances that can arise and have arisen, that I have referred to

So what do I mean by an ethical dimension that should exist, not just in the United Kingdom, but in any country that calls itself a democracy? I’d like to believe that, for the most part, in the United Kingdom whoever is in government it’s broadly speaking what we have and let me indicate what the components might be.

First of all, most of our alliances should be with those who share our values and we do do that for the most part. Although we’re not part of the European Union, many of the European countries still remain our closest allies on matter of foreign policy and that is right and proper. The EU itself is an example of shared values which are of great importance. NATO is an alliance of democratic states. It has always attached importance to democracy being the criteria applied whenever possible. We have also the commonwealth which is very important for the United Kingdom. 45-50 countries once part of the British Empire and now equal, independent states have chosen voluntarily to work together and many areas have shared values, particularly when there was the battle to destroy apartheid in South Africa.

So alliances are part of the equation but also, if we do have to work with dictators, if we do have to have allies that do not share our values, then we should only do so to the extent that is necessary. We should recognise this is not just distasteful, it is something that is unnecessary unless the evidence points in the other direction. If we are providing arms then the sale of arms should be subject, as they are in the United Kingdom and in other countries, to very strict criteria and should normally be for defensive purposes and should only be provided to countries that are responsible in the way that they will use such assets. And I think also we should make a virtue of promoting human rights whenever we can even if it occasionally causes some difficulties in our relationships with other governments.

When I was Foreign Secretary, I had a meeting with the Dalai Lama. The Chinese were not very impressed by that, and they made – not as much of a fuss as they do now, but I thought it right and proper that the United Kingdom should not shun such a meeting simply because it might be disagreeable to some other government.

When I went to the then Soviet Union we had contacts, particularly when I was in Warsaw, Poland, I had contact through the Embassy and the British Ambassador’s house with three members of Solidarity which was then a banned Polish organisation; banned by the Polish government. I had meetings with them but at the time I didn’t know who they were because they were names that meant nothing to me but one was Tadiez Navesky who became the first Prime Minister of a non-Communist Poland. The second was Bronislaw Geremek who became Foreign Minister and the third gentleman became Minister of Defence. These turned out to be the new leaders of independent Poland but at the time it was very controversial. I can’t claim any personal credit for that, but that’s what British Foreign Secretaries ought to be doing and try to do pretty often. Sometimes when you went to those communist countries, even these dreadful places, they had a marvellous sense of humour occasionally. I met, while the Berlin wall was still standing, a Hungarian communist minster asked me “Mr Rifkind, what is the definition of an East German string quartet?” and I said I’ve no idea; and he smiled (and this is why the Berlin wall was still standing) it’s an East German orchestra that has just returned from a tour of West Germany”. So sometimes humour has its own role in political life.

Let me come to a conclusion. What I would gently suggest is that while the British government like all governments is imperfect, we do believe in things like freedom of speech, rule of law and human rights. We’ve got to be careful; because some governments who pretend to share these values have no right to do so. Even the North Korean regime of Kim Jong Oon calls itself a democratic republic; what a misuse of the word. But I remember vividly, a final bit of my own personal history I will share with you:

When I had to go to China just before the transfer of Hong Kong in 1997 I went first to Hong Kong on my way to Beijing because I wanted to see what the people in Hong Kong wanted me to raise with the Chinese government. And they said, what we want you to raise is not just when we become part of China will we have more than one candidate to vote for in the election, but will we still enjoy the rule of law? You all in this chapel know exactly what that means. A free society. So when I was in Beijing and I met the foreign minister, I said, “The people of Hong Kong have asked me to ask you will they still enjoy the rule of law when they become part of China again?” And I’ve never forgotten his reply:  “Don’t worry Mr Rifkind. In China we too believe in the rule of law, the people must obey the law.” I said, “Now hold on a moment, when we talk about the rule of law, it’s not just the people who must obey the rule of law; the governments must be under the law and subject to the courts, the judges, who may from time to time teach them the error of their ways.” He not only didn’t agree with me, he hadn’t the faintest idea what I was talking about, because dictators and despots cannot contemplate that a court of law should be able to order them as to what they can and can’t do. Somebody summed it up beautifully, not my words, but their words, it’s not the rule of law it’s rule by law. That is what distinguishes a free society from a dictatorship.

So my very final comments simply are this. Yes, we may occasionally have to sup with the devil as we all know in this imperfect world, but the role and the duty of a government of a democratic society is to keep it as infrequent as possible and when you have to do so, sup with a long spoon. That is my advice and that is my conclusion.