How Britain can wave the rules and help the Kurds
What a difference a year makes. This was the theme of my contribution to the APPG discussion in the Commons on our delegation to the Kurdistan Region and Baghdad in May.
Just a year ago the joy of the referendum was rapidly replaced by Baghdad’s illegal blockade, economic bleakness, and an opportunist and violent attempt to invade Kurdistan. The principal proponents of a punitive approach to Kurdistan have now been sidelined and the new Iraqi Prime Minister may be a man who once fought alongside the Peshmerga and resigned on principle when his efforts to do a deal on oil between Baghdad and Erbil were obstructed.
The referendum would not have taken place if federal rules had been honoured and, if it they this time, then independence will be kicked down the road and the referendum will be seen as an inflection point at which things started to get better.
I understand why some are sceptical, promises have been made before, but it’s worth a try. If Baghdad fails this time to get the point that the Kurds cannot be kicked around and are vital to the stability and prosperity of Iraq, with or without independence, then it is at least arguable that a future bid for statehood will become more feasible.
Likewise, Britain is reaching an inflection point of its own as we near the moment of destiny about Brexit. Either way, the UK needs to rethink its relations with its European neighbours and the rest of the world, and there are opportunities for the Kurds in this.
One of the most original and influential thinkers in this is the active Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Tom Tugendhat MP, who recently outlined his vision of UK foreign policy in the context of an international order that is breaking down.
He says that this is because the West, which he defines as “that group of nations stretching from San Francisco in the West to Seoul in the East, who value the rule of law, economic liberty, and human rights, seem to be losing interest in the rules-based international order that has done so much to keep us safe since the end of the Second World War.”
At root, he says “there is, perhaps, something more human going on – a collective amnesia. The terror and unrest of previous eras has drifted far from people’s minds, and the events that shaped the lives of past generations have become distant memories. Today, too few have looked the devil in the face, too few have seen what can happen when the rules collapse and anarchy reigns. Too many see peace as the ordinary state of affairs, when a cursory glance at history makes clear, peace is painstakingly constructed and easily lost. Peace is the exception, not the rule.”
In searching for “ideas for a new Conservative internationalism,” although his thinking can be applied more widely, he asks fundamental questions about the importance of the nation-state in fostering multilateralism and cites how the EU’s centralising, supranational instinct is out of kilter with the temper of our times. He quotes a senior European prime minister who told him that “it’s a real shame about the European Commission. If we’d just been a group of nation states in Europe, we could have made this work.”
Because, he says, Britain’s history should not make us curators of a crumbling international order he asks “an urgent question of British foreign policy: how can we help design what is needed – an international system for today’s world?”
Dismissing what he calls the Davos view that that ever greater economic interconnectedness would melt borders away and make old national frontiers disappear he insists that “in an uncertain world we need to remember that the rock breaching the choppy waters is the state.”
Tugendhat lists the elements of the British state’s strong position as a heavyweight in foreign policy: the penetrating insight of its diplomatic and intelligence networks, its soft power from its trusted media and a generous aid programme that helps project influence, political stability, financial markets, and reputation that attract investment and enable trade, membership of many global clubs, and the capacity, as a last resort, to project power through the convincing threat of force.
He concludes by stressing that a chief British asset is the rule of law “because these islands, by accidents of geography, history and war have a long, unbroken tradition of justice” and that “English law and British justice are prized as the gold standard around the world.”
The rule of law, firm institutions, and centuries of developing them are why the proposed programme of skills transfer from British MPs to the Kurdistani Parliament and to youth and student organisations can be so important in helping the Kurds adapt lessons from elsewhere.
Imperial Britain used to rule the waves and waived the rules to do so but now, perhaps, waving the rules that have made it successful can do more to allow others to navigate storms in this transition to a new international order and lift all boats, including those of the landlocked Kurds.
* The full text of Tom Tugendhat’s speech is at https://rusi.org/event/tom-tugendhat-defending-rules
Gary Kent writes in a personal capacity