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Foreign Policy: Can It Ever Be Ethical?


The continual drip-feeding of the grisly details of the fate suffered by Jamal Khashoggi have focused the World’s media squarely on the ethics of foreign policy. Countless headlines and discussions on news programmes have all been asking variations of the same question – question Will Khashoggi’s death put the west’s ties with Saudi Arabia at risk? Will this man’s brutal demise change the nature of one of the West’s most important geostrategic relationships?

The majority of those calling for an end to arms sales to Saudi Arabia all seem to have one thing in common – they weren’t in power and weren’t responsible for their nation’s foreign policy. Their arguments in favour of their campaign are compelling; the brutality of the war in Yemen, the repressive nature of the regime at home, the longstanding Saudi support for extreme forms of political Islam and the list could go on.

However, this all bumps up against the realities of international relations. Will the west really give up on all the money they make from arms sales to the Kingdom? Can they really forgo all that Saudi inward investment? Are they really willing to jeopardise the security relationship? Let’s not forget that the Saudis have the ability to quickly affect the price of oil and could plunge the global economy into recession, should they so wish to.

These questions go right to the heart of the main classic divide in International Relations theory. The realists would argue that states should pursue their own interests and morality is a luxury, whereas the idealists would argue that a state’s foreign policy should reflect its own moral values.  The constructivists would argue that by staying engaged they can push ideas that could bring about change.

In the multipolar world we live in the likely outcome will be fudge. Trump has already declared he doesn’t want to lose the 100 billion-plus arms deal. Arms sales to the Kingdom amount to around 50% of BAE Systems profits and the UK government is unlikely to throw the company under the bus. Many other countries have expressed outrage but only the Germans have put a stop to their arms sales. Outrage will be expressed all around but once this affair drops off the news agenda business as normal will resume and it will be as if the realists have won.

The only likely change will concern the Crown Prince himself. His power grab has annoyed many in the royal family who resent the move away from a more oligarchical system. Many in the west would prefer a return to that model as they believe it offers more opportunities to influence the regime’s behaviour.

How this crisis plays out will offer a fascinating insight into which competing theory offers the best analytical insight.

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