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Hon Phil Goff: The Ethics Of Foreign Policy

Hon Phil Goff Speech

The ethics of foreign policy

Professor Patman, distinguished speakers and guests.

Thank you for the invitation to address this year's Otago Foreign Policy School. The government puts great store on promoting an active, equitable and responsible foreign policy. The opportunity to make a contribution to the topic under discussion is therefore very welcome.

I would like to begin with a few general observations, in particular to focus attention on the all-too frequent assumption that moral principles are soft "PC" thinking which has no place in the real world.

Moral philosophy and ethics have provoked discussion unlike few other subjects. In Western societies the debate goes as far back as Socrates.

More recently, there has been a resurgence of interest in the ethics of international relations. Global terrorism, shifting power relationships in a global environment marked by United States pre-eminence, an enlarging European Union, and the growing weight of China in the Asia-Pacific region are several, but not all, of the drivers of this renewed interest. Then there are the added debates over issues such as global free trade, the sustainability of the environment and human rights.

Today, the need for the international community to translate shared concerns into principled and appropriate action has never seemed more evident.

How we order our foreign relations, the quality of our decisions and actions, and what obligations and duties we are prepared to assume are not just a matter of hard-headed calculation. Inevitably, they invoke moral judgments and ethical principles.

There are those who argue that ethics and the actual conduct of nations have, observably, little in common. The business of foreign affairs, it is said, is to defend the nation and maximise its power.

The differences of civilisation, culture, religion, and even of linguistic concepts are, in any event, too great to lead to an effective single system of ethics, by which to manage the world's affairs.

We must all readily concede these propositions accurately describe much of international behaviour.

It is an egotistical world. We are organised on the basis of sovereign states.

It is the primary duty of all governments to provide for the security and well-being of their people. In the conduct of security and foreign policy, little quarter is given. National interests abound.

The realists are right, too, when they put their finger on the serious cultural and other hurdles we face in promoting international cooperation. The scope for misunderstanding is large. The situation is often manipulated and exploited for political gain.

I would also add that, for so long as many of the current disparities continue among peoples, the difficulties in the way of forming a common front on many problems will not grow smaller.

But "realism" is often taken too far, in my view.

The arguments tend to discount the worth of genuine acts of generosity, or enlightened self-interest if you will.

Let us look back.

The Marshall Plan in Europe, and the similar rehabilitation of Japan, was undertaken for a variety of motives. Both actions went far beyond what historic precedent and narrow self-interest indicated.

Altruism paid off. Lasting democracies were established as well as new standards of international conduct relating to war.

Realism has also failed to keep up with some obvious changes to the global environment.

An enormous and growing body of international law and standards has been negotiated, beginning with the United Nations Charter and the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

While many treaties and conventions may be prone to be honoured more in the breach, they do weave a valuable fabric of principles, duties and obligations, standards and codes of conduct, which lie at the heart of the search for ethical international behaviour.

These agreements have contributed to an evolving culture of universal human rights, which increasingly intersects with other major preoccupations such as globalisation, trade, development and the environment.

The six core Human Rights international treaties, the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, arms control treaties, the recently established war crimes tribunals and the International Criminal Court are other examples, old and new, of a political reality, with which all governments must come to terms, sooner or later.

Moreover, security itself can no longer be defined narrowly in traditional military or economic terms.

Since 11 September 2001, we have had to come to grips with the challenge of global terrorism, as demonstrated to horrifying effect by Al Qaeda. An entire nation, Afghanistan, was subverted by this group of non-state actors.

As tragically proven again in Bali more recently, fanaticism and racial hatred threaten us all.

But there are also other threats.

The consequences of a spiralling world population, pressure on scarce and finite resources, environmental degradation and pollution, glaring social and economic inequities, and disease - SARS is the latest example -- endanger our future.

These threats cannot be addressed by force of arms. Nor does political or economic power provide immunity.

Realism in the 21st century requires a wide definition of security, and a commensurately wider means of defence.

It also requires more strenuous efforts to overcome the obstacles of difference and to persuade those who may need convincing that self-interest and ethics are not opposed. They are an integral whole.

Convincing the sceptics, however, will be a hard slog.

