Utilising both soft and hard power will be central to reconstructing Labour’s foreign policy
At Labour’s National Policy Forum in Wrexham this year I was asked whether we see the UK as the ‘world’s policeman’. It is a profound and important question as we develop Labour’s new foreign policy. The Arab Spring has demonstrated powerfully that freedom and democracy are universal aspirations rather than western values, and that multilateral institutions remain ill-equipped to respond in a sophisticated way to unexpected events.
All too often these complex challenges are reduced to a debate about the advantages and disadvantages of military intervention with one side citing failures in Iraq and Afghanistan while the other cites success in Kosovo and the appalling price of non-intervention in Rwanda and Bosnia. Direct military intervention must, of course, always be a last resort. What we need is to fashion an approach that fosters progress using soft power so that in future we are confronted less often with the option of military action.
The original protests in Tunisia were sparked by poverty and unemployment. If we are serious about addressing global inequality we have to give priority to trade, development and economic policies that enable countries in the poorest parts of the world to grow and to share the proceeds of growth fairly. The European Union could be a much more effective and significant player here – whether through neighbourhood action with the countries of north Africa and the Middle East or through trade and development policies.
Opposition gives Labour the opportunity to develop policies for the next general election – but it is also a chance for us to deliver practical solidarity now. The trade unions have a vital role to play here in supporting workers’ rights in the Arab world. We can learn from the practical examples of solidarity work with labour movements in countries like Iraq and Zimbabwe in recent years.
Earlier this year I visited Tunisia, where there are several secular, left-of-centre parties that merit support and encouragement. I met women’s organisations that were nervous that if the new constituent assembly is dominated by Islamists the clock could be turned back on women’s rights. We have a duty to help in situations like this.
But we must also consider the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, adopted by the United Nations in 2005.
In Libya I believe we had a duty under R2P to act to prevent a bloodbath in Benghazi. However, the Libya issue did not cast Europe in a positive light, with Germany taking the opposite view to the UK and France. The Arab League called for a ‘no-fly zone’, but the involvement of Arab countries in the military action was limited. R2P will have less impact and less legitimacy if the action necessary to enforce it falls only on a small number of countries.
Meanwhile, the crisis in Sudan continues but with far less media and political interest than the events in Libya and Syria. Credit here should go to African countries which have contributed to peacekeeping efforts in Darfur and more recently in Abyei. There is a real debate within the African Union between those defending the principle of R2P and those reasserting traditional notions of national sovereignty. We should be very clear in supporting and encouraging Africa’s defenders of R2P and giving the same urgency to addressing the atrocities of the regime in Khartoum as we have done to those in Tripoli, Cairo and Damascus.
If R2P is to mean anything, the major powers in the world need to work out how to make it succeed. Countries that argue that national sovereignty is overriding need to be persuaded otherwise. Early warning systems need to be improved so that the worst cases are prevented from happening in the first place. The world’s capacity to respond militarily to protect civilians needs to be increased – and the burden of doing so shared among a wider pool of nations. While we do not see ourselves as the ‘world’s policeman’, we should play our part in upholding our responsibility, and so too should others.
Stephen Twigg is MP for Liverpool West Derby and shadow minister for Africa and the Middle East
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