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Should Britain continue to have a foreign policy with moral-ethical considerations?
Karl Pitt 6 Jun 2018

In order to answer the question, we need to first understand what is meant by moral-ethical. Ethics refers to rules provided by an external source e.g. human right or codes of conduct. Moral refers to an individual’s own principles regarding right or wrong.

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This essay will demonstrate that Britain should continue to ensure they support other people with their democratic rights using principles for right and wrong when producing foreign policy. This will be done by providing the understanding of moral ethics, explaining where British ethical foreign policy derived from and give two British case studies, where ethical interventions were conducted without a UN Charter or the backing of the Security Council, explaining why one was seen as accepted and the other not.

With an example from British history we can see where Britain has taken moral-ethical considerations prior to 1997 to avoid conflict as well as implementing western values. The conclusion will be to demonstrate in this essay that moral ethical considerations must be taken into account when producing foreign policy.

Understanding Moral Ethics

All foreign policy has to have ethical considerations as we are “ethically constrained in everything we do”. This statement is also reiterated by Dan Bully in his book Intervention when he states that “the subject of ethics is foreign policy: it examines how we ought to relate to otherness, and that if foreign policy is a practice of building otherness and relating to it, the question of foreign policy must be how we ought to do this: a question of ethics”.

Albeit not an obligation, It is generally understood that governments are required to make ethical considerations and take more of an open-minded view of their own values or ethics as well as others. Their foreign policy should look to protect human rights, encourage moral-ethical understanding and promote peace in the international community as Britain did in 2007 when Robin Cook stated, referring to human tragedy in foreign countries to which Britain are obliged to take moral responsibility for. “Our foreign policy must have an ethical dimension and must support the demands of other peoples for the democratic rights on which we insist for ourselves,”

The biggest issue with ethical foreign policy is how far a state is willing to go to extend its moral duty. As the pathfinder to introducing moral-ethical considerations to foreign policy and considering the interventions in Kosovo (1999) and Iraq (2003), these two case studies, from Tony Blair and new labour, will explore how, despite both motives appearing to be the same for intervention, the contradictory nature of British decision making with regards to its foreign policies sees two different outcomes. While agreeing that the government had moral ethical considerations in mind in both accounts not both were accepted as ethical interventions.


In the late 1990s with a new labour government, Tony Blair and Robin cook felt that the human suffering and violation of human rights should be a British obligation to intervene and as such should be included in British foreign policy. In 1997 Robin Cook stated that British foreign policy with be a moral ethical policy. The following two years showed “New Labour” profiling its ethical stance on foreign policy and, receiving support both by the British public and international community. In 1999 they were able to execute their policy by intervening in Kosovo.

Case Study 1 Kosovo 1999

Due to the ethnic cleansing and forced expulsion of Albanians from Serbia, Britain (Tony Blair) and America (Bill Clinton) convinced NATO to intervene, despite having no UN Charter or support from the Security Council. The reason was Ethical and the intervention was accepted from both the British people and the international community.

The Serbian Albanians were in need of assistance and as Britain’s contribution was seen to be going far beyond protecting or advancing National Security, intervention due to moral-ethics was accepted and this was deemed a high point of the new labour foreign policy.

“Yet, for all that, Kosovo has been a success of liberal interventionism. Two things are clear. One is that it was absolutely right to stand up to the Serbian nationalism epitomised by Slobodan Milosevic. The most shameful policy of John Major’s Government was its appeasement of aggression in the Balkans, standing aside from “ethnic cleansing”. The Kosovo war of 1999 finally put an end to all that. As a result, Milosevic fell and Serbia began the long journey to joining the international community” .

Case Study 2 Iraq 2003

In 2003, post 9/11, Britain (Tony Blair) and America (George Bush) decided to intervene in Iraq. It could be stated this was not originally an ethical intervention and was a matter of national security, however it was eventually deemed to be about the Iraqi people, how Britain and America were going to install democracy and implement the rule of Law.

As per the previous case, there was no UN Charter or backing from the Security Council, however, despite intervening under ethical grounds it was not accepted by the British public or international community as an ethical intervention and has been deemed a low point in the new labour foreign policy.

