British citizens facing great danger in Libya have a right to expect more than David Cameron’s shambolic, incompetent government gave them last week.
All of us have the right to expect a more coherent and principled foreign policy than the one on show: trying to pretend a trade mission for defence manufacturers and other businesses is a “democracy tour” really doesn’t cut it.
But the wider truth is that all western governments are profoundly challenged by the chain of events that began, 10 weeks ago, with a young Tunisian man setting himself on fire in anger and desperation.
The central assumption of the durability of long-standing and unpleasant regimes has been swept away. This change in circumstance has left many of the old orthodoxies seeming out of date and on the wrong side of history.
All western governments have been taught a lesson: democracy has been shown to be valued by ordinary people in the Arab world as much as it was in eastern Europe in 1989 or in the western world before.
Where this popular will exists, it is clear that stability based on the suppression of these demands is no genuine stability at all and serves neither the interests of the people of these countries nor those of the wider international community.
We need to celebrate and embrace this new reality. Our true interests lie in supporting the development of democratic principles, strong civil society and entrenched individual rights in the Middle East and beyond.
The extraordinary events of the past few weeks have served to underline that our alliances should be defined by our values, rather than our values defined by our alliances. Our approach must combine hard-headed internationalism and practical support for democratic values with better co-ordination to help achieve functioning self-determination in the region.
So what should the new rules of the road be? First, we should be led by the people of these countries. Where there are clearly demonstrated demands for democracy, we should avoid the appearance of ambivalence. That is why we must say very clearly that Libya’s future after Colonel Gaddafi is as a country which upholds basic rights and freedom.
Second, we must recognise that we should never reduce foreign policy to a narrow pursuit of commercial gain for Britain. Those who would claim ideological purity risk looking naive, but those who suggest our approach can be reduced simply to the demands of commerce risk our wider national interest if it leaves us bound tighter to regimes whose legitimacy is – at best – questionable.
That is why we should also examine our arms sales to ensure that UK weaponry is not used for the repression of people in those countries.
Third, the honest truth is that part of the support western governments offered the likes of President Mubarak was because he appeared to be a guarantor of stability in the region, including his welcome recognition of the need for the security of Israel.
Above all, these events must spur us on to seek a solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict which matters to young Arabs in a way that would be foolish to ignore. This is seen as a litmus test of our sincerity. So I support the government’s efforts to get the peace process moving again and I regret the US administration’s decision to veto a United Nations resolution calling for a freeze on Israeli settlement building. The basis of a deal is clear: watertight security guarantees for Israel and a democratic Palestinian state.
Fourth, the neocons were wrong to think we could impose democracy at the point of a gun. In this new era, soft power will often be a better way to achieve hard results. That is why support for civil society, the promotion of national assets such as the British Council and the BBC World Service, is so important. Our template should be the EU’s response to the democratic revolutions of 1989 which helped make change in eastern Europe irreversible, with economic aid, technical assistance and institution building.
Against the odds, people are bringing about extraordinary change. Ripples of hope have spread out across a region and touched a new generation in many Arab states.
That should give us all a sense of optimism about human progress and the power of people to change our world.
We must be on the right side of their struggles.
By Ed Miliban, leader of the Labour party and MP for Doncaster North.