Sounding for all the world like a bald-headed Stephen Fry, William Hague announced his team of PPS’s, like the host of QI. “The tenacious Margot James. The inimitable Keith Simpson. The unflappable Eric Ollerenshaw.” Who, we would like to know, was Alan Davies? The Foreign Secretary enthralled the Conference with one of his indefatigable tours d’horizon, culimnating in a stirring denunciation of the Labour Party and all its works.
He extolled Britain’s diplomats, lauded their role in preparing an international conference on ending impunity for rape in war and defended the important strategic role of international aid. The Conservative foreign policy agenda has become a good deal more sophisticated than it was in 2010, when, vital discussion of Europe aside, trade seemed to dominate to the exclusion of everything else. He was right to emphasise the importance of soft power: how moral authority can contribute to our influence. It’s no longer feasible to run foreign affairs like the Borgias ran the Papacy, insisting that as long as people do as we say, it doesn’t matter what we do.
But just days after the terrible attack in the Westgate mall in Nairobi, as the civil war in Syria rages on, and as the West is struggling to understand the purpose of Iran’s new diplomatic initiative, it was possible, on that unseasonably sunny Manchester day, to detect a whiff of complacency.Though Al-Qaeda lacks the centralised quarter-mastering at which Osama bin Laden excelled, the organisation still lurks in “ungoverned
spaces” where Western governments are unwilling to spend money and soldiers’ lives establishing political authority.
It takes a special kind of wishful thinking to believe that Vladimir Putin’s plan to disarm Syria will work. Even if it does, it’s unlikely to change much on the ground. The West has given Assad a clear signal: kill your people all you want, but limit yourself to bombs, guns and attack helicopters. The civil war will go on, and as it does, the moderate centre will disappear. Only last week, some of the more effective but also more Islamist rebel groups separated themselves from their Western-backed allies, as in the Spanish Civil War, where centrists fighting to preserve the Republic sidelined, and were finally killed by Stalinists.
Now it may just be that Iran is serious about abandoning its military nuclear ambitions, that the sanctions are biting hard and threatening the stability of the regime. But perhaps Tehran may have adapted Woodrow Wilson’s lesson and concluded that if you want to chop yourself a big stick, it’s better to speak softly while doing so. Might the Iranians be taking a gamble that if they get that far enough to put together enough uranium for a bomb, it will be too late for the international community to contemplate war before one can be constructed?
It’s still not clear, and it won’t be for some time, whether Iran genuinely intends to give up its military programme: shouldn’t there be contingency plans in place for swift military action in case it doesn’t?
And what effect will a conference outlawing rape in war and promising to prosecute its perpetrators have that previous conferences have not? That rape had been outlawed by the Geneva Convention didn’t stop the Red Army in Berlin.
It’s not enough to declare that Al-Qaeda is on the back foot, it must be subject to continuous pressure to ensure it stays that way. Negotiations with Iran may bear fruit, but even people less sceptical than me should have an alternative in place. The international conference may shame countries that fail to properly punish the rapes their soldiers commit -— don’t expect it to discipline militias fighting for warlords in failed states.
Conservatives enjoy castigating their opponents as soft-minded peddlers of unrealistic ideals, at odds with human nature. We know that human nature tends to get in the way of the best-intentioned schemes. That the Government has agreed to host next year’s conference of the most effective international organisation — NATO — suggests it still retains that solid Tory instinct.