The other day I was watching some pundits punditing away about the killing of Alexander Litvinenko, and one of them, to general approval from the audience, said some thing to the effect that if the evidence did point to an assassination ordered by the Russian government, ‘diplomacy must not be allowed to obstruct justice’.
I think if I was the Prime Minister or the Foreign Secretary I might find that a bit glib. There must be all sorts of good reasons why it’s important to have a working relationship with the Russian government. People always bring up their oil and gas reserves in this context, but presumably there are a constant flow of issues, major and minor, where in some way or other the Russians can choose to either help or hinder British objectives. That shouldn’t be messed around with lightly.
I’m not suggesting that pragmatic politics should automatically take precedence over ethical considerations, just that the two need to be weighed against each other. And that it would be nice to occasionally have a grown-up discussion in which people openly stated as much. For example, it’s often pointed out that back in the first Gulf War, the US would not have intervened if it wasn’t for all the oil in Kuwait; that if a dictator invades their neighbour in, say, Central Africa, the West will generally keep out of it. And it’s always implied that oil is somehow a seedy, cynical and probably avaricious consideration. But access to oil is absolutely vital to the continuing functioning of the world’s economies. It should be a contributing factor to foreign policy; a government which didn’t take it seriously would not be doing their job properly.
I’m not, I hope, arguing for a less ethical politics, just a more honest dialogue about it. Politics, and foreign policy in particular, is messy and difficult. We all know that policy decisions are shaped by a mix of practical and ethical reasons and that pragmatism and ethics are often in conflict. How can we have a proper discussion of particular decisions if we pretend otherwise?