Foreign policy is often dressed up in moral rhetoric, but ultimately might is stronger than right

You may remember that Robin Cook, newly appointed as Britain’s foreign secretary back in 1997, promised to introduce an “ethical foreign policy”. Such talk disappeared long ago, brought to an abrupt end by the illegalities and immorality of the invasion of Iraq.

I was reminded of Cook’s efforts by Gordon Brown’s address yesterday to the Israeli Knesset, where he uttered barely any criticisms of Israel and fulminated long and hard against Iran and its alleged nuclear policy. I have a serious problem with western hypocrisy over Iran and the bomb. We are against nuclear proliferation and yet no one breathes a word about the fact that Israel has many nuclear weapons, and has had them for a long time. So, why not Iran? One might add that Israel has always lived by the sword in the Middle East but the same cannot be said of Iran.

I am against nuclear proliferation (though sceptical that the line can be held in the long term) but only if the policy is even-handed (there is also the small fact that it clearly privileges those that already possess them). This is clearly not the case in the Middle East. Israel is the agent and surrogate of the United States and as such is treated entirely differently from every other country in the region. How can anyone expect Iran to accept that it is right for Israel to have nuclear weapons while itself being disallowed?

Recently the international criminal court (ICC) charged the Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir with war crimes in Darfur. That the Sudanese regime has behaved with considerable barbarity in Darfur is beyond question. But again I find myself troubled by the moral logic of the argument. The biggest war criminals of recent years are President George Bush and former premier Tony Blair. They have been responsible for the death of more than 700,000 Iraqis as a result of the war, countless grave injuries, massive displacement and a serious deterioration in the conditions of life. Perversely, notwithstanding their crimes against humanity, they have not yet been charged by the ICC.

The reason, of course, is simple. Though the discourse of such a court is concerned with justice and morality, there is a higher priority altogether in its work, and that is called power. The ICC is not mainly about morality; it is about power combined with a very light sprinkling of morality. Its targets are western-approved and powerless. Established in 2002, the court has opened investigations into four situations: Northern Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic and Darfur. The court has issued public arrest warrants for 12 people; six of them remain free, two have died, and four are in custody.

Every major power always seeks to justify its action on moral grounds. Such behaviour is almost as old as the hills. The west has been a particularly vigorous exponent of this credo; and there is no reason to believe that China, for example, will be any different. But behind the moral rhetoric invariably lies interest and ideology. While the west has enjoyed overwhelming global power, its moral preachings have been legitimised, and in effect enforced, by that power. But as that power begins to ebb, then the morality of its actions will be the subject of growing scrutiny and challenge.

The western line on Iran’s bomb is morally flawed while it turns a blind eye to Israel’s. Likewise, the charging of Omar al-Bashir, the prosecution of Slobodan Milosevic, and the arrest of Radovan Karadzic will always lack moral force while those who possess infinitely greater power are allowed to escape the clutches of justice.