How ideology fails to influence foreign policy

23 Feb 2018


Ideology informs almost every aspect of one’s politics. However, foreign policy is the one area that seems more resistant to the specific dictates of ideology, and more prone to being an extension of general principles and values.


Contemporary foreign policy feels like a tightrope walk at times. In an age where state sovereignty is considered paramount, and principles of non-intervention are becoming increasingly popular, political values can be difficult to maintain on the global stage.


The UK, like many western countries, has attempted to balance is generally liberal domestic politics with a foreign policy that remains true to liberal values, without contradicting state sovereignty. 


Challenges arise from this approach. How does a state which believes in liberty and freedom for all conduct itself in an international area which is inhabited by states that deny basic human rights, break international laws and do not conform to conventional norms? Can a state be justified in intervening in another state’s affairs, even to the extent of a military intervention, in the name of the liberal values that are believed to be universal?


It appears as though the ability to enforce ideological norms in the international system are only acceptable if such norms are corrupted in a military fashion. In August 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded and annexed Kuwait, unlawfully violating their sovereignty and committing acts of aggression in the form of active warfare. Appropriately, a UN coalition of forces, led by America, intervened and pushed Hussein’s forces out of Kuwait, executing a manifestation of the liberal values upon which foreign policy should be built on. This intervention in the name of state sovereignty and illegal aggression was seen as a rightful international responsibility.


But where does this responsibly stop? Does it stop purely once the threat of military conflict is quelled, or does it extend to the social, judicial and cultural contradictions to the universality of liberal values?


As Human Rights Watch’s World Report of 2017 details, Saudi Arabia is a frequent and flagrant abuser of the human rights, social norms and judicial integrity that western states espouse adoration for. A notable recent manifestation of this was when prominent activist Waleed Abu al-Khair was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2014 for his peaceful criticism in the media about human rights abuses. This complete disregard for freedom of expression contradicts fundamental ideological values that many states promote, yet little action is taken.


In Sudan, it has been reported that in 2016, government forces ‘killed civilians, raped women and girls, and destroyed hundreds of villages’ which has resulted in up to 190,000 people being displaced. Issues are compounded by the government barring humanitarian aid organisations from entering the country. Equally little is being done by the international community to quash the violent and barbaric practices that are being perpetrated by the Sudanese government.


At what point does ideology stop being a guiding force for our political proclivities and start to become a mere afterthought in the face of practices such an ideology would never allow?


This is not a call for international intervention in states’ affairs, military or otherwise, when the values that we seek to promote are ignored. However, as an international community, we have a responsibility. In order to stay true to the ideology that governs us and to the principles that enhance individual liberty, economic growth and societal freedom, states must do more.


This can take form in a variety of way. Namely, pressure through international organisation, unilateral sanctions, and diplomatic coercion. These attempts must be made if we want to be able to say with conviction that we have stayed true and loyal to the principles and ideologies that govern us at home, by promoting them abroad.





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