Whatever happened to interdependence?

With the Conservatives back in charge of foreign policy, there is as you might expect a lot of talk about ‘The National Interest’ resuming its proper place at the heart of foreign policy. As this trend has gathered pace, so people with a more, shall we say, cosmopolitan worldview have started countering that foreign policy should be about something bigger than that.  

But what, exactly?

In a post responding to David and my Chatham House report on UK foreign policy, Oxfam’s Duncan Green expressed a worry that our argument appealed too much to the new mood of the national interest. What we’d missed, he argued, was the sense of moral purpose that can energise support for development.

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.

ODI’s Simon Maxwell made a similar point in an email to me, arguing that

Your ‘case for foreign policy’ is at first sight defensive and UK-centric i.e. only about defending UK interests. Where is your moral commitment to the MDGs or global stewardship of the world’s people and resources?

Fair questions – not least since much of my own take on development and foreign policy is based on what I consider moral. When people ask me ‘why we’re funding hospitals in Malawi when we’re closing them down at home’, part of me is stunned that the question should even need to be asked – given that in Malawi 5.5% of mothers die in childbirth, as compared to 0.01% here. 

But at the same time, the lobbyist in me is hesitant about using morally based arguments. I always have the hunch that anyone who finds them persuasive is already, well, persuaded – and hence that they’re of limited use in enlarging the progressive foreign policy tent. Politically, the idea of an ‘ethical foreign policy’ is still seen as having been an albatross around Robin Cook’s neck at the Foreign Office. And above all, I worry that proponents of the national interest find it easy to paint moral advocates as starry-eyed, particularly given the wider backlash against aid.

But what intrigued me about Duncan and Simon’s responses is that neither of them mentioned an idea that we used to hear a lot about in discussions like these – interdependence.

Five, ten years ago, every foreign policy speech, article, position paper was full of talk of interdependence. I was a big fan. Interdependence seemed to me to imply that, as long as you took a sufficiently long term view, it would become clear that progressive foreign policy objectives are the national interest.

Yet today, it seems as though progressives use the interdependence argument much less (and I include myself in this).  Why not? Well, I have four hypotheses, each of which I suspect has part of the story.

First: interdependence simply got oversold. Yes, state failure can create ripples outside the state’s borders, and some of these ripples – refugee flows, for instance – can reach the UK. But it’s easy to overstate them. State failure in Haiti has practically no security implications for Britain. Piracy off Somalia is no more than an irritant to the global maritime sector. Admittedly, failed states can create safe havens for terrorists or organised crime – but as 7/7 showed, terrorists can just as easily plan an attack in Yorkshire.

Second, on a related note: progressives realised that stuff we minded about was missing from the interdependence story, or fit into it only awkwardly. Interdependence could provide arguments for (say) intervention in Darfur, or for increased aid overall. But it was harder to make interdependence-based arguments for, say, investing in health systems in Malawi – where moral arguments  are clearly easier to apply than interdependence-based ones (although you absolutely can find the interdependence arguments even here, if you look for them – starting with, for instance, swine flu).

Third: interdependence became entangled with the messianic zeal of the neocons. Much of the case for war in Iraq was built on arguments about interdependence, especially in the UK. Interdependence is still used today to justify NATO’s continuing presence in Afghanistan, despite a growing public belief that the mission has increased rather than decreased the risk of terrorism (both here and there). More generally, interdependence perhaps got caught up with the weird, paranoid years that followed 9/11 – and has suffered for it as the policy agenda has moved on.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly: what started off as a hopeful narrative became increasingly fearful. Back when all the talk of interdependence began, we were still in a prolonged period of prosperity. The Cold War was over. People talked about “the Long Boom”. Happy and secure at home, we could start thinking as a larger global family, and so we set out to rescue Africa or the Balkans from their travails.

But as the 90s gave way to the 2000s, we found ourselves in a decade of terrorists, fuel and food price spikes, financial crises, global downturns – all of which were perceived to have come about as a result of interdependence. Rather than being a hopeful discourse of global solidarity, interdependence became more associated in the public mind with big, amorphous, scary risks – with the almost inevitable result that publics started to focus on a smaller ‘us’.

Hence a pulling back to the ‘national interest’ – met, from the other side of the argument, with renewed calls for us to remember the moral basis for looking out for the poorest and most vulnerable.

But at the same time, I think it’s too soon to call time on interdependence. It is still an interdependent world. We do still face common, massive risks, which we ultimately have to tackle together or not at all.  Next time debate comes back to interdependence, everyone will be a little older and wiser after the turbulent, fearful decade now drawing to a close – and perhaps that’s no bad thing.

But to give Duncan and Simon their due, I have to concede that interdependence only takes us so far. The bottom line, as ever, is that poor people are far more vulnerable to most global risks than the global middle class. Climate change and resource scarcity will be a horror story for them before it’s even an inconvenience for us. The realisation that ‘we ultimately have to tackle global risks together or not at all’ may come too late for an awful lot of poor people who’ve done nothing to create the problem – and if that doesn’t lead you straight to a moral argument, then I don’t know what does.