Amid the goodwill and achievements of past efforts, the prevalence also of foot-dragging, double standards and inconsistencies leave little room for doubt on that score.

But I believe we must not allow the cynicism we see around us in international affairs to diminish the expectations and ethical behaviour we should demand of ourselves, and each other, as members of the global community.

It seems a common risk for those who speak in favour of ethical principles that they might give an unwanted impression of naivety, or of cloaking a claim to moral and cultural superiority, even revelation.

Such is not my claim in any way. Nor would it be that of most, if not all, New Zealanders.

It is true we promote ourselves as a good international citizen.

We admire activism, doing the right thing, helping out, giving others a fair go, being as good as your word, telling it like it is.

These are all, in fact, basic ethical principles dressed up in familiar language. In no way, however, are they unique to this country.

But history, geography, size and culture have come together to reinforce a particular set of values, a typical New Zealand character and approach.

We should be frank.

We are fortunate in ways many others are not.

We do not share a land border with an historical enemy. We are culturally diverse but, by any comparative measure, harmoniously integrated.

There are no extremes of wealth. There are no bitter religious divisions. Corruption is rare. We have an uncrowded, reasonably fertile land. We have no strategic resources others want. We are economically developed and quite well-off.

This may sound like a recipe for smugness in a country that can afford the moralism of distance and the virtue that comes from lack of fear or temptation.

I do not believe we have fallen into that trap, but neither should I be the judge of that.

What is amply clear is that New Zealand does not have the capabilities, in power terms, to muscle its way through problems.

Going it alone is not an option for us. We need to be team players.

If, however, we are to have our say, and hope to be heard, let alone taken notice of, we must also have the right credentials.

That means having a reputation for responsibility and integrity. We must belong to the relevant clubs.

We must be seen willing to pull our weight, have the ability to cooperate, and pay our dues.

More than that. We must also be dependable and constructive.

If our contribution in the international arena is to have real meaning, we must add value of a distinctive kind. We must know our own mind, have an independent point of view, and be prepared, in a principled way, to speak out.

We must also be prepared to act.

While principles are fine, without consequent action, they serve little practical purpose. I would note here that action might include military force, as a last or appropriate resort.

A principled foreign policy does not equate to pacifism. Principles are worth fighting for.

My use of terms like "team", "club" and "arena" borrow from sport, and they presuppose rules - clearly understood, accepted and practical rules.

It is a key tenet of New Zealand foreign policy that our long-term security lies best in a world of ethically based rules.

The United Nations and related organizations are central to the making and upholding of such rules.

Our response to the conflict in Iraq illustrated, and explains, the basis of our policy approach. As a principled position, we were keen to:

- maintain our commitment to the United Nations as the pre-eminent body to resolve international conflicts; - affirm our belief in the importance of international law as the best guarantor of international security, especially of small states like New Zealand; - support the elimination of weapons of mass destruction; - respond to the humanitarian needs of the people of Iraq; and - maintain a network of bilateral contacts with countries of similar views.

Now that the conflict has ended, we have moved in a substantial way, in terms of our size and other commitments, to help give effect to UN Security Council Resolution 1483 with the rebuilding of Iraq and the humanitarian task of removing landmines.

Similarly, New Zealand is contributing actively to 13 peacekeeping operations at this time.

Our sizeable contribution to Operation Enduring Freedom has involved all three of our Armed Services in the fight against terrorism, and the rehabilitation of Afghanistan.

Action at the global level must, however, be supported by active regional and bilateral relations.

As a member of the Asia-Pacific region, we have over many decades - some of them marred by deep conflict - sought to ensure our security and prosperity in partnership with Asian and Pacific countries.

These years have witnessed the full re-emergence of many Asian nations from hundreds of years of colonial rule.

The process of welding together ancient and highly diverse cultures into a coherent, regional voice continues. It has been accompanied by an assertion of distinctive Asian values and ethics born of the great religions native to the region and Islam.

The ever-growing strength of China is adding to the region's dynamism.

India, Asia's other giant, is engaging substantively once more with the countries of Southeast and East Asia.

Closer to home, New Zealand's relations with our Pacific Island neighbours have undergone a significant transformation in recent years. We are now home to many of these peoples.

