UK Politics: Democracy As Conflict Prevention

As the ‘Arab Spring’ stutters into a summer stalemate, has the time come to revise policy thinking on development so that it includes democracy promotion as well as poverty alleviation?

The World Today Updated 10 March 2020 Published 1 May 2011 3 minute READ

Sixty years ago Harold Wilson wrote his book, War on Want, which launched the concept of development aid. As prime minister, Wilson appointed Britain’s first overseas aid minister. His initiative has grown into the biggest international spend in the British budget. Britain and its European Union (EU) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies send billions in third-world aid, and then spend further billions on military action. Development cash has little impact on promoting open markets, rule of law, the alternating of parties, or any of what Prime Minister David Cameron has called ‘the building blocks of democracy’.

British foreign policy was relaunched a year ago as the new foreign secretary, William Hague, pledged an end to interventionism and ordered his ambassadors to focus on trade. Cameron visited China and India and all the talk was of building links with the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China), side-lining Europe and BarackObama’s America. This mercantilist reductionism did not survive its first contact with reality. The Arab revolt produced as dramatic a reordering of British foreign policy as has been seen in decades. After the prime minister’s unhappy arms sales trip to the Gulf and the embarrassing problems over evacuating British oilworkers enjoying their tax-free lives in Libya, the high quality professionals of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) took over and helped Cameron, together with France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy, to put together an effective coalition that produced a United Nations (UN) resolution that eluded Tony Blair over Kosovo and Iraq. This was followed by an impressive military and political operation that brought about military cooperation between Arab League states, NATO and the EU. Cozying up to the BRICs produced little diplomatic reward as China, Russia, India and Brazil all refused to support the Franco-British UN resolution on Libya and offered no help in resolving the crisis as it spread to Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen.

But how does British foreign policy continue to make an impact once the dust dies down over Libya? In an important yet under-reported speech to the Kuwait Parliament, Cameron made a plea to southern Mediterranean and Gulf states to move towards greater economic freedom, rule of law, and the other norms of universal, not necessarily western, values and human rights. The question now is how to translate that vision into reality?

One way would be to create a British Foundation for Democracy Development to promote open economics, support competing democratic political movements, and offer contacts and cash to civil society organisations promoting judicial and media independence, free trade unions and women’s rights, and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) promoting democracy.

There is a Cinderella outfit already in place - the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. It does good work but its budget is minuscule and has been cut to just over five million dollars, not even half a banker’s bonus. It was set up in the period following the end of Soviet communism. Douglas Hurd, William Waldegrave and a young FCO official, Jonathan Powell, came up with the idea for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which then was responsible for the overseas development budget. The FCO set up the smaller Know- How Fund, as an external NGO type-body, which brought many leaders from countries undergoing transition to Britain and helped convert the post-Soviet imperial space into the vibrant economies of eastern Europe.

As a Parliamentary Private Secretary and Minister at the FCO between 1997 and 2005, I failed to persuade successive foreign secretaries to consider boosting the Westminster Foundation for Democracy or creating new all-party foundations that could promote democratic development work overseas. The FCO budget was much reduced after the Department for International Development (DFID) was set up with its ‘golden elephants’, in Clare Short’s memorable phrase, to shower upon the poorest in the world. None of Labour’s four foreign secretaries felt able to think outside the deployment of the traditional foreign policy tool-box and create a new non-departmental body to promote democracy development.

In the 1970s, as the Iberian peninsula and Greece nervously left behind an authoritarian past, the well-financed German political foundations were active in Spain supporting the fledgling conservative and socialist parties and trade unions. These foundations were also active in making sure that the hopes of a communist take-over, so feared by Henry Kissinger, did not come to pass. In the 1980s they, together with smaller outfits in theNordic countries and the US National Endowment for Democracy, were present in South America, South Africa and South Korea as those regions of the world moved towards democracy.

A British Foundation for Democracy Development could perform a similar 21st century role in key countries trying to find a peaceful evolution from authoritarian rule, corrupt bureaucratised economics, and weak civil society institutions. DFID had no policy to support democracy development in Tunisia, Morocco or Egypt, and British trade bureaucrats had not listed Tunisia as a priority country. But the southern Mediterranean is now our neighbour. A lack offreedom, instability and economic development promotes mass emigration. With economic migrants and asylum-seekers reaching Europe and already causing tension as they flow through borderless Schengenland - with some arriving in Britain - the additional fear of a rise of a new cohort inspired by the radical politics of militant Islamism has to be taken seriously. A young generation in the Arab world without hope of democracy or work will turn in despair to flight or fight.

In itself, a British Foundation for Democracy Development does not solve these problems. But it could begin to make a contribution, and make democracy development - as well as the humanitarian and charity aid that DFID does so well - a new element of British international policy. It needs an endowment of around 150 million dollars, which could easily be found by, for example, slightly reducing themore than 1.6 billion dollars that DFID is proposing to give to India, despite the country having more billionaires and millionaires than Britain, as well as its own lavish aid programme and large military and nuclear missile budget. Other government departments spend farmore on overseas work than is realised and appeals can be made to major private sector firms which operate internationally and which would benefit from market-opening promotion and political contacts.

In a perfect world, there should be a European Foundation for Democacy Development, as there is a well-founded fear that the arrival of the British bearing gifts and advice is just latter-day colonialism disguised with pretty words. However, Baroness Ashton, the new foreign affairs supremo, has enough on her hands at the moment and it is doubtful if the will or budget lines are available in Europe to set up a major democracy promotion initiative. With an all-party board strengthened by independent and business figures, and the involvement of competing political, business and NGO organisations, a British Foundation for Democracy Development can be seen as independent of government and not beholden to any one of its stakeholders.

It would also develop a greater knowledge amongst those on its staff or those sent abroad on projects and missions about real-time politics. It would have three tasks: firstly, to promote independent businesses and open trade economics; secondly, to build party political contacts between Britain and overseas political groups; and thirdly, to sustain civil society institutions like independent legal systems, free journalism, democratic union, and women’s groups.

It would be a legacy for the present coalition government to bequeath to its successors.Most importantly, it would widen the idea of development so that it included democracy development. The best way to wage a war on want is to create functioning democracies. Can Britain show a lead?