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Opinions of Sunday, 23 January 2011

Columnist: Nelson, Ekow

A Palmerston-inspired policy on C'te d'Ivoire

Ekow Nelson, London

I have just finished watching the second appearance of the former British Prime
Minister Tony Blair before the Iraq War Inquiry; the fourth such investigation into
the reasons why Britain went to war in Iraq in 2003, which by all accounts is the
most bitterly disputed conflict in recent British history. Many of the families of
the soldiers who lost their lives and would ordinarily have accepted the deaths of
their loved ones in their line duty as one of the risks of their chosen occupations,
are seething with anger and much of it is directed at Tony Blair who took the
decision to invade Iraq along with the United States in 2003.

The gravest decision any elected leader can be called upon make is to commit young
men and women to war in the certain knowledge that some of them will not return home
alive to their family and friends. By the same token, the greatest sacrifice any
citizen can make is to die in defence of his or her nation. For this reason, any
decision to wage war cannot be made casually and in my view can only be justified in
the face of existential threats.

It is in this context that I find myself alarmed at the shrill voices that are being
raised in protest against President John Evans Atta Mills' decision to rule out the
use of military force by Ghana in the Ivorian crises. It is true that in ruling out
the military option, the President of Ghana appears to be in conflict with the
interventionist stance of his colleagues in the Economic Community of West African
States (ECOWAS). But as President of a country with a shared border with Cote
D'Ivoire, Mills also has a duty to balance the interests of the country he was
elected to govern, against ECOWAS's policy of intervention. After all, President
Mills was not elected by ECOWAS and his primary duty is to the people of Ghana and
not some regional organization that has neither a democratic mandate nor is indeed
accountable directly to the peoples of West Africa.

Predictably critics of the President argue that his policy risks undermining ECOWAS,
smacks of isolationism and will ultimately harm the reputation of Ghana. But there
is nothing new here: throughout history nations have had to grapple with foreign
policy conflicts that pit alliances against national interests. One is reminded of
Lord Palmerston's oft-quoted foreign policy dictum: nations do not have permanent
friends; they have permanent interests - which has served Britain well when it has
been followed and not so well otherwise.

Defending himself against charges of not involving Britain in what he described as
"perpetual quarrels from one end of the globe to the other" in the House of Commons
in March 1848, Lord Palmerston who served as Foreign Secretary and twice as Prime
Minister of Britain argued for a foreign policy principle based on "maintaining
peace and friendly understanding with all nations, as long as it was possible to do
so consistently with a due regard to the interests, the honour, and the dignity of
[one's] country". On alliances with other nations - not dissimilar to ECOWAS in our
part of world - he maintained that England was "sufficiently strong, sufficiently
powerful, to steer its own course, and not to tie herself as an unnecessary
appendage to the policy of any other Government". Rather, in addition to elevating
questions that involve her own national interests above others, England should also
be the "champion of justice and right; pursuing that course with moderation and
prudence, not becoming the Quixote of the world, but giving the weight of her moral
sanction and support wherever she thinks that justice is, and wherever she thinks
that wrong has been done." In anticipation of the charge of isolationism he
expressed a conviction "that as long as England keeps herself in the right-as long
as she wishes to permit no injustice-as long as she wishes to countenance no
wrong-as long as she labours at legislative interests of her own-and as long as she
sympathises with right and justice, she never will find herself altogether alone.
She is sure to find some other State, of sufficient power, influence, and weight, to
support and aid her in the course she may think fit to pursue." And in the climax to
the speech that gave birth to the aphorism attributed to him he enunciated this
foreign policy principle that is both universal and true: "[w]e have no eternal
allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual,
and those interests it is our duty to follow". And he warned that "it is our duty
not lightly to engage this country in the frightful responsibilities of war, because
from time to time we may find this or that Power disinclined to concur with us in
matters where their opinion and ours may fairly differ." In a final flourish, he
admonished every British Minister to remember that "the interests of England ought
to be the shibboleth of his policy".

Lord Palmerston's pragmatic principles for the conduct of foreign affairs has
provided the foundation for British foreign policy since and served his country well
even as its imperial Power has waned. Indeed, the diminution of British power and
reputation has accelerated at precisely the points when it has deviated from
Palmerston's sound advice as we witnessed in the Suez Crisis in 1956 and with the
invasion of Iraq in 2003.

In much the same way, President Mills' Palmerstonian policy on Cote D'Ivoire is
right and ought to be commended rather than condemned. Like Palmerston, Mills'
primary responsibility and loyalty is not to ECOWAS or even to Ivory Coast, but to
the interests of the people Ghana and it is through that prism that he must make his
policy decisions and choices. As President of a neighbouring country with one
million Ghanaians residents, President Mills has a responsibility to prioritize his
national interests - however narrow they may appear - above those of a regional
alliance and not to commit to sending young men and women in uniform to wage war in
a dispute that can be resolved without further unnecessary bloodshed.

For what is really at issue here? A dispute over the outcome of democratic
elections. Grave as it, there is nothing novel about this. From Samuel J. Tilden v.
Rutherford B. Hayes (in the 1876 US elections), Al Gore v George Bush (in 2000) to
Mwai Kibaki v Raila Odinga (in Kenya in 2008) election disputes have always erupted
from time to time. And in nearly all cases, particularly in the advanced world, the
use of force and military intervention is not even remotely part of the options
considered for settling such disputes. So why are we so quick, as Vice President
John Mahama opined in his op-ed pages of the HuffingtonPost last week, to reach for
the military option as a way of resolving these disputes?

We seem to have forgotten all too quickly that only two or three decades ago Africa
thought the only answer to Africa's big man problem and authoritarian rule was
military intervention. But where did that get us? A descent into a spiral of decline
that led to failed States, increased violence, dysfunctional governments, famine and
human devastation on a scale not witnessed in modern times and arguably the largest
migration of Africa's most talented and able people since the end of slavery in the
nineteenth century.

Military intervention may appear to provide temporary relief but it is more likely
to lead to unintended deleterious consequences that are sure to set Africa back once
again. There are options available from diplomacy to economic and military sanctions
that can be explored without even countenancing military intervention as a
fall-back. They may take longer but they are likely to produce a more enduring
solution than a quick-fix intervention which itself is not as easy an undertaking as
some might imagine.

Much of the civilized world is capable of resolving similar disputes without
resorting to military conflict; Africans are equally capable of doing the same
without sacrificing the lives of their future generation unnecessarily and for
President Mills, without the risk of destabilising the country over which he
presides. And that surely must be right.

(c) Ekow Nelson
London, January 2010