The same can be said of Asian migration that, on current trends, will see a doubling of New Zealanders of Asian origin to some 13 per cent of the total population within twenty years.

In both cases, our own European and Maori values and ethics are being further diversified and enriched. The character of our foreign policy will increasingly reflect its changing domestic roots.

I should like to conclude my address by making some remarks from the Governments perspective, on what is one of the basic tenets of our foreign policy - human rights.

Human rights are fundamental. This is not only a matter of moral conviction. Deprivation and abuse of all such rights threatens stability and development. Such circumstances must be challenged. And we do, consistently, in the appropriate fora and in bilateral contacts.

I have recently approved policy guidance, seeking to integrate human rights concerns more squarely into our bilateral relations with other governments.

If they are to be effective, however, challenges to the practices of others must be carefully thought through.

Specific circumstances require specific approaches - whether through bilateral, regional or multilateral means. And patience and persistence as well.

If possible, criticism should acknowledge any progress made and look to constructive solutions. Disrespect fails to persuade. It is not a catalyst for early change.

There have been gains.

With the end of the Cold War and its ideological competition for third country loyalty, the scope for addressing deficient human rights situations has increased.

There were 40 democracies two decades ago. Today, there are well over a hundred. Timor Leste has won independence.

There is greater transparency nationally and internationally. The internet is an important instrument in this. So are satellite communications.

New country alignments are forming, depending on the issues.

There is a greater emphasis on regional arrangements. Economic, social and cultural rights are receiving greater attention internationally.

The media continue to play a vital role. They report from the spot, often at high risk to life and limb. They have the power to expose human rights abuses, and to put them on our agenda thousands of kilometres away.

In New Zealand, government action on human rights is complemented in many valuable ways by the actions of non-governmental groups and other members of civil society with an interest in human rights.

They help set our agenda of action.

Theirs is a demonstration that the protection of human rights is a collective responsibility. This is a principle that deserves wider international recognition.

Despite, however, valuable progress in human rights at the international level, there is, overall, little cause for celebration.

Progress is most often incremental and slow.

There are shortcomings, too, I believe, in the way the treaty body system itself works. Sensitive issues are involved, as well as serious resource constraints.

Moreover, the number of countries prepared to speak out consistently is quite small.

The principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of others, particularly of those close by, can strongly inhibit action, not least when retaliation in kind would yield a good harvest.

For New Zealand, there is much to preoccupy us closer to home in our Pacific region. The problems facing many countries there include ethnic and demographic stress, marginal economic viability, and failing infrastructures.

The consequences have been dire in the cases of Bougainville and the Solomon Islands.

We are deeply engaged on the ground in helping to restore, as a first step, their basic stability and governability.

The coups in Fiji and continuing constitutional difficulties have involved a breadth of individual and political rights, and set back the nation's development.

There are no quick, simple fixes.

To say the ultimate responsibility lies with the nations themselves is to state the obvious, but, in the case of the Solomons alone, truth and reality are unlikely to become one for a long time to come.

Outside donors will need to provide assistance of a very wide nature. To redress, however, the damage to life and society, human rights assistance will be essential to future viability.

With this in mind, we have adjusted our overseas development assistance objectives.

NZAID's new brief encompasses human rights issues directly and indirectly. They are present in the design of the good governance, education and health activities of our programmes.

We shall also continue to strengthen national human rights institutions where available.

With these remarks, I have sought to concentrate on several issues only from the personal perspective of a New Zealand politician.

I am conscious that there remains much more to be said, and that there are pressing aspects of ethics in foreign policy that I have not covered.

One example is the evolving concept of humanitarian intervention.

Another is the important issue of ethics in trade.

A third is the right to life itself, which stands ultimately behind our efforts in the field of disarmament and arms control.

It seems to me that, as members of the global community, we already have ample evidence to understand that we are, in all reality, talking about our own survivability in what is a very fragile ecosystem.

Ethical conduct is not optional.

To ensure we are successful, it is in our self-interest to learn how best to live together, make the right decisions, and adjust our conduct according to appropriate duties, obligations and standards.

In doing this, we can properly account to ourselves, and to others.

Thank you.


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