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Decency and Diplomacy: the Myth of National Interest

28 Apr 2016
By William Fisher
The Embassy of Australia in Washington D.C. Photo source: Ryan Orr (Flickr). Creative Commons.

It is relatively easy to think of examples where states have acted immorally. It’s less clear, however, if those states were indeed acting in the national interest. 

Are states motivated by the national interest?

It may seem unbelievable, but there are cases where states have acted largely out of moral considerations, and not out of national concern. This is the case with earthquake relief, refugee rescue and combatting outbreak of diseases like Ebola in distant places, for example. Not all these cases are exclusively motivated by altruism: the closer the event to home, the more that considerations of national interest will emerge. Such actions contribute to what has been called “good international citizenship”. Needless to say, this is more popular on the political left than on the right. In this case it is clear that those countries who do not live in a zone of regional conflict or of strategic uncertainty have a much easier choice. The Scandinavians and Canada are obvious examples. They are held up by the NGO community as virtuous states and as examples for others to follow. However, it is typically the case that the pursuit of morality can fly out the window; try talking to Norway about whaling or Canada about sealing. Still, it remains true that countries such as these do indeed, much of the time, put more effort than most into seeking “moral” courses of action internationally, even when that is to the great expense of their taxpayers.

Acting morally

Of course, virtually every Western government portrays all its actions as in the national interest. Sometimes it’s even true. The organisation, despatch and operation of the RAMSI intervention in the Solomon Islands, for instance, was a clear case of the right moral choice (rescuing a failing state) and acting in the national interest (in Australia’s own region and strategic neighbourhood). Odd, though, that at the time such an intervention was opposed stoutly by the then foreign minister as being simply too difficult. This serves to remind that perceptions of national interest, let alone morality, are sometimes hard for leaders to distinguish. In this instance it required the public stimulation of Hugh White at ANU and the intervention of John Howard personally to get Australia on track.

The (mis)importance of moral justification

The fact is that most foreign policy decisions are taken for national interest reasons, but that most governments feel they must justify themselves in terms of morality, even when that’s absurd. Most of us would consider that the US and allies’ invasion of Iraq in 2003 was hard to justify morally. Yet, at the time, enormous effort was undertaken to present this as a moral matter. And when the main “moral” cause – Iraq’s so-called weapons of mass destruction – fell away, another had to be quickly thrown up.

Let’s not let the Australian government off the hook here either: while Australia’s decision to follow the US into Iraq was essentially an exercise in US alliance management (and thus a national interest matter) it had to be portrayed to the media and public as pursuing some moral endeavour. In fairness, it must be stressed that ideas of what’s “moral” do change dramatically over time. We look back now in horror at the slave trade, eagerly pursued only a century and a half ago, and thus considered an acceptable basis for a large number of states’ foreign policy actions. Every generation looks back at the previous one and wonders: what on earth were they thinking?

Even today, we have to accept that acting morally, or even just honestly, is not necessarily the standard option. For a start, our government, like so many others, maintains a well-funded and active secret service. Given that the whole purpose of secret services is to be able to act illegally in other countries, no state can argue moral superiority in this regard. It’s not, therefore, usually a question of whether a state’s action is moral or not, it’s whether the degree of morality or amorality is within that state’s degree of tolerance. There is no absolute measuring stick, but rather a sliding scale. What a government must be aware of is ensuring that, in its desperation to meet the media’s and public’s demand for morally justifiable policies, it does not fall into the trap of exaggeration, illogic or plain dishonesty.

In the absence of national interest

Occasionally, in perhaps the most entertaining cases, not only do governments act immorally but they don’t even act in their own national interest. No government would of course ever admit to such a thing, but it’s a wonderfully contested field. An interesting example of an action which could hardly be moral, precisely because it was so excruciatingly contrary to the national interest is that of New Zealand in 1941. It was confronted with Japan’s entry into the war, thus directly threatening its own existence, but with virtually all its own fighting forces far away in the eastern Mediterranean. The New Zealand government was persuaded by the British not to withdraw its troops back to the Japanese front but to leave them all where they were, essentially to help Britain. Britain argued that if New Zealand were defeated and invaded the war would still go on, but if Britain was defeated then the war would be lost. Surely there are few examples in history of a state being prepared in principle to acquiesce in its own demise, a sort of national hari kiri, for the sake of another. The New Zealand government argued stoutly at the time that this was morally justified, but surely that’s absurd.

This then leads to a section of relevance particularly to Australia – where a government acts not so much in its own national interest but in another nation’s. We seem to have been extraordinarily susceptible to this syndrome over the decades: for much of our time as an independent state many Australians’ first loyalty was not to Australia itself but to the British Empire. That was certainly the guiding principle in World War One. It was still the case at the start of World War Two, witness to Menzies’ famous statement that “Britain has declared war … and as a result Australia is also at war”.

It is very dangerous for any state to put another’s interests before its own, especially a great power’s, and especially when the other power might later reward that loyalty by putting its interests first. Menzies-style faith in Britain’s commitment to Australia was shaken by the East of Suez withdrawal, and it collapsed when Britain applied to join the EC regardless of Australia’s interests and protestations. Many believe that subsequent Australian governments’ faith in the US should have been tempered right from the time when the US refused to support Australia over Konfrontasi or over West Irian, because other US interests were considered to be more important to the US than were Australia’s. I call this attitude the rugby player’s approach to diplomacy, where Australia’s role is to be the loyal team player, to give whatever for the team even to the point of self-sacrifice, and above all to loyally follow the captain’s decisions.

A similar issue of states acting not in their real national interest comes when they or their leaders are motivated mainly by local pressure groups seeking preferential treatment. An extreme example of this was the British government’s waging the Opium Wars against China at the behest of the East India Company. An Australian newspaper carried an article recently criticising the lobbying by what it called “Australia’s China-dependent plutocrats”, urging Australia to take a more obsequious line on various matters of interest to China. There are of course a number of domestic lobby groups who seek to influence national decision-making to favour another country, such as the Israel lobby’s pressure on the US at the time of the Iraq invasion in 2003, or indeed more generally.

Some academics write that any conflict between morality and diplomacy is easy to resolve. The state has only one “moral” course, and that is to pursue the national interest. The state is not at all like the individual, who may be required or want to follow some idea of moral conduct. The state only exists to further the general, or national, interest: therefore any action which it and its representatives take in pursuit of that goal is, by definition, moral.

William Fisher served for many years as a career diplomat, with postings including High Commissioner to Canada and Ambassador to France. He is currently at the ANU College of the Asia-Pacific and Diplomacy. This article is adapted from his remarks at the Australian Diplomacy Today Symposium presented by the Australian Institute of International Affairs, the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy and Bond University with support from Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. It is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.