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Tom Tugendhat: “The price of inaction can be more than action”

The Conservative MP and former soldier, whose moving speech on the tragedy in Afghanistan brought applause from the Commons, writes for The New European, and warns of an impending human calamity .. and China's role in a new global attitude to intervention.

British troops and service personal gather for a Remembrance Sunday service at Kandahar Airfield, November 2014
British troops and service personal gather for a Remembrance Sunday service at Kandahar Airfield, November 2014. Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Kabul airport once had the tightest security in the world. Soldiers from Belgium stood at entry points with search equipment to ensure nothing, or no one, got in. Earlier this week, we saw that airstrip overrun, and people grabbing onto passing aircraft hoping for salvation.

They knew the risks. Their chances of success were close to zero. The likely outcome, if they succeeded, was falling to their deaths. They knew this, but the alternative was possibly worse.

As I write, Taliban death squads are going through the streets of Kabul looking for anyone who worked with the Coalition. Anyone who taught girls. Anyone who acted to reject their violent expression of Islamic fundamentalism.

In the space of a few days, the situation in Afghanistan has become a humanitarian catastrophe. It is the immediate consequence of our decision to rapidly pull out troops in a way that was not only destabilising but also intensely demoralising for Afghan forces.

In 2016, I began writing a paper on the price of inaction in the face of mass atrocities with the late Jo Cox. Five years later, set against the sight of desperate Afghans clinging on to US planes fleeing Kabul, her words stand just as true.

“Every decade or so, the world is tested by a crisis so grave that it breaks the mould: one so horrific and inhumane that the response of politicians to it becomes emblematic of their generation — their moral leadership or cowardice, their resolution or incompetence. It is how history judges us.”

Our betrayal of Afghanistan is a failure of this test. Millions will suffer because of our refusal to uphold our commitments to protect civilians.
I fear that some will use this failure to make the case for anti-interventionism. Some will conclude that the costs of intervention are too high. They will point to the collapse of the past two decades of engagement in Afghanistan as proof that the UK has little to gain from engaging militarily with states that are committing some of the most egregious human rights abuses and violence.

This will not just happen in Britain. Riven by the pandemic, countries everywhere are turning inwards and shying away from active foreign policy. 
We risk compounding our failures in Afghanistan into the failure of liberal democracy.

It is true that a nation’s foreign policy has one core goal: to secure the interests of its people. But this is being conflated with today’s narrow domestic priorities, neglecting the long arc of the role of foreign policy in protecting the values of freedom and openness that our societies are built on.

Britain deploys its resources to shape the world as we wish to see it. Britain’s aid budget is a highly effective form of intervention. Our spending, such as supporting girls’ education in Ethiopia, donating vaccines to Kenya or underwriting climate finance to vulnerable South Pacific islands is clearly a force for good.

But sometimes this is not enough. We cannot shy away from the fact that if you want to prevent mass atrocities, military intervention is an unavoidable last resort. The NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999, the British intervention in Sierra Leone in 2000 are two examples of successful, swift decision-making that saved tens of thousands of lives.

I spent four years in Afghanistan and one in Iraq. I saw first-hand that we got many things wrong. But Iraq and Afghanistan cannot dominate the debate alone. Our failure to prevent the genocides in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Syria tells the other side of the story: the price of inaction can be higher than action. Hundreds of thousands of people were slaughtered as the international community fatally delayed decisions over intervention.

In 2005, all UN member states signed a commitment – the Responsibility to Protect – which enshrined a duty to protect people from “genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing”. Intervention in the case of moral atrocities is a first-order ethical imperative.

But this principle was also intended as a foundation stone for credible deterrence: a way to set ethical norms about basic human rights that would not require military force to uphold.

We should be clear: the global consensus on this basic moral principle is under threat. 

The rise of China as an authoritarian power player threatens to unravel the norm of atrocity prevention. At the UN, there is a faction, led by China, that wants to make the principle of state sovereignty and non-interference sacrosanct. They seek to deny others the right to intervene in moral atrocities committed by states against their own people. 

Through a mixture of persuasion and coercion, this faction is gaining momentum. Authoritarian regimes are all too willing to support a free pass to repress their citizens. And by exploiting imbalance in its bilateral relationships, Beijing is exerting influence over countries that
would otherwise speak out. Ukrainian diplomats have admitted that they removed Taiwan’s name from a UN statement condemning human rights abuses in Xinjiang after Chinese diplomats threatened to withhold access to Covid-19 vaccines.

This is the environment in which other states are looking on and questioning the West’s willingness to act. Emboldened authoritarian regimes are looking to undermine the status quo. We are beginning to see the beginning of the destabilisation wrought by climate change. The world is entering into a period where universal human rights will be under sustained threat.
If the West begins to shy away from its moral responsibilities, dictators will be waiting to step in and assert authoritarian norms on the global stage. We will all be poorer for it.

Now, more than ever, we need to take a long view. We have a choice – to act in the name of liberal values or not. Intervention in the case of moral atrocities is not only an ethical imperative but a source of credible deterrence that asserts democratic norms.

Our rivals are watching and our allies are questioning. The scenes from Kabul airport are what failure to act looks like. We cannot afford to fail again.

  • Tom Tugendhat is Conservative MP for Tonbridge and Malling

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