RDN on The Big Questions

I’ve been asked to have a go at a Big Question for this show, tomorrow. Here goes….

The challenge seems to be something like “Can the West be fussy what countries it does business with?”

In a word, “No”.


As President Obama has said recently, we have our ideals but we have our interests too.


But suppose we stuck to our Western liberal ideals, where would not our trading with China get the Chinese peasant? (Never mind that the houses of our less-well-off would be emptied of goods.) And if we don’t trade with Africa, we’d merely buy even more African raw materials as they arrive in Chinese and African goods.


More positively I am mildly confident that the worse people we trade with, the more good we do in the world. This paradox is unpicked thus: trade enriches people and creates a middle class. In the end, and sometimes sooner rather than later, that process can be rapid and benign and leads to responsive government.


I have a good deal of faith that sanctions usually backfire. I was not a fan of South African sanctions and am not even persuaded that sanctions against Burma are all that clever. Sanctions against Saddam Hussein were seriously flawed.


The Middle East looks like a hard case. This is partly because of the complications of schismatic Islam and partly because it involves raw material trading, which is often a sort of non-commercial trading. (I mean that it is a stitch-up between small numbers of people on either side of the deals.) Even so, I am not remotely convinced that Saudi Arabia, for instance, would be a better influence in the world if we didn’t buy its oil.


To those who say we shouldn’t buy oil from, say Nigeria, I would reply that I would rather see Western companies involved than to see that oil reach the market some other way.


On Libya, it’s worth saying that the country – ruled by a dicator as it has been – ranked 53 out of 167 countries in the UNDP Human Development Index, and ahead of Trinidad and Mauritius in those tables. I am with those many informed voices who say that the Arab Spring ought to be celebrated, but that it may be very ugly for a while. I think this sort of view flows from a general Whig History view that affluence and development lead to responsive governments.

The point here, though, is whether involvement and trade helped. Well, if affluence and education and information lie behind the Arab Spring, I would say that we were right to have traded with these countries, and that – a little contradictorily – we have now to be on the side of “the rebels”.

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Publication date

28 May 2011


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