After 18 years of national egoism, the world has a chance to like us again

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Robin Cook is a prudent man. Offering hostages to fortune is not his style, and this is why he did not say - although it is widely believed that he did say - that he proposes to run an "ethical foreign policy".

That would have been as rash as John Major's announcement that the Conservative Party had gone "back to basics" as the party of family morality. With those words, Mr Major in effect went into the middle of Parliament Square, dropped his trousers and invited the public and the media to comment with the soles of their boots. Mr Cook, in contrast, has a firm grip on his trousers.

What he said, when he launched his now-famous "Mission Statement" on 12 May in the Foreign Office, was that "our foreign policy must have an ethical dimension, and must support the demands of other peoples for the democratic rights on which we insist for ourselves." As examples, he suggested British participation in campaigns to end the exploitation of child labour, economic sanctions against brutal regimes like that in Nigeria and support for "the quality of life", which meant international action to protect the environment and combat drugs, terrorism and crime.

He added that Britain would not allow the sale of arms for internal repression or external aggression (he seems to have said nothing directly about land- mines at that point): "The Labour government will put human rights at the heart of our foreign policy."

This is a difficult policy to carry through. It invites constant and no doubt unforgiving scrutiny. Its outlines were sketched out in one pre- election Labour policy document after another. But in the unusual style of this new government, practice is turning out to be more radical than theory or electoral promise. The point is that this policy, demanding as it will be, is not impractical. It is not Utopian; these things not only should be done, but can be done.

An "ethical dimension" is not the same as the idea of foreign policy as a moral crusade. Neither does it mean acting in a generally narrow and egotistic way towards the rest of the world, but throwing in the odd dazzling stroke of morality. When Trotsky became Commissar for Foreign Affairs, after the Russian Revolution, he staggered Europe by opening the files of the old Tsarist ministry and publishing all the secret treaties. Taken by itself, this was the most moral single act in the history of international relations. But it was done by a regime which believed that the end justifies all means.

The Cook approach is wary of altruism. The "ethical dimension" is presented as a sort of enlightened self-interest. It asks policy-makers and diplomats to remember that the world has become a small place in which there is no longer room for nation-states to go it alone, or even to perish alone. Mr Cook does not blether on about a "New World Order", but he is well aware of the New World Disorder to which nobody is immune. Famine in Sudan, genocide in Rwanda, ethnic war in the Balkans, the collapse of "failed states" anywhere in the world, the clear-felling of rain forests in Brazil - all these are human tragedies with human victims requiring help. But they are also all threats, direct or indirect, to the safety and prosperity of every country and community on the globe.

Crusading, in other words, is out. The British consider that Gladstone was the last statesman in this country to treat foreign policy as a moral crusade, and that in the end he made a fool of himself. His indignation over dark deeds in remote places can now seem absurd and self-indulgent, like his speeches on the Bulgarian Atrocities in 1876: "Let the Turks now carry away their abuses in the only possible manner, namely by carrying off themselves ... this thorough riddance, this most blessed deliverance, is the only reparation we can make to the memory of those heaps on heaps of dead, to the violated purity alike of matron, maiden and of child ... There is not a cannibal in the South Sea islands, whose indignation would not arise and overboil at the recital of that which has been done..."

Even his protests at British imperialism now appear totally over the top, addressing the Children of Israel in the wilderness rather than the frock-coated gentlemen of the Colonial Office. The Zulus were being slaughtered, Gladstone cried, for merely trying to "protect with their naked bodies their hearths and homes, their wives and families". As for the Afghan campaigns, he declared that "the sanctity of life in the hill villages of Afghanistan, among the winter snows, is as inviolable in the eyes of Almighty God as can be your own." We can agree that these colonial wars were wrong and cruel, but we no longer see the losing sides as innocent Victorian cottagers.

And yet Gladstone did speak for Britain - or at least, as Roy Jenkins notes in his biography, for parts of Britain. In Scotland, in the North of England and the Midlands, among non-Conformists, his message that foreign policy was about Christian ethics and compassion went powerfully home. It was only in the South and the metropolis, among the Anglican squires and within the propertied minority who had the vote, that he was derided. Disraeli joked that Gladstone's speeches were the worst Bulgarian atrocity, and observed that he was "inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity". So he was. And yet, because of Gladstone, the British still find it hard to be amoral about foreign policy.

So the "ethical dimension" is not new but very old. Within living memory it helped to dismantle the British colonial empire. The tradition effectively began with the Evangelical campaigns against the slave trade; a century later, it inspired generations of Labour and Liberal idealists who helped the peoples of India and Africa towards self-government.

And yet, in Victorian times, the "ethical dimension" had also helped to expand that same Empire. The Colonial Office was usually appalled by each proposal for a new Colony or Protectorate: "Far too expensive, provocative to the French or the Portuguese

Especially since the end of the Cold War, young people in this country have looked at the outside world and its poorer parts in a new way. They feel close to the web of non-governmental organisations, the aid agencies which have their own sans-frontieres dash and glamour, and a solidarity with other peoples which jumps over foreign policy. The NGOs are in many ways the revival of the Victorian missionaries, equally independent of government, equally world-conscious and impatient for moral action.

Mr Cook is heir to all this moral concern. The British have been living with a foreign policy which was sometimes highly ideological but never pretended to be "do-gooding" or moral. There was Mark Thatcher in Oman, there was the Pergau Dam affair, there was the Scott Report, there was Mr Hurd taking a balanced view of Bosnia. After 18 years of raw national egoism, the world does not like Britain very much.

Uncomfortable, the public now hanker for an older foreign policy which at least tries to imagine the interests of the rest of humanity. The British do not want Cook the Crusader, and nor does he. But neither do they seem to like Realpolitik, which has remained an ugly foreign word. It is time for a diplomacy which improves the world a little.