“The view that the 2003 Iraq War was a disaster has become a fixed point of agreement in public opinion. The decision of the United States, Great Britain and other Coalition forces to invade Iraq soured western reputations across the world, undermined confidence in the motives and accountability of governments and created a humanitarian crisis in Iraq. Each of the reasons proffered to support the case for going to war were flawed and have henceforth been demolished by the reality of the intervening wars”.

Analysis of Case Study

My belief in why, despite the origins of intervention being the same, there was a conflict in opinion for both cases is because Britain misinterpreted the meaning of the term moral ethical when considering the intervention into Iraq.

The original reason for the Iraq intervention were in response to Sadam Hussain refusing UN weapons inspectors to an open inspection in Iraq. It was deemed by Bush and Blair that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and that as allies we should intervene under an interest of National Security.

To justify the intervention ethical reasons were then declared however when addressing the moral ethical considerations these were determined by Blair and Bush. Did the Iraq people want Britain or America to intervene, was the country after democracy and did they require the rule of Law?

If we were to now look at the definition of moral-ethical we might understand how Britain should have considered them for Iraq. Moral is defined as being a personal or individuals own principles regarding right/wrong and ethical is the standards distinguished by a community or social setting.

In the Iraq intervention it was an Anglo-American ideal being imposed on the Iraqi people. Did they want assistance? Possibly, did they require a democracy or the rule of law? Again possibly however it was not the choice of Blair and Bush to possibly assume an intervention was needed. This is why Iraq was not supported by the British public and international community and not accepted as an ethical intervention.

In Kosovo the moral-ethical considerations were aimed at the Albanians and the intervention stopped the mass slaughter and complete disregard of the ethnic Albanian human rights. It could be argued that it was still a Blair, Clinton decision with no consideration to the Albanians and that Kosovo being a European country, their moral-ethics are similar to the British making it default an excepted ethical intervention due to commonality in countries.

An Example in History

Britain could be seen to consider British values and standards when determining right from wrong. Is this correct and should Britain maintain its western ideals on non western countries? I think Britain has a history of failing to recognise cultural differences and what might be un-ethical in Britain and western society is deemed acceptable elsewhere. Britain has got the balance correct through history as well. A good example of this is India in the 19th century.

After the British rule in India, Indian society underwent many changes. Previous practices such as child marriage and polygamy were common practice, women were classed as second class citizens and were disadvantaged through society. Education was for men and only a selected few of the upper class. These, according to the British were deemed against human values and the British went about changing the ethics of India.

This in turn created a divide in the country with some of the population supporting the movement for change however others resisting. Britain at the time did declare it did not want to interfere too much in India as it did not want an uprising, this is despite pressure from a group of radicals in England who wanted India to have a humanistic ideology and become part of the modern world.

The British government understood the cultural differences and resisted the pressure and despite talk of reform very few were taken however ownership from the movements who wanted change saw women being educated and the child age of marriage changing to 14 for girls and 18 for boys.

This example is taken from one source and is a very optimistic view on the British occupation in India and is purely used for the purpose of this paper. In by no means does this paper suggest that the discontentment that resulted from British rule in India and the rise of the resistant movements, such as the Sanyasi, Faakir, Wahabi and Santhal, which resulted didn’t have consequences to the British.


In all the cases and examples in this essay there have been moral-ethical considerations. Whether the moral-ethical considerations have been considered for the right group of people is debatable and whether Britain’s values and standards are the right ethics to impart on nations is also debatable. What is not debatable is the need for moral ethical consideration.

To reemphasise Frost, “we ethically constrained in everything we do”, a state must take moral-ethical considerations into account when determining foreign policy just the nature of the terminology “moral-ethical” makes it morally ethical to consider it. The reason states get it wrong is when they are addressing whose morals and ethics should be considered.

If the producers of the foreign policy always consider their own ethics and morals without understating cultural differences and beliefs then the policy and subsequent choices could go wrong resulting in Intervention without support and rejection as ethical. If the justification to intervene is ethical then a state must seek support by ensuring the considerations are balanced.

Britain must continue to have a foreign policy that has moral and ethical considerations.

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