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Giles Fraser: Why I worry about moral foreign policies

20 February 2008

While most of the media were unpicking the grammatical spaghetti of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, said something important that too many people missed.

Defending what has come to be called liberal interventionism, he argued that “the goal of spreading democracy should be a great progressive project.” The nub of the speech was that mistakes made in Iraq and Afghanistan ought not to distract progressives from the moral obligation to spread democracy around the world — by military means, if necessary.

What I am going to say might sound strange, but I worry about the very idea of a “moral” foreign policy. It is not that I want an immoral one. My problem is that too many wars get justified by a supposedly moral case. And very few wars are ever stopped because of a moral case. Reference to morality is often a justification for killing, but rarely a brake on it.

This is all related to my anxiety about the just-war tradition. The Emperor Constantine required the invention of just-war theology so that the head of the Roman war-machine could happily convert to a religion with a strong reputation for pacifism. Since then, countless politicians have used the just-war criteria to grease the path to war, and conveniently forgotten about the same criteria if they do not help make the case they require.

Just-war ethics, which are fine in and of themselves, are too easily conscripted into the war effort. The same is true of Mr Miliband’s justification of liberal interventionism.

The deeper lessons we must take from Iraq, especially, are those of someone such as the Canadian politician and philosopher Michael Ignatieff. In 2003 and earlier, Dr Ignatieff was a cheerleader for liberal interventionism. He supported the war in Iraq, and defended the idea of an empire-lite.

Then, last year, he recanted: “The unfolding catastrophe in Iraq has condemned the political judgement of a president, but it has also condemned the judgement of many others, myself included, who as commentators supported the invasion.”

Reflecting on his support, he made some interesting observations on the limitations of intellectuals in public life, who are prone to “generalising and interpreting particular facts as instances of some big idea”. What academics generally fail to register is that, in politics: “Specifics matter more than generalities.”

There is probably a similar blind spot for our Archbishop. Politically speaking, abstract thought is not always clever.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney.

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