Morality or self-interest? Chatham House’s new paper on UK Foreign Policy

June 2, 2010

     By Duncan Green     

Moral suasion or
enlightened self-interest?
Surely we need both!

Are development advocates more convincing when they adopt the language of hard-bitten realism, or should they stick to starry-eyed idealism? This old conundrum returned as I read Alex Evans and David Steven’s new paper, ‘Organizing for Influence: UK Foreign Policy in an Age of Uncertainty’, published by the Royal Institute for International Affairs (aka Chatham House) yesterday.

I’m a big fan of Alex’s work (for reviews of previous papers see here, here and here), but I have some doubts about this latest effort. The authors, who both write for the excellent Global Dashboard, seem to have decided to try and sell their whole agenda on a purely ‘enlightened self interest’ ticket. Here’s the summary (with my comments in square brackets):

“Globalization is now in the midst of a ‘long crisis’ – an extended period of volatility as the world attempts to reconcile its demographic, economic and security challenges, within the constraints of scarce natural resources.  As an open society and economy, the UK’s exposure to global risks is substantial and likely to grow.”

“The UK government’s international workload and demands on its resources will increase, possibly dramatically.” [OK, so demand for foreign policy activism will grow, but what will happen to supply? There’s a real danger that as it grapples at home with a fiscal crisis, and has no money to put on the table to kick off international initiatives, the new government will not be as active internationally as its predecessor].

“This means looking at the UK’s international agenda through three overlapping and complementary lenses [that can’t be good for your

the modern foreign policy wonk

the modern foreign policy wonk


National security – increasing Britain’s resilience to transnational and cross-border threats.

Global systems – building the formal and informal institutions needed to sustain the resilience of the global systems on which British citizens depend.

Fragile states – addressing ‘weak links’ that have the potential to threaten both national security and the integrity of the global system.”

[It’s absolutely right and important to stress that there is more to foreign policy than national security – there’s a real danger that national security-driven ‘defence’ and ‘diplomacy’ will eclipse the third D of development (see previous post). But what happened to poverty? The word appears just once in a 24 page document, and then in quotation marks in a reference to the EU’s ‘global competitiveness, global warming, and global poverty’ agenda.]

The government should also “turn the Department for International Development into a world leader in tackling the problems of fragile states” by concentrating all its staff on fragile state issues, and pumping the rest of its money through other donors and multilateral institutions like the World Bank.

[Hold on, that would mean giving up DFID’s ‘thought leadership’ on everything from climate change to social protection. Instead it would just become a piggy bank for the EU, World Bank and other donors. Is that really such a great idea? And anyway, a large portion of the world’s poor people don’t live in fragile states – so would DFID no longer focus on poverty reduction, as it is currently required to do by law?]

As development advocates, we invariably use enlightened self interest arguments, partly because they are often valid, but also in an effort to broaden the appeal of our arguments to non-converts. But we should appeal to hearts as well as heads. Otherwise we risk giving up one of our strongest cards – moral suasion. The reason why the new government has gone out on a limb in pledging to increase aid despite the fiscal meltdown is surely not just about crude self-interest, but at least partly springs from a desire to do the right thing. To, dare I say it, change the world.

A few years ago, I spent a lot of time lobbying large international supermarkets and garment companies to improve the labour standards in their supply chains. I found myself undergoing a repeated and weird form of role reversal in my conversations with various corporates. I would bang on about how improved labour standards led to better staff retention, productivity, graduate recruitment, lower risk etc, and the captain of industry would respond by lecturing me about how we needed to make the world a better place for our grandchildren – all this in private conversations without any reason to grandstand. It brought home to me the real motivating power of a moral purpose, even (especially?) in the lives of people whose day-jobs do not revolve around it.

Pure idealism may not convince politicians, especially at a time of heightened risk and austerity, but if we only appeal to their self interest and ignore “the better angels of our nature“, we do both them and our cause a disservice.

[Update: See Alex’s response here]