At the Conservative Party Conference, Rory Stewart opened the CMEC event with a pertinent call to acknowledge the limits of Western power. He argued, “We are a society that spends a great deal of time talking about how to change the world without actually having any idea how to go about it.” Oscillating between the grand world ideas and trivialities, Britain is in danger of neglecting the middle ground in which significant change actually takes place: politics. He urged us to understand that our ability to effect positive change abroad is specific to cultural and historical context. It is dependent on country specific knowledge and it is contingent on having legitimacy and support of people on the ground. “It is those questions about the limits of our power, the limits of our knowledge and the limits of our legitimacy, which have bedevilled us in Iraq and Afghanistan and which we were to some extent able to overcome in Bosnia and Kosovo.”
Mr Stewart continued that before entering into a discussion about the ‘Arab Spring’ we – the West, the United States, Britain and the other European and NATO powers – must first be critically self-reflective. We need, he argued, “to get out of the world view in which we’ve been fixed, where we imagine that every problem in these countries has a solution which can be provided by us. That if we’re not making progress in these countries, it’s simply because we are not devoting enough resources, money, troops, rather than acknowledging the immense difficulties of the contexts in which we are working, and rather than taking on board the fundamental lesson which is the lesson of humility.”
Speaking about Afghanistan, Mr Stewart cautioned against the dangers of dogmatism, “there is an insincerity and a dishonesty in providing a concrete answer [to the problems in Afghanistan] because it is a country that all of us have failed to predict over the last 20 years.” Using the example of the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan, he went on to offer a nuanced insight into the development of foreign policy rhetoric , “the reasons to be suspicious of drawing too clear links between Pakistan and Afghanistan is that there is a strong political motive behind people who say this, the reason people often emphasize the connection between those two countries is that they want reasons to be remain in Afghanistan. What actually has happened in the political, language is that we have invented different arguments. As the arguments that was a threat to world safety no longer became plausible we shifted to the second argument that it was a vacuum, the failed state theory and when that began to seem less convincing, we moved on to third argument which is that Pakistan argument – if Afghanistan falls, Pakistan will fall and mad mullahs will get their hands on nuclear weapons.”
Offering a critique of the British Foreign Office, Mr Stewart highlighted three key problems that have been allowed to develop: the bureaucratic structure and increasing isolation from the realities on the ground; overuse of jargon; and irrational optimism. “In Afghanistan we have one of the largest embassies in the world but it is very difficult for diplomats to get out on the ground as they have to travel with a security team.” Elaborating on the challenges of diplomatic isolation, he observed that in Afghanistan there is currently, “no person in the embassy who has ever been able to spend the night in an Afghan home.” Equally in the case of the overusing jargon, Mr Stewart noted an, “increasing insistence that there are a set of global skills or universal models,” which are replacing the need to be informed about a particular situation. These skills which tend to be more managerial may respond effectively to challenges within an embassy, but as Mr Stewart noted, “the job of the Foreign Office is not to make people happy inside the embassy, the job of the Foreign Office is to get out of the embassy and make friends.” He commended the changes wrought by Foreign Secretary William Hague in reintroducing the language school to the Civil Service and argued that we need to push ahead with altering the criteria for promotion within the Foreign Office to favour country specific knowledge and experience, over management skills, less suited to the small budgets of most British embassies.
Questioned on the title of the event, he criticised the failure of our embassies to recognise the importance of the Muslim Brotherhood as a popular political force in the Middle East, specifically within Egypt, “We can see also that the embassy was not particularly keen to introduce the Prime Minister to the Muslim Brotherhood when he went out to Egypt shortly after the collapse of Mubarak and it was some time before we were prepared to give visas or access to the Muslim Brotherhood or to any of the Salafi movements to come to England. I felt that was a pity. I mean when I saw Hizb El-Nour in the embassy in Cairo, what I was very struck by was that these were men who knew nothing about absolutely nothing about the world really outside Egypt except one of them who had cheerfully spent seven year in Saudi Arabia and thought it was paradise on earth. I think in this case there is nothing to be lost by bringing people like that to Britain. They may hate it, but they probably in that case hate Britain anyway and it’s not going to change their mind one way or another, but the other possibility is that actually they might enjoy it and it might broaden their horizons and give them a broader view or the world.” He also called for efforts to be made in improving our understanding of the relationship between the Arab Spring and Islamist political movements.
On the subject of religion as a political influence, Mr Stewart advocated the West take on board the difficult lesson that positions, on issues such as human rights, with which we may not agree, are not necessarily extremist. “The majority of my staff in Kabul by no means would support strapping bombs to themselves and blowing themselves up, but equally, unless we take on board the fact that they themselves are deeply angry about people burning Korans, they are deeply upset by protest they are deeply concerned by religious issues, by moral issues, by issues of sexuality etc. we’re missing the point. Not all Muslim societies are extremist societies, the point is that they are quite conservative societies, they are societies in which people are uncomfortable with many of the aspects of contemporary Western culture.”