Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser for the Conservative Party until 2008. He is now studying for a PhD at the University of Manchester, and is managing partner at The Research Department, a consultancy.
All free countries are alike. Each unfree country is unfree in its own way.
A dictatorship used to have its own special sign. The golden statue of the ruler that turns to follow the sun. The moustachioed goons. The generals in outsized hats (the bigger the hat, the nastier the secret police).
But ours is the decade of reputation management. Fanciful titles are mostly gone, everyone's a president or prime minister. Their battle fatigues discarded now, the men prefer business suits. Even the retouched Leader's visage, once high on every lamp post, now only comes out when there are elections to be rigged.
Look instead at what they do. Are investigative journalists found dead? Do businessmen opposed to the regime have their assets seized before they are thrown in prison on trumped up charges? Are punk bands thrown in jail?
Now, we've just had the launch of the Conservative Friends of Russia. There was a time when this would have been almost an underground organisation. Preparing samizdat to smuggle behind the iron curtain, helping dissidents with their claims for political asylum, showing films the regime didn't want you to see, countering their diplomats' propaganda.
So I checked their website today to see what the might be doing for Pussy Riot, or Alexei Navalny, the opposition blogger soon to be tried for illegal logging (no, that's not a typo). Nothing of course, just some boasts about their launch party, hosted by the Putin's Ambassador to the Court of St James.
Conservative "friends" groups, at their best, build up links between the party and free countries like Israel and India. But it's one thing to introduce MPs and party activists to politicians in other democracies. In an open society you can meet the people. If the government don't like whom you're seeing, there's nothing they can do to stop you. When the country's a dictatorship it's very different indeed. Those friends groups are friends of the State, not the people.
Building those relations between our party and authoritarian states dishonours the oldest political party in the world, its history intertwined with British parliamentary democracy. The party's links should be with democrats from those countries, not the people who oppress them.
It's a little different when it comes to foreign affairs. Tory foreign policy has to deal with dictatorships, especially with powerful ones like Russia and China. If we think we need security council authorisation should there have to be an overt strike to prevent Iran getting nuclear weapons, Britain needs to consider how they should be won over. Here there's a calculation to be made: there's advantage in being able to use the UN to isolate Iran, but what price would Moscow demand for its cooperation? Playing the squeaky wheel is an old Russian diplomatic tactic.
A certain kind of Conservative, the kind that felt vindicated after the Iraq war, likes to say that British foreign policy should focus on "the national interest", as though we were still in the age of Metternich. They despair when William Hague prefaces the term with "enlightened." They warn, picking up on a philosopher from what's now the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, that a scruple only counts as properly moral when it makes you do something you wouldn't have done out of your own self-interest anyway. If not, it's just cant. We need to promote our industry to get ourselves out of recession so let's sell the Gulf monarchies weapons; invest in Russia's energy industry; send undesirables back to Gaddafi's libya, and win favourable oil concessions.
But investments in Russia's energy industry have a habit of being "appropriated" by people close to the Kremlin. Or what the emirates use that military equipment for. Or even that the man sent back to be tortured ended up prominent in the post-revolutionary Libyan government. Deals with dictators don't last.
Relationships between free peoples, and the governments they elect are stronger. The contracts their businesses sign are enforced. Peace between the nations endures. Compare treaties and institutions that democracies build together: how NATO, and even readers this blog must admit, the EU, have kept the peace in Europe much more reliably than the balance of power ever did. When we despair at the UN, it's usually because of what undemocratic countries have done – like voting for Syria to head the human rights council.
A democratic world is a safer world, for countries as well as the people who live in them. This means standing by democratic allies, even when the short term diplomatic calculation suggests a temporary gain; supporting human rights and democratic movements in undemocratic countries; helping newly democratic states build up their institutions.
It's time for Conservative Friends of Democracy.