The international system is more interconnected and interdependent than it ever has been. States and individuals have the capacity for unprecedented levels of cooperation and communication. This evolved international system demands a new approach to foreign policy, one that is progressive, global and devoted to the pursuit of liberty, freedom and prosperity for all.
Such a foreign policy would enable a state to boast a moral and modern approach to international relations that courted the respect of fellow states.
In Liberal Democracies, such a foreign policy would, in theory, be underpinned by a belief in democracy, respect for human rights, equality, a free press, intolerance of terrorism, to name a few. These liberal principles are practiced due to the belief that they offer the best possible opportunity for individual freedom, liberty and economic prosperity. Crucially, liberals must believe that all humans are entitled to the aforementioned opportunities, regardless of age, race, gender, nationality and geographical location.
Challenges arise from this philosophy. How does a state which believes in liberty and freedom for all conduct itself in an international arena which is inhabited by states that deny basic human rights and break international laws? Can a state be justified in intervening in another state’s affairs, even to the extent of a military intervention, in the name of the liberal values that are believed to be universal?
It appears as though the ability to enforce liberal norms in the international system is only acceptable if such norms are corrupted in a military fashion. In August 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded and annexed Kuwait, unlawfully violating their sovereignty and committing acts of aggression. Appropriately, a UN coalition of forces, led by America, intervened and pushed Hussein’s forces out of Kuwait, executing a manifestation of the liberal values upon which foreign policy should be built on. This intervention in the name of state sovereignty and illegal aggression was seen as a rightful international responsibility.
But where does this responsibly stop? Does it stop purely once the threat of military conflict is quelled, or does it extend to the social, judicial and cultural contradictions to the universality of liberal values? And can a state be said to be a true proponent of liberal values if it fails to promote such values in states that not only do not have them, but actively work against them?
I would argue, no.
What is demanded as a result of this conclusion is a reassessment of foreign policy to address the major offenders of illiberal actions. A new foreign policy based on the conviction that all humans deserve the right of free speech, the right not to be tyrannised by their government and the right not to be persecuted or discriminated against because of their gender, sexuality or nationality or religion. With the conviction to follow through on such principles on the world stage by confronting those states that contradict such fundamental rights.
This, I believe, is the essence of truly liberal, progressive and respectable foreign policy; the ability to protect and promote values that enable freedom and democracy both at home and abroad.
As Human Rights Watch’s World Report of 2019 details, Saudi Arabia is a frequent and flagrant abuser of the human rights, social norms and judicial integrity that ‘Western’ states espouse adoration for. The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by Saudi agents is the most notable example of this of late. Such an act of barbarism towards a critic of the state is abhorrent to every liberal value in existence.
Further, the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen has executed countless of unlawful airstrikes that have killed and wounded thousands of civilians. This extreme disregard for freedom of speech, human life and international law is in stark contradiction to fundamental ideological values that many states and international organisations seek to promote, however, little is done over it.
According to the same report, Iranian authorities have systematically violated the right of citizens to peaceful assembly, arbitrarily arresting thousands of protesters. These violations have resulted in the arrest of almost 5,000 people, with over twenty deaths of protesters being attributed to Iranian law enforcement.
Women's rights in Iran are also suffering as women face systematic discrimination in personal status matters related to marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody. Under the civil code of Iran, a husband can prevent his wife from having certain jobs if he deems them against family values, as well as deny his wide a passport.
These acts of tyranny and barbarism are wholly antithetical to the legal, social and political norms in the liberal democracies. Therefore, one must ask, if we believe these norms are fundamentally important, why isn't more being done about those who not only ignore them, but deliberately subvert them.
This is not a call for international intervention in states’ affairs, military or otherwise, when the values that we seek to promote and sustain are not only ignored, but actively degraded. However, as an international community, we have a responsibility. In order to stay true to the ideology that governs us and to the principles that enhance individual liberty, economic growth and societal freedom, states must do more.
This can take form in a variety of way. Pressure through international organisation. Unilateral sanctions. Diplomatic coercion. There are ways in which a state, or states, can attempt to promote the values in which it believes within the international system in an attempt to strive for a more open, free and prosperous international community.
These attempts must be made if we want to be able to say with conviction that we have stayed true and loyal to the principles and ideologies that govern us at home, by promoting them abroad.
Author: Nathan Irwin