At the end of November, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore announced a review of Ireland’s foreign policy, and invited members of the public to have a say on what our foreign policy priorities and goals should be. Unfortunately, the discussion about “how we can continue to serve the interests of the Irish people through active international engagement” has gone pretty quiet.
Yet this is an important discussion. As Mr Gilmore said: “Our foreign policy is a statement of who we are as a people. It is the means by which we promote our values and pursue our interests abroad. Through it, we pursue economic prosperity and promote peace and security in Ireland and the wider world.”
If that is so, it is indeed good to pause for thought, and ask our citizens to reflect on exactly what those values, interests, and prospects for prosperity really are.
In recent years, we have appeared less sure of what our core values are. We now know the Celtic Tiger model of society is not a very attractive option, but are we ready to embrace any of the alternatives? We have come to realise that our prosperity is irrevocably linked to the ups — and downs — of the welfare of the rest of the world but we seem to feel unable to take the steps needed to safeguard our common future. We understand the impact of global forces, but may have lost the confidence in our ability to shape those forces. Without such confidence and clarity of direction, we may not feel very well-equipped to “promote our values and pursue our interests abroad”.
If we are experiencing a form of national hesitation, we could in fact benefit from a profound examination of who we are and how we want to engage with the global community. If we seize the opportunity of this rethink of our foreign policy, it might help us recalibrate our compass and prompt us to examine more closely the challenges we are going to face as a society.
How are we going to react to the vagaries of the global economy, and to the prospect of storms, floods, and failing harvests due to climate change? What do we make of our future in the EU, and how desirable do we think open borders are in an era of increased migration and increased threats of terrorist attacks? How do we find the “right mix of policies and instruments to enable us to meet the challenges” that the Department of Foreign Affairs is asking us to look for?
One of the biggest challenges we are facing as a nation is the growing gap between the incomes of the world’s poorest and richest people. Earlier this year, Oxfam launched a report which showed that almost half of the world’s wealth is now owned by just 1% of the population, and that we now live in a world where the 85 richest people own the same wealth as the 3.5bn poorest people.
At the meeting of the world’s rich and powerful in Davos, many of those more commonly associated with the free trade agenda voiced similar concerns, arguing that the increasing inequality is a threat to the global economy. The fact that, in far too many countries, the benefits of growth are being enjoyed by far too few people is not, according to IMF chief Christine Lagarde, “a recipe for stability and sustainability”. US economist and Nobel Prize laureate Joseph Stiglitz wrote that “inequality leads to lower growth and less efficiency”. In other words, it’s not in our interest to let global inequality continue to grow.
Irish foreign policy has long been based on the conviction that small states can only thrive if global politics is governed by rules which uphold certain laws and rights. As a small country, we have invested time, energy, and money in the UN and in a global system where states and citizens could have inalienable rights, no matter how lacking they are in wealth, power, or status.
This investment has paid off spectacularly, as evidenced by a steady decrease in the number of armed conflicts and an impressive, if largely unrecognised, improvement in the quality of life of the vast majority of people on Earth.
Our aid programme has long been a central part of Ireland’s foreign policy, and there is a public expectation that Ireland will do ‘the right thing’ on the global stage. Our focus on human rights, development co-operation, peace-keeping, and conflict resolution has served us well and been an invaluable source of influence and what political scientists like to call ‘soft power’. As a country not suspected of ulterior motives — whether commercial or colonial — we have been able to play a role not normally reserved for countries our size.
The foreign policy consultation is our chance to confirm that we, as a nation, are ready to use that influence positively, and that we continue to stand for something; that we believe our own future is interwoven with the future and prosperity of everyone else on this planet; and that we do not want the needs of the few to outweigh the rights of the many. It is an opportunity to reaffirm that we do not want our economic agenda to come at the expense of our planet, its people, or of future generations.
It’s not too late to have this discussion. There is still time for the people of Ireland to speak out and to share our opinions with the Department of Foreign Affairs.
* Hans Zomer is the director of Dóchas, the Irish Association of Non-Governmental Development Organisations
You can access information on the Public Consultation on the Review of Ireland’s Foreign Policy at dfa.ie. The deadline for submission is today.