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Neutrality Neuroses

A conceptual look at the Consultative Forum on International Security Policy

By J Vivian Cooke

The Consultative Forum on International Security Policy that was held at various locations from 22 June to 27 June was an appropriate metaphor for the international security structures it discussed so earnestly. A small and select group directed the discussion about global security and offered their view to a larger General Assembly, some of whom would be allowed to insert them into the conversation from the floor. To add an extra layer of authenticity to proceedings, occasionally a dissident voice would be raised to protest the entire basis of proceedings.

The desire expressed by the Department of Foreign Affairs that discussion should be “open, informed, respectful and evidence-based discussion on the State’s foreign and security policy”, was thwarted by a number of subversive interruptions. A shouting match between protesters and Tánaiste Micheál Martin at UCC was an early highlight. However, the chaos was largely constrained, and the moderators of each session were admirably efficient in keeping to the printed timetable. Perhaps the organisers had made allowances in their schedule for these fractious contingencies.

The suspicions expressed publicly by the President that the Forum had been carefully curated so that the process would arrive at a predetermined outcome proved, on the whole, to be unfounded. The invited panellists provided important insight and nuance even if it did not reflect the full range of public opinion. Although many panellists were open in expressing their policy preferences on various issues, there was no attempt to disguise these positions and, for all the fulminations, there was little evidence of anyone acting in bad faith on either side of debates.

It is helpful to order the wide-ranging discussions using an analytical framework that distinguishes positions based on intrinsic or instrumental values.

An instrumental approach assesses various security policy options based on how effectively they deliver underlying policy goals. The advocates of either strict neutrality or deeper cooperation with NATO – positions that are irreconcilable – maintain that their policy preference is best suited to advance Irish security and/or promote the international rule-based order; and/or facilitate Irish participation in UN peacekeeping missions. In this sense, neutrality is not an end in itself, but rather a mechanism of Irish diplomacy to achieve the national interest and values.

Even among UN veterans, peacekeepers, diplomats and administrators, there was sharp disagreement on precisely the extent to which Ireland’s neutrality is acknowledged or valued by other members of the international community.

The suspicions expressed publicly by the President that the Forum had been carefully curated so that the process would arrive at a predetermined outcome proved, on the whole, to be unfounded

For its advocates, international recognition of Irish neutrality distinguishes us from other European States, is evidence of impartiality, and makes Irish interventions more acceptable to other States and peoples. For example, the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, said that our neutrality was “helpful” in securing our election to the UN Security Council.

Those who are urging changes to Ireland’s security posture assert that, in their experience, Ireland’s position is not recognised around the world as unique, and we are categorised with other small and well-intentioned countries such as Norway or Denmark, both of whom are members of NATO.

Renata Dwan, a panellist at the Forum, suggested that a more realistic evaluation is that Ireland’s policy of neutrality underlies the more obvious aspects of our international reputation which others value – such as our consistent support for human rights; our distinguished track record in peacekeeping; and the absence of overriding national interests.

On the face of it, the isolation of neutrality is less of a guarantor of Ireland’s national security than any mutual defence pact that creates a treaty obligation for all members to defend Ireland should we be attacked. However, such a collective security agreement cuts both ways: Ireland will have an obligation to all other members of the treaty organisation. Clearly, we could be dragged into an international conflict without having the opportunity to make a positive decision to do so.

The Forum questioned if the current ‘Triple Lock’ guarantees ‘traditional neutrality’. It has created a situation where Ireland can only deploy a maximum of 12 personnel in response to any international crisis, including the evacuation of Irish citizens and aid workers from conflict zones.

It also frustratingly grants to Russian and Chinese dictatorial regimes and NATO states, the US, UK and France, a veto over Irish peacekeeping missions. In any event, the ‘Triple Lock’ only applies to the authorisation at the start of UN missions and does not grant the Oireachtas a role in the continued oversight of such deployments. This deficiency has been exposed by revelations in internal UN and international reports of widespread sex and child abuse in numerous UN deployments. Any review of the ‘Triple Lock’ must include a role for the Oireachtas in renewing authorisations.

The second category of contributions takes it as a premise that our security policy should be an expression of our national values, whether that is pacifism or solidarity. In this sense, neutrality is a categorical imperative that has inherent ethical value – and, for some, moral purity.

Those holding this position are typically suspicious of the intent of former colonial masters attempting to maintain their political and economic influence. They note the US’s long history of illegal wars as well as innumerable invasions and coups, and the fact it has been compromised by its material interests in, for example, ensuring energy imports.

Unfortunately, at times, this appraisal veers into a cognitive confirmation bias that fails to acknowledge the moral complexity of modern US diplomatic history where, often at the same time, it has been both the architect and the transgressor of international law; it has both encouraged and undermined democracies; it has been both a fierce opponent of some tyrants and close allies of others.

Neutrality is not an end in itself, but rather a mechanism of Irish diplomacy to achieve the national interest and values

Equally, the supporters of deeper cooperation through the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) or NATO’s Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) structures marshal their own ethical arguments. Far from being an instrument of American interests, NATO is portrayed as a voluntary association of like-minded democracies who are committed to mutual support in the face of imperialist aggression. Ireland, from this view, has a moral obligation to show effective solidarity with fellow members of the international community of free democracies, of which we are committed members, and it is reprehensible of us not to defend those freedoms.

Wrestling with the moral compromises inevitable in a policy of “active neutrality” is still preferable to the ethical problems that come with a policy of strict neutrality. The corollary of isolationism and ambivalence is antithetical to Irish principles of promoting peace, human rights, poverty relief, climate justice and equality as well as opposing tyranny, oppression and violence. We do not and should not remain neutral in the face of homicidal dictators.

If it is to be conducted at all, international diplomacy will result in compromises in both practice and in values. The Forum has been valuable, at the very least, in drawing more clearly where those compromises lie and has made a number of suggestions on how international cooperation, however distasteful, is desirable to achieve our goals. It is a pity that the commitment, so often expressed at the Forum, to global justice and equality, was endorsed in the abstract but too often qualified in practice.