But here comes the Foreign Secretary spouting ethics. Unlike pipes, financial services or designer clothes, the sale of arms should be restricted to states he deems worthy. If the great rhetorician had, last summer, simply said that he would humbly try to increase the volume of human rights principle in British government decisions on arms sales, but that in a complicated and changing world he could guarantee nothing, we would have applauded a brave and realistic statesman. Instead, we got unrealisable high-flown sentiment.
And still he is at it. Yesterday Robin Cook secured a useful agreement with fellow members of the European Union against undercutting in the arms business - the promise is that the French or Italians will not come along to sweep up contracts which the British government has forbidden British firms to undertake. It is an agreement in restraint of trade. But a realist would say: "Fine, it does imply there will be some consistent, albeit minimal, application of human rights doctrine to non-EU countries and in turn that might lead to the growth of common positions in EU foreign policy."
But instead of identifying a small step forward, Mr Cook once again made exaggerated claims. We now possess, he seemed to say, a new, reliable, European tool with which to judge other countries' moral fitness to acquire the means to kill. Do we really? Tomorrow the President of the Board of Trade opens what amounts to an arms bazaar for South Africa. Credits are being extended, colourful tents put up - figuratively - to display gleaming machines for destruction. Ah, we will say, this is ethical because under President Mandela South Africa wears the colours of sweetness and light. Presumably, under the new European accord, it is not for the French or Swedes to ask whether some of those weapons might ever be used for domestic repression, nor indeed what enemies they are supposed to deter, South Africa being situated in a region at peace. But they might, and perhaps they should.Reuse content