Policy transparency

Explaining the complex trade-offs of Foreign Policy

For national Foreign Policies to be strong and viable in the long-term they must be based on a Holistic Perspective and their complex trade-offs explained to the public


Despite member-states of the UN accepting their collective Responsibility-to-Protect populations that are being abused, delivering on that obligation is not so simple. Behind closed doors, and based on long-standing overseas-policies regarding globally-defined threats to national security, diplomats continue to argue the Realpolitik of bolstering certain unpleasant regimes almost whatever they do. The countries that historically have been selected for such special-treatment have tended to be those that offer regional stability as well as access to oil or military bases or diplomatic support, and more recently, repression of claimed Islamist extremists. The sometimes-reluctant judgment to display public friendship to certain countries that in practice act as bullies (to the outside world just as much as to their people) has been justified as being on-balance better than risking losing their oil or access to territory or restrictions on terrorism or influence over some ever-bigger, even-longer-term issue.

The tension over Syrian human-rights violations begun in April 2011 is an example. Syria holds the equivalent of only 1% of Saudi oil reserves (so from that point of view was of relatively-low strategic importance), but it was seen as potentially crucial in the on-going negotiations over Palestine (which is central to Middle-Eastern stability and much of Western foreign policy for the region). Few members of the news-media or general public appreciate just how much even enlightened ‘ethical foreign policy’ has to balance such long-term big-picture factors, many of which are often hardly even in the public domain. Yet in today’s world of intense public scrutiny, such a stance increasingly risks nevertheless being portrayed by the media, and accepted by the general public, as unpalatably hypocritical. As a result, it threatens to undermine public trust in the ‘moral compasses’ that their politicians are following and, amplified by Boundaryless People-Power, form a backlash against governments.

As the more-general 2011 events across Arab states demonstrate, when the international community tolerates human-rights violations in order to secure stability, it only postpones instability. In the modern interconnected world it cannot avoid social systems from changing, whether by evolution or revolution. And when an inevitable backlash to undue suppression of change occurs, disruption risks rippling throughout the global economy and causing repercussions that potentially then threaten the national security (if only in the form of economic stability) of those very countries that adopted the policy of appeasement in the first place.

In addition to their assumed UN Responsibility-to-Protect abused populations, state governments also have an explicit responsibility to protect their own nations from the instability caused by artificially sustaining autocratic regimes that then implode in uncontrollable ways that directly or indirectly disrupt the world economy. Even powerful nations these days have reduced funds to spend on major foreign interventions, military or otherwise. So, it is well-understood within diplomatic circles that there are some aspects of real-world international politics (including the need sometimes to do business with unpleasant regimes) that necessarily open any government to the criticism of double-standards if they become known to the general public, especially if taken out of the immensely-complex context of modern Foreign Affairs.

However, the current diplomatic stance is probably unsustainable. Whatever the economic and strategic logic behind tacit-support of autocratic and abusive regimes, the mood of the general population throughout much of the international community (not just the West) – fuelled as it is by unprecedented media and internet coverage – seems set to harden against those of their governments that are increasingly depicted as being ‘on the wrong side of history’. That overriding attitude appears to be as true for the new generations that have grown up in the Middle East as for those in Europe, Asia and the Americas. As a result, it is becoming necessary for governments to lay out far more explicitly the complexity of trade-offs they face in Foreign Policy. In the past this has often been seen as being too complicated for the general public to understand, or at least to agree with. But that is an increasingly risky stance for governments to take – because it is publically indefensible.

In contrast, in the long-term it is those governments that are seen to lead the diplomatic pack away from historically-unpleasant pragmatism toward a more (at least apparently) open and transparent style of Foreign Policy that seem most likely to sustain public support. Ironically, because of this these same governments are also likely to find that, in the intense spotlight of modern Globalist 24/7 news, their new approach is actually more pragmatic than the one they cautiously leave behind. By adopting a truly Holistic Perspective and then sharing selected parts of it with the general public, the international community has the potential to act far more concertedly in its Foreign Policy, not least because the general public across numerous nations can be persuaded to provide far greater support.