Hague’s foreign policy: easy on the human rights?
William Hague made the third of his four strategic foreign policy speeches this week, concentrating on human rights – not least because there had been murmurings that the coalition government was going to ditch them as a priority. The main headline announcement was the formation of an advisory group on human rights, made up of civil society and experts. This could be a genuinely radical step forward, and the TUC – as the unique proponent of human rights at work – will be seeking a place on it. But what was most marked about the speech was that, except as an exercise in name-dropping (Thomas Paine and Peter Hain, as well as the more readily anticipated Burma and Zimbabwe), there was not a lot of specificity in it. Is this just early days, or an exercise in down-grading expectations of activity – what some critics are alleging is a reduction of the scope and ambition of foreign policy under the coalition?
In one way, such a lowering of expectations would fit neatly with a Burke-ian approach to the limits of state action on an international scale, and it’s perhaps no great surprise that a Tory historian like Hague (as in a Tory rather than Whig interpretation of history) would reject the liberal interventionism of the early Blair, or the Presidency of Bill Clinton. Liberal interventionism was, after all, one of the casualties of the invasion of Iraq. It would not be a huge surprise to see Hague’s foreign policy contain pious words about democracy and human rights alongside promotion of trade with dictatorships.
That might be too cynical an approach. Government policy on Burma, as one example, doesn’t seem to have changed at all under the coalition, although the conundrum – how do you influence a regime as genuinely uninterested in foreign relations as the junta – remains. TUC engagement with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office over trade union rights in Iraq, or freedom for journalists in Africa, suggest that liberal activism is still acceptable, even if regime change is out. And, as I have suggested before, Hague’s support for using the Commonwealth more actively is, whilst no doubt somewhat motivated by memories of Empire, actually spot on: the (as it turned out) ironically-named Harare principles are a key potential tool for spreading democracy and human rights.
Dangling the carrot of EU membership at the Turks and beyond is still clearly part of the FCO armoury, according to this and other speeches. But there doesn’t seem to be much support for the use of sanctions such as writing human rights into trade agreements (mind you, Labour wasn’t keen on that either, and several development NGOs are similarly opposed). Hague still hopes that the theory that greater democracy leads to greater prosperity (best demonstrated by Loronzetti’s “allegories of good and bad government” mural in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena)
I suspect that it’s naive to expect a clear idea about what Hague’s foreign policy will be from speeches, not least of course because the lesson taught by Robin Cook’s ethical foreign policy, to which Hague refers, is “don’t say what you’re going to do, because you’ll be judged against it”. We’ll have to wait and see.