Egypt: the case for being quiet

Is foreign policy mainly about values, about doing what is right? Should we just set aside our caution and back the Egyptian democratic revolution? Andrew Rawnsley thinks so. And he pours contempt on ‘realists’ into the bargain.

This is not the first time this week that liberal idealists have drawn satisfaction from the events in North Africa to reassure themselves that even after the foreign policy triumphs in Iraq or NATO expansion that are directly attributable to their ideas, they really do know better.

But I’m not sure that foreign policy is about being good. It is about being prudent. If foreign policy was as simple as celebrating our own morality and spreading it everywhere we could, anyone could do it.

Historically, and now, we must continuously trade off our beliefs and our interests. They often diverge. Its called a dilemma, the tension between two conflicting principles. It is breathtaking that this point still has to be made.

To put it more concretely: if solidarity with democratic movements was our overriding cause, it would logically mean backing Taiwanese and Tibetan independence, embracing the Chinese democracy movement, and quickly destroying our relationship with Beijing.

If democratic principle is to be our inflexible rallying cry, how would this have placed us in World War Two, allying with Stalin’s Soviet Union? The Red Army absorbed the bulk of the Wehrmacht’s casualties.

Our drive for cheap and assured oil (which presumably Andrew Rawnsley uses to power his car) comes as a result of close relationships with some decidedly unattractive regimes in the Gulf.

Just for a few minutes, I’d beg to differ with some of Andrew Rawnsley’s glib judgments. Here goes:

I am being generous when I say that Barack Obama, David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy and the rest of the soi-disant “leaders of the free world” have often struggled to articulate a principled and coherent response to the popular revolts that have spread from Tunis to Cairo.

They have, and for good reason. Openly embracing a democratic opposition in another state can have really bad consequences. First, as we have seen in Iran, decades of overt and covert US support for Iranian dissidents has been politically poisonous for those brave folk, as it taints them with the charge that they are American fifth columnists. One reason Egypt’s dissidents wield ever more powerful legitimacy in that society is that we haven’t made them ‘our boys.’

Secondly, we have serious interests in the region that we would be morally irresponsible to ignore, such as the continuation of the Egypt-Israeli settlement, the Suez chokepoint, and a fear of the anarchy that can and often does follow in the wake of new democracies. Its not frivolous to pause and think at this historical juncture.

Thirdly, the Obama administration behind the scenes has acted pretty responsibly, using the clout that it does have to restrain violent retaliation and reprisal, and trying to encourage orderly, steady reform.

…it is for the British foreign secretary to have a view about whether democratic government is to be preferred to dictatorship.

…and then to think about how and whether to say it, what the consequences will be, and whether we can apply that principle consistently. Its called statecraft, and is a long way from high school debating. Is the Foreign Secretary also to pronounce on the need for Chinese democracy and human rights, our other interests be damned?

President Bush II a few years ago insisted on free elections and a Palestinian democracy, and it delivered a virulently anti-Semitic, illiberal democratic government in the form of Hamas.

Australia insisted on an independence referendum for East Timor from Indonesia, and it resulted in 1400 dead, hundreds of thousands displaced, the destruction of the country’s infrastructure, and a televised orgy of violence and maimings by the militias.

It was only when Hosni Mubarak began to buckle that western leaders started to suggest there should be a transition to democracy.

Demonstrating that the Egyptian democracy movement is pretty capable without our rhetorical backing. Why is everything about us?

This “realist” school of foreign policy has always had a bit of a cheek with its claim that dictatorships deliver stability, an argument especially hard to sustain in a region so riven with conflicts as the Middle East.

Actually, the most astute realists are well aware of the trouble that dictators can bring, but might also point out that the alternatives can be chaos. Even after Iraq, some liberal idealists need to be reminded that the alternative to dictatorship can be a far more brutal anarchy. I’d rather live in Saudi Arabia than Somalia. The best realism, however, sees the bigger picture and argues for a new grand strategy that extricates us from the region in the long haul, precisely so that we are not implicated in these crises and forced to make difficult choices about them.

Having conceded that to the so-called “realists”, we must then ask them a question. Are they saying that Arabs are never allowed to aspire to democracy for fear that revolution might go the (highly country, culture and time-specific) way of Iran after 1979?

No, we (or at least yours truly) are not saying that. Liberal democracy is a great thing. We are just skeptical about our capacity to engineer it in other societies in our way and at our timetable. If Egypt is to be free, it is up to Egyptians. If there is the chance of an Arab springtime, our wisest move is to do no harm.

Anyone with any sense of history knows the road to liberal democracy can be bumpy and bloody. Britain took centuries to progress from tyrant kings such as Henry VIII to representative parliamentary government. Americans killed each other in a civil war which left more of them dead than any other conflict. The UK and the US have yet to reach a state of democratic perfection. But we also know something else about democracy, something which was best expressed by Winston Churchill: it is the worst form of government – except for all the other ones.

Indeed, Britain and America had their civil wars, which eventually resulted in constitutional government. Yet according to Rawnsley’s world view, the international community should not abide atrocious civil wars, but step in with its muscular benevolence and save the innocents. On this view, America would have been denied its Union, and Britain its parliamentary system of government, if states should not be allowed to have their civil wars, and therefore must be denied the political evolutions that result.

Democracy is best at building stable, prosperous, resilient and tolerant societies over the long term. There has never been an armed conflict between two genuinely established democracies.

Yes there has. In the US Civil War mentioned above, between the democratic Union and Confederacy. In our own time, democratic Israel has waged war in Gaza, against the democratically elected Hamas. During World War Two, Britain and its allies declared war on democratic Finland for its invasion of our autocratic ally in the Soviet Union. In antiquity, democratic Athens was not coy about fighting other democracies during the Peloponnesian war. And there’s the Anglo-Boer war. So ‘never’ looks a lot more like ‘quite a few’.  The democratic US and Britain in the postbellum nineteenth century came awfully close, and having a comparable regime type didn’t stop them making war plans against each other.

It is time that the leaders of the “free world” unknotted their tongues and said that with crystal clarity.

Alternatively, it might be time for idealist onlookers to abandon their amateur-hour concept of statecraft, their ahistorical ‘democratic peace’ theories, and their adolescent moralism, and recognise that its sometimes wiser to be quiet.

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