Adrian Hamilton: It's time to ditch hypocrisy in our foreign policy

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The Independent Online

As the year draws to a close, columnists like to fall back on that old stand-by: "New Year Resolutions: Suggestions for the Prime Minister, President, Opposition, or whomever".

It's a pretty weak device. Politicians, let alone leaders, don't bother with advice from the press. They take endless pains to seduce them to their side, by flattery, intimacy and proferred scoops, but rarely if ever do they listen to them. The press may have power, as politicians so often declare, but it actually has very little influence. And it's probably just as well. As for resolutions for oneself, they so rarely survive the first month that they're hardly worth making.

Even so, if there was one resolution I would ask the Government to adopt in its foreign policy over the coming year, it would be simply this: "eschew all hypocrisy". In all the sound and fury, the high rhetoric, the videos and the blogs that fill the airwaves of international discussion and the formation of global views, the single greatest crime that keeps being levelled against the West is that of hypocrisy.

To us, ramping up the fears of a nuclear Iran, berating Robert Mugabe for his crimes against humanity, condemning the violence of Hamas and Hizbollah, calling for sanctions against Sudan because of Darfur and the military junta in Burma may sound like the effusions of considered and honest policy. To the rest of the world they just stink of sanctimonious self-interest.

We care about Zimbabwe because the white landowners are being thrown off the land. We fear Iran because we can't tolerate a Muslim country that could compete with Israel on equal terms. We condemn Hizbollah because in the end we see our interests as inextricably tied with those of Israel. How else to explain that Gordon Brown can refuse to attend a summit when Mugabe is present yet, a few weeks earlier, dress up in tails to greet the King of Saudi Arabia on a state visit? What else accounts for the fact that we proclaim we want democracy in the Middle East and then reject its results as soon as a group that we dislike Hamas is fairly elected in Palestine?

Where else to look for a reason for the fact that we condemn the junta in Burma, press for ever tighter sanctions on Iran and dismiss Hugo Chavez as a dangerous populist yet take no action at all against China, despite its suppression of the Tibetans and Ouigars, allow Israel to implement a policy of state assassination of its opponents, and nuzzle up to the more ruthless presidents of Central Asia?

Of course, it was ever thus. The West has always clothed its self-interest in the language of moral uplift, declaring our desire to bring the Bible to the heathen and our ways to the uneducated, all the while imposing taxes on salt and imports, tying up the developing world's resources and making sure that they provided a ready market for our exports.

The only unusual aspect of today's world has been the blatant way that President Bush and Tony Blair have resurrected Victorian moral imperialism under the guise of "humanitarian intervention". Bush at least, and the neo-cons behind him, never disguised the fact that they sought regime change in Iraq as a means of reordering the whole Middle East in their own image. Blair has insisted to the end that it was all for the sake of unseating dictators and helping the Iraqis. In other words, we brought war to the Iraqis for their own good.

It is also true that the theme of climate change and carbon emissions however laudable in itself has resurrected a competitive pursuit of resources that harkens back to the worst days of the grab for gold in Latin America and the pursuit of diamonds in southern Africa. The major consumers need fuel imports (Britain as much as the rest as its North Sea production goes into rapid decline) and that means being nice to the more authoritarian and corrupt regimes of the Middle East, Asia and Africa. It's not that we don't want a better world. It's just that at the moment we can't afford it.

Perhaps diplomacy is impossible without hypocrisy. It is the unction of international diplomacy as it is too often the ungent of personal relations. But the charge against the West goes much deeper than a mere contempt for our moral judgements on the world. It reflects a profound belief that Western policy is fundamentally skewed in favour of its particular interests and friends and against the aspirations and constraints of the developing world.

We're never going to remove the accusation entirely. But why not, just for a start, agree that every time we're tempted to pronounce on other countries, we first pause and check it against the hypocrisy test. If it doesn't pass, let's quietly turn back and think again.