Nick Clegg's speech on the Arab Spring goes further than calling for a democratic outcome across the region. It makes achieving such an outcome a defining aim of UK foreign policy, building on Clegg's previous commitment to "the principle of liberal interventionism...the principle that we have a collective responsibility to support freedom and protect human rights around the world".
"This year has proved that so-called Western values, free speech, the rule of law, pluralism, are the aspirations of people everywhere," says Clegg, in a speech to the British Council on Monday 22 August. "The UK stands by all who strive for them." These words are especially striking given that, in a speech in March, the Deputy Prime Minister said: "Being adherents of the international rule of law does not mean being neutral about the kind of world we want to see and the kind of nations we want to deal with: open, free, democratic societies."
Clegg is here clearly leading the Liberal Democrats away from any notion that the UK could be "neutral" on the relative merits of democracy and other systems. He is saying that democracy works best and that the UK will take practical steps to foster its development across the Middle East and North Africa:
Successful revolutions may change the world overnight. But, in many ways, it's the morning after that the real work begins...(We) will support a range of political projects, from assisting fledgling movements as they turn into organised political parties, to setting up parliamentary procedures for new legislatures, putting in place processes to prevent corruption, staffing projects to engage women and other marginalised groups, giving technical assistance to help replace state media monopolies with a plural press and helping register huge numbers of people who have never voted before...We've committed resources to this - £110m over the next four years with £20m now set aside specifically for Libya...(Don't) ever underestimate this stage of reform. This is when you lock in a revolution. This is when you turn the hopes and dreams of millions of citizens into the institutions and practices of a well-functioning state.
In other words: revolutions that start with hopes of good governance and democracy often end with failed states and despotism. It is in the UK's interest to actively intervene so as to push post-revolutionary countries in the right direction - and we are quite clear what the right direction is, with no hint of moral relativism when it comes to different systems of government. If British people are entitled to democracy in our country, then other people are entitled to it in theirs, so it is right for us to help them to achieve it.
This speech takes the Liberal Democrats another step away from the politics of the Iraq War - which did, after all, happen as long ago as 2003. As I have argued here previously, Liberal Democrats' principled opposition to that war skewed the terms of debate about the party's foreign policy. The mood music of that debate temporarily became the drumbeat of Stop the War and Not in My Name, even though the party has consistently supported the war in Afghanistan and previously led calls for intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo.
Led by Nick Clegg and facing the rigours and responsibilities of government, the Liberal Democrats are now taking a tougher, more nuanced approach to questions of liberal interventionism. As Clegg has previously argued, the war in Iraq was an act of "liberal vigilantism" that went badly wrong, "the lesson of (which) is not that intervention in support of liberal aims is always wrong". After all, Clegg now argues, "had Gaddafi been allowed to massacre protesters in Benghazi, what message would that have sent to protesters in Manama? Sanaa? Damascus?"
This is also a powerful response to those who ask why we have intervened militarily in Libya but not in Syria. Clegg demonstrates here that our prevention of a Libyan massacre in Benghazi was, in and of itself, an intervention in Syria, sending as it did a signal to Assad as to what he could expect were he to engage in wholesale massacres of Syria's people - massacres on a scale that would have dwarfed even the ugly, tragic killings that the Assad regime actually has undertaken.
The outcome in Libya remains deeply uncertain. As Clegg has argued, "we must temper optimism with realism" regarding events across the Middle East and North Africa. "Equally," says Clegg, "We must be wary of those who preach a counsel of despair." Liberal Democrats must surely agree with Clegg that "the momentum for change is breathtaking and, for the cynics who said change wasn't possible, who had written off the Libyan uprising, written off the Arab Spring, clearly, they were wrong. The movement for freedom hasn't been stamped out. It's alive and kicking, and it's here to stay."
Liberal Democrats must be natural members of any such "movement for freedom". They should back their leader in ensuring that "the UK stands shoulder to shoulder with the millions of citizens across the Arab world, who are looking to open up their societies, looking for a better life." This is another defining moment for Liberal Democrat foreign policy.
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