Famous for little else, Helen Lovejoy, wife of Reverend Lovejoy from the Simpsons, was known for her cry: “Won’t someone please think of the children?” Absorbing the message of the Liberal Democrat Conference we find a powerful echo. As Deputy Leader and Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Jo Swinson’s speech returned again and again to the phrase “what kind of world will we leave for our children?” we find the Simpsons character almost in the room with us!
And this is the crux of Liberal Democrat foreign policy. They are palpably well-meaning people – the kind who study food labels closely in a bid to avoid the air miles. We can’t question their good intentions. Nor would we wish to deny that, if only everyone was a Liberal Democrat, then the world would be a far kinder, more tolerant, benevolent place in which to live.
As Conservatives know, the world is not a kind or gentle place – and Liberal Democrats are an endangered species clustered around such locations as the London suburbs and non-conforming rural counties. If our children are the protagonists of Swinson’s speech, then the antagonists are summed up in her phrase – “the politics of the bully is back”. Certainly a striking phrase, given topical resonance by the loutish Trump and sinister Putin.
Yet what did she mean? For, as we know, the bully in international politics has never gone away. Yes, Putin has only gradually appeared as a foe to the West, and Trump makes a peculiar phenomenon at any time, but the list of dictators and authoritarian politicians has never been short. Strongmen like Chavez, nationalists like Berlusconi, dictators like Mobarik have gone, but to be replaced only by leaders such as Xi Jinping, Nahrendra Modi and Recep Tayid Erdogan. (Even more tragically in Venezuela’s case, for Chavez to be replaced by the even more brutish and authoritarian Maduro.)
Such shows of strength – ‘bullying’ in the Liberal Democrat lexicon – can only be opposed by strength. Even action in defence of international order, such as the 2001 toppling of the Taliban, and (at least in intention) the 2003 invasion of Iraq, can be seen by those opposing them as merely instances of bullying. Five hundred years of Swiss neutrality has not made that nation a diplomatic power by any stretch of the imagination.
When trying to deal with the complexities of global politics, it is easy to be tempted to believe that everyone is just like you. With cultures as deep as Russia, Iran, China and India, where a lifetime spent studying each can still fail to bring understanding, we must strive to act with as little foolishness and naivety as possible.
This is the fundamental difference. Swinson’s speech suggests that Liberal Democrats are nice people, but that they cannot account for the fact that others are not like them. Our ability to act in the world is tempered by our understanding of ourselves and of others. To mistake the similarities of our shared humanity for a sign that others are just like us in their presumptions and desires would be a grave mistake.
In a world made up of shades of grey, the impulse to populate it with moral stereotypes is understandable. As a plaintive cry by a well-meaning Helen Lovejoy it is excusable. As a guide for action in foreign policy, however, it is a failing indeed.