“The foreign policy of England should always be inspired by the love of freedom,” said Gladstone. This ideal must always animate British foreign policy, even if it is not and never will be the only consideration.
We support democracy, human rights and economic freedom worldwide because they are universal. But we also know that they are the best recipe for the stability and prosperity the world needs.
The turmoil afflicting many Middle Eastern and North African countries today confirms the truth of Ronald Reagan’s adage: all political systems are inherently unstable that have no peaceful means to legitimise their rulers. The Arab Spring has shown that stability and peace cannot be attained through repression. The idea of freedom cannot be confined behind bars, however strong the lock.
There will be no long-term stable future for the Middle East and North Africa without political and economic reform, which will not be achieved without support from the outside world.
The absence of quick and easy answers does not mean that there is a comforting alternative available to patient and determined engagement with the region. It would be a fundamental strategic error for Britain to sit on the sidelines. Here is why.
It is indisputably the legitimate right of the peoples of the Middle East to use peaceful means to demand greater political and economic freedom, although what this will mean in practice will vary markedly from country to country. It is also strongly in our national interest that their aspirations are fulfilled. We must do what we can to help the region become more democratic over time, because our own security and fortunes are linked to it.
After all, this is Europe’s immediate neighbourhood. A mere nine miles separate the continent from North Africa at the Mediterranean’s narrowest point. Europe’s borders are under strain from potential new arrivals, and hundreds of thousands of British jobs are linked to trade and commerce with the wider Middle East. Instability in the region has real consequences for the UK. If governments in the region do not observe fundamental rights and reform they will lose in the long term, and so may we.
It would be wrong to think that the changes unleashed by the Arab Spring will be easy or swift: In Libya and in Syria, isolated and entrenched regimes are fighting back against their own people. Tunisia and Egypt face massive economic problems in addition to political upheaval, coupled with sky-high public expectations. Some other countries have yet to accept that reform is in their interests or necessary. The currents that have been unleashed have not yet run their course in the region, and we should not be surprised if they spread to countries beyond it.
But in an integrated world, no amount of wishful thinking could insulate Britain from the potential consequences of a lapse back into greater authoritarianism in parts of the Middle East and North Africa. The risks include uncontrolled migration, further destabilising revolutions in individual countries, disruption to energy exports or the emergence of new forms of extremism. All these would also have a serious bearing on the Middle East Peace Process and efforts to combat nuclear proliferation by Iran. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is already a threat to our security, and thrives on insecurity and lawlessness. So we do not have the option of inaction.
In Libya we could not stand back and allow Gaddafi to overrun Benghazi and Misratah with the loss of countless lives, the destabilising of neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia and serious consequences for European security. Our actions have saved lives and given the Libyans space to decide their own future, which by now would certainly had been decided for them by ruthless force if we had not acted. We can and we will see the mission through to completion, implementing our UN mandate, and supporting the Libyan people towards a political settlement that achieves their wishes of a future free from Gaddafi.
We will not stay silent where repressive regimes seek to crush legitimate aspirations but will press for necessary, legal actions to hold them to account. This is what we are doing in Syria, using concerted diplomatic means to increase pressure on the regime.
And we will continue to lead other international action at the G8, EU and UN, and to offer practical support to reforming governments through our own Arab Partnership Initiative.
Above all, we must not lose faith in the Arab Spring. Of course it will last for far more than just one season. It will be the work of a generation and will have its setbacks as well as its successes. It will test the resolve and patience of us all, whether in Libya or elsewhere. But it offers the hope of the greatest enlargement of human freedom since the end of the Cold War. And each time change is achieved peacefully, a severe blow is dealt to the murderous ideology of al Qaeda.
With our partners and international institutions we do have it in our power to help, especially if the European Union marshals its resources effectively and is prepared to open up its markets to countries of the region. It would be a tragedy if Europe turned inward-looking just when it needs to be outward facing, and bold and ambitious about tackling challenges in foreign policy.
We should never forget that people, not impersonal forces of history, are at the heart of these events. The young people I have met in recent visits to the region are motivated by the desire to change their country for the better, and to live freer and more dignified lives. They worry about how to achieve better standards of education, higher levels of employment and less corruption, and they want security and political stability. It would be wrong to turn our backs on them. To support their aspirations is to be true to our commitment to freedom, while being led firmly by our own enlightened national interest.
This article was originally published in the Evening Standard