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An independent Scotland and the myth of "ethical" foreign policy

12/09/2014 15:52 BST | Updated 12/11/2014 10:59 GMT

There is no getting away from the fact that Britain has a history of rather questionable foreign policy decisions. From invading the Suez to the Dodgy Dossier which led to supporting the American war in Iraq, Britain has at times taken upon itself to get involved in things it would have done best to avoid.

And to all those Scots who think that Britain's role on the world stage is not a positive one, and who loath being dragged into operations on the far edges of the globe by an "imperialist" Westminster elite, Alex Salmond must look like a godsend. But of course, as in many other places, Salmond has done his best to be all things to all people. And I'm sorry to say that this promise of an "ethical" foreign policy simply doesn't add up.

Salmond, like any red-blooded nationalist, wants his country to matter. And for that to be the case, Salmond needs to do the "right" kind of things. As is outlined in the SNP 2009 white paper Your Scotland, Your Voice, an independent Scotland would join NATO, would "help to prevent and resolve conflicts and war anywhere in the world" and "further peaceful development in the world..." "like those in the Balkans" - a NATO mission with no UN authority.

They also suggest they would "actively participate in the European Security and Defence Policy of the European Union." And a 2012 SNP Conference resolution is clear that an independent Scotland under the SNP would participate in both UN and EU missions, requiring "military capabilities, including a cyber-security and intelligence infrastructure".

Does any of this sound familiar at all? Small European country, joining all the right alliances, and throwing its weight around the world to show that it still matters? Of course, with hindsight we know that going to war in Iraq was not the wisest decision, but it seems to me that joining a US-led coalition in Iraq or anywhere else is perfectly consistent with the guidelines of Salmond's "ethical foreign policy". There is nothing in there to prevent an independent Scotland making the same daft mistakes that Britain made in the past.

Yet there is one huge difference between the two scenarios. The belief that an independence Scotland will have influence on the global stage in the way that the UK still does is a fantasy. Scotland will be micro-state: one amongst 30 in the EU, if it is even lucky enough to join any time soon (though I should say that an advisor to Spain's PM on the EU told me personally they do not intend to make it easy for Scotland to join the EU). Salmond is very fond of comparing Scotland with Norway. Well, here is probably the best comparison you can make: an independent Scotland would matter in international affairs about as much as Norway. Except it will not be able to afford to donate as much in foreign aid.

But what of the man himself? An independent Scotland led by Alex Salmond... Surely he could not possibly be as conceited as Tony Blair or David Cameron in foreign affairs. At least we will be governed by someone with spine and some semblance of integrity, no?

Well the Dalai Lama may beg to differ. His Holiness insists he was not offended that Salmond and every SNP minister refused to meet with him when he visited Scotland in 2012. And that may well be the true. But it sticks out as a rather ugly truth that even David Cameron actually met up with the Dalai Lama in person just a month earlier.

Words are cheap when you are in opposition or when you have no power. Salmond can promise a new Jerusalem, and most of us will want to believe him even in spite of ourselves. But when push comes to shove, Chinese trade is slightly more important to us and to the SNP than human rights abroad. And in a small, open economy, sticking to principles will become ever more expensive. "Ethical" policy is the preserve of those who can afford it and who have the power to enforce it. The SNP's Scotland will do neither.

Dr Azeem Ibrahim is the Executive Chairman of the Scotland Institute and a Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute US Army War College