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.