The western consensus on foreign affairs: blinkered or hypocritical?
Gideon Rachman’s comment column in the Financial Times today repeats the common conception that there is only one way to view international relations. Lula’s approach to Cuba, Iran and Venezuela is portrayed as perverse – or as Rachman puts it, “cynical or naive”. It is suggested that he cannot be a true democrat when he does not publicly excoriate such countries for their democratic failings. A subtle distinction is drawn between Lula and the other southern saint, Nelson Mandela (although in truth, Mandela’s approach to international relations was pretty indistinguishable from Lula’s, especially where Cuba was concerned).
Although there are elements of outright hypocrisy in this sort of approach (see below), the worst feature of it is the complete failure to consider that Lula might be right, and the western consensus wrong – or indeed that there are simply two understandable points of view, neither of which holds the whole truth.
First the hypocrisy. This is a relatively easy case to make. The problem with Cuba, Iran and Venezuela is pretty much not that they are ‘bastards’, but that they are not ‘our bastards’ in the famous phrase. “Praising authoritarians”, as Rachman accuses Lula, is a common western activity too, and we have a much longer history of it, from Saddam Hussein onwards. Is the authoritarianism of Venezuela (a functioning democracy whose elections last weekend were clearly not good for the President’s party) really worse than the authoritarianism of Saudi Arabia? (I choose these examples because I can avoid the answer that this is all about oil – both are huge oil producers, so not even filthy lucre can explain the differentiation.)
Second, the blinkers. There can be absolutely no doubt that people like Lula, and Mandela, are true democrats. They have had every excuse not to be – beginning their career under dictatorships, with the real option of taking revenge on their former oppressors – and chose to be democrats par excellence. So it’s possible they may have something worth hearing to say about how to address foreign dictatorships, which those of us who have lived in countries where democracy has been so well-established as to be mundane might not. (This isn’t to say that Lula gets a free pass, or has some sort of unchallengeable moral high ground – it just means we should be paying his views more respect than Rachman and others do.)
The TUC is no fan of regimes such as Iran’s as our campaigns to oppose repression of trade unions and others demonstrate, and our relative silence on countries like Saudi Arabia is due to the absence of a functioning trade union movement there to inform us and require our solidarity. But we believe that there may be more than one approach to the challenges such countries pose to democrats, and we are not sure that simply picking sides in a ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ way is the best approach.