Lavinia Thompson examines the role of hubris in international relations
When I emerged from sleep this morning, as ever to the sounds of Dotun Adebayo’s Up All Night on Radio Five Live, one of the first items I heard was a report on the latest from the Commonwealth Conference taking place in Sri Lanka.
The headline was that presiding Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaska, reacting to British premier David Cameron’s suggestion that his country’s potential war crimes should be investigated, has alluded to the old saying ‘People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones’.
The exchange highlights some of the complexities of politics and diplomacy, about which in my simplistic way, I delight in being cynical without ever feeling inclined to accept the unspoken but proverbial offer to ‘do better, if I could’.
They say ‘one man’s meat is another’s poison’. In another context, one politician’s freedom fighter is most probably another’s terrorist.
Arguably, in diplomacy, there are no principles – only short-term national interests.
How else did/does the USA square supporting the Saddam Hussein regime in its death-struggle with Iran, only later to invade Iraq with the specific intention of removing him?
How does Britain explain its general support for the ‘Arab Spring’ revolts on the one hand and yet, on the other, its policy of continuing to sell all sorts of arms to Saudi Arabia, one of the most repressive – and human rights abusive – regimes in the world?
In international politics, a pariah one minute can be a new ‘best friend’ a few years later. If you can get past the notion that principles should count, why not?
British media coverage of David Cameron’s attendance at the Commonwealth Conference – in the context of several other countries pulling out in protest at Sri Lanka’s record on human rights – has been essentially critical. Television crews have queued up to feature repression horror stories and the progress of Tamil minority public protests against the Sri Lanka government.
The BBC’s political correspondent Andrew Robinson has repeatedly highlighted Cameron’s inevitable discomforts in trying to justify his presence in Sri Lanka with some tortuous ‘jaw-jaw is better than war-war’ reasoning.
Especially when it turns out not to be.
If Cameron had ever hoped that by attending he was somehow going to overcome deeply-entrenched positions and make a breakthrough with his apparent ‘stand of principle’, he was sadly mistaken. Or perhaps just badly advised.
My hunch is that, right now, Cameron just wishes he was anywhere else than Colombo.
There’s little worse for a national leader than thinking that, against the odds, you can make a difference on the world stage by reasoned argument or skilful diplomacy … and then being proved conclusively wrong.