Not in the national interest

“Sir, why all this fuss about Ukraine? Why didn’t anyone make the same fuss about Afghanistan, or Syria, or Yemen? Don’t those people matter?”

The honest answer to the student’s question would have been to say, “No, they don’t,” for the explicit message of European foreign policy is that it is Europeans who matter much more than anyone else. There is no attempt at placing an equivalent value on human lives.

The film Hotel Rwanda was condemned by Romeo Dallaire, commander of the United Nations forces in Rwanda for its “repulsive untruthfulness” in its depiction of the central character, but its dialogue encapsulates a sense of the attitude of the United Nations.

An order comes for the UN to evacuate all Europeans from the country. The UN officer explains to the hotel manager what this means:

Colonel Oliver: You’re dirt. We think you’re dirt, Paul.

Paul: Who is we?

Colonel Oliver: The West. All the super powers. Everything you believe in, Paul. They think you’re dirt. They think you’re dung. You’re worthless!

Paul: I am afraid I don’t understand what you are saying.

Colonel Oliver: Oh, come on, don’t bullshit me, Paul. You’re the smartest man here. You got ’em all eating out of your hands. You could own this frigging hotel, except for one thing: you’re black. You’re not even a nigger. You’re an African. They’re not gonna stay, Paul. They’re not gonna stop this slaughter.

In 1979, in my days as a first year undergraduate at the London School of Economics, David Owen spoke at a student meeting. The British government in which he had been Foreign Secretary had lost power in the general election of the previous May and Owen felt free to express his own views.

“The first duty of the Foreign Secretary”, he asserted, “is to protect the national interest”.

No high principles;, no doing what was right for the sake of it; no asking what is good and what is true; the national interest, plain and simple.  Realpolitik, as Bismarck would have called it.

Perhaps it was always thus, perhaps self interest and profit have always been the determinant of policy; even the religious wars of the Middle Ages, fought for supposed reasons of “faith” were deeply motivated by the belief that if one engaged in such conflicts it would bring tangible temporal as well as eternal rewards.

Genocides may pass in Darfur and in China while the world discusses appropriate responses and a blind eye is turned because anything else would not be in the national interest.

Winston Churchill may have been an heroic figure, but it is the politics of Neville Chamberlain that have triumphed. In 1938, he described the Czechoslovakia crisis as “a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing”.

Even the response to the invasion of Ukraine will ultimately be shaped by David Owen’s dictum.


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