Foreign policy debate at the Conservative Party conference

The British Prime Minister Theresa May began her speech at this week’s Conservative conference by gently mocking her new foreign secretary in asking “Can Boris Johnson stay on message for a full four days?” – “Just about” was her own answer but Johnson did more than that by delivering a thoughtful and substantial speech on British foreign policy.

Johnson cited a conversation with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov which ended with Lavrov complaining that the West imposed democracy on Russia at the end of the Cold War in 1990. Johnson said it illustrated the fragility of Francis Fukuyama’s famous and influential “end of history” thesis and what Johnson dubbed “a moment of ideological resolution” for the “conglomerate of Western liberal values and ideals” such as the rule of law, human rights, independent judiciary, and the right of the media to mock politicians.

He also said the notion that the West could endlessly expand the realm of liberal democracy was badly damaged by the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and because its model of free-market Anglo-Saxon capitalism was seriously discredited by the crash of 2008. Other leading international conservative figures candidly acknowledged that globalisation has slashed absolute poverty in a generation but many outside the top 1% and the bottom 30% feel excluded from its fruits.

Johnson concluded that the lack of Western political, military, and economic self-confidence means that the world is less safe. The number of deaths in conflict rose from 49,000 in 2010 to 167,000 last year. The global tally of refugees is up by 30% on 2013 to 46 million. The number of free or partly free African countries has fallen.

He rounded on Russian “war crimes” in Aleppo – “bombing hospitals when they know they are hospitals and nothing but hospitals” and which is making it impossible for peace negotiations to begin. The bleak picture he painted included a migration crisis that last year overwhelmed Europe’s ability to cope, and the violent extremism of Daesh erupting across the Middle East and spreading to Europe.

Such threats chill tourism and trade and tempt governments to use instability and insecurity as an excuse to move away from democracy in the belief they can have economic prosperity without political and social freedom.

Turning to the role of Britain today, he reflected that the Foreign Office was once the nerve centre of an empire that was seven times the size of the Roman empire at its greatest extent and had for 200 years directed the invasion or conquest of 178 countries but “those days are gone forever and that is a profoundly good thing.”

But he sought to reclaim the UK’s global role and said it would be a fatal mistake now to underestimate what Britain is doing or can do because, in spite of Iraq, it is simply not the case that every military intervention has been a disaster.

He added that Britain thinks an age before wielding hard power, which has been enhanced by “the gentle kindly gunboats of British soft power” – “the vast and subtle and pervasive extension of British influence around the world that goes with having the language that was invented and perfected in this country and now has more speakers than any other language on Earth and up the creeks and inlets of every continent on Earth.” He cited Churchill’s adage that the empires of the future will be empires of the mind.

How much influence the UK will have will depend to a large degree on how successfully Britain reconfigures its links with the European Union and the wider world, a process that is still being defined but which will formally begin next Spring. Much could go wrong and divisions could deepen, while the apparently unassailable dominance of the Conservatives, as they seek to win Labour voters and those on the right, is far from given.

As well as hard and soft power, ministers are proud that the UK is a development superpower and that includes great efforts in helping look after those who have fled to the Kurdistan Region. Yet this is rarely mentioned by ministers and nor is the potential of the KRG, which does not fit classic categories of international relations, and may concern those who hear Iraq and think disaster.

I was at the Conservative conference in Birmingham with the KRG High Representative Karwan Jamal Tahir who actively made the case for the Anglo-Kurdistani relationship with ministers and others. Tangible signs and symbols of British support need to be heard, understood and supported by party members and the wider British public. After all, the Kurdistan Region’s ideological and military rejection of Daesh is vital to the British and indeed global interest.

This is a personal view by Gary Kent

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