Sunday, June 15, 2003
Basic Benevolence - 15th June 2003, 22.07

One of the strongest critics of British foreign policy on the left is Mark Curtis. He reproduces the ideological analysis of stalwarts like Pilger and Chomsky, arguing that elite dominated ideologies and a normalising media present an overwhelming view of British foreign policy at odds with the reality of British action. There is even an obligatory quote from a French philosopher to substantiate his intellectual credentials.

His major argument is that Britain's foreign policy mediated through an ideological concept that he identifies as "basic benevolence".

The ideological system promotes one key concept that underpins everything else - the idea of Britain's basic benevolence. Mainstream reporting and analysis usually actively promotes, or at least does not challenge, the idea that Britain promotes high principles - democracy, peace, human rights and development - in its foreign policy. Criticism of foreign policies is certainly possible, and normal, but within narrow limits which show "exceptions" to, or "mistakes" in, promoting the rule of basic benevolence. Government statements on its always noble intentions are invariably taken seriously and rarely even challenged, let alone ridiculed. These assumptions and ways of reporting are very deep-rooted.

Curtis's outrage stems from the hypocrisy that underlies British foreign policy, since arms sales, aggressive military action and an indifference to human rights violations at one time or another, does not measure up to the ethical objectives set out under the concept of "basic benevolence". As all one-eyed men who follow ideology, Curtis argues that British foreign policy is cast into this one mould and that the public are blind to the machinations of the elite.

Overall, I believe that people are being indoctrinated into a picture of Britain's role in the world that supports elite priorities. This is the mass production of ignorance. It actively works against our interests, which is precisely why the ideological system is critical to the elite, who essentially see the public as a threat.

The weakness of Curtis's arguments lies in the fact that, whilst 'benevolence' has been a factor in British foreign policy in many guises, stretching from the 'white man's burden' in the nineteenth century to Churchillian hymns to freedom, this has not been the sole justification for British military or diplomatic action. This historian is exercised by the "ethical foreign policy" touted by Blair and has read this approach into a past whereas the importance of human rights within international institutions as a tool to undermine sovereignty and condone transnationalist actions can be traced back to the Helsinki agreements of the 1970s.

Curtis identifies one phenomenon that is very troublesome in Britain's contemporary circumstances, facing the event horizon of European integration. He states that public debate on British foreign policy is very narrow and that the elites have contributed to this, by not living up to their ethical demands.

Elites throughout history have presented their policies as in the natural order of things, which helps to obscure the pursuit of their own particular interests. An important aspect of the ideological system is rendering a single view dominant or "natural", presenting current policies as inevitable, and undermining the possibility of alternatives. "Globalisation" is presented by elites as such a natural phenomenon, and critics ridiculed as Luddites who cannot stop the inevitable march of history. These curiously Marxist, determinist views mask the elite's goal under globalisation of promoting total global economic "liberalisation" - a far from inevitable outcome, but a strategy chosen by the liberalisation theologists of New Labour, and their allies among the transnational elite.

If the current horrible policies are "normal", the alternatives are "unthinkable". Even to mention the indictment of Tony Blair for war crimes, to oppose British cooperation with the US because it is a consistent supporter of human rights abuses overseas, or even to end arms exports is "unthinkable" in the mainstream and would invite ridicule.

Curtis is correct that there is little debate on alternatives in foreign policy. However, he is wedded to the transnational discourse that shapes the foreign policy of New Labour, and omits the actual paucity of argument in Britain: on political and strategic choices in foreign policy. Moreover, the British public remain sceptical of transnationalist foreign policy in one respect: Europe, but addressing this aspect of the debate may open up the Curtis line to empirical complexities that demand more argument and less ideology. Facts are never a strong point of the Left.


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