Leader: The west needs a grand plan to pay its debt to the Arab world

A multilateral fund should be deployed to support economic development and civil society.

During his recent visit to Egypt, David Cameron declared: "I am not a naive neocon who thinks you can drop democracy out of an aeroplane
at 40,000 feet." Yet, less than a week later, the Prime Minister became the first world leader to raise the possibility of direct military intervention in Libya. Mr Cameron's belligerent tone was a hasty attempt to compensate for the government's incoherent response to events in the Middle East and North Africa. As Benjamin Disraeli once remarked, you can tell a weak government by its eagerness to resort to strong measures.

The PM's decision to reaffirm his call for a no-fly zone on the day that plans were unveiled to make 11,000 members of the armed forces redundant was further evidence of his lack of judgement. But his confused approach is a reflection of a wider question: what is the purpose of post-Blair British foreign policy? The disastrous consequences of the Iraq war have left the public and policymakers with little appetite for military intervention. Yet support for those fighting for democracy in the Arab world remains both a moral duty and an act of national self-interest. The region's post-revolution governments are unlikely to forget those who came to their aid and those who spoke merely of the need for "stability". If the west's commitment to Arab democracy is to be more than rhetorical, it should draw inspiration from the Marshall Plan, which was used to reconstruct postwar Europe. A multilateral fund should be deployed to support economic development and civil society in the region's nascent democracies. The six Arab Gulf states, currently reaping the benefits of inflated oil prices, should be encouraged to contribute.

Such an act of solidarity, as proposed by the Spanish prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, would encounter significant political opposition. A Republican-led Congress is determined to reduce America's humanitarian aid budget by 41 per cent and the $250m civilian aid budget to Egypt is earmarked for cuts of 10 per cent. In Europe, voters enduring the largest fiscal retrenchment since 1945 are understandably unsympathetic to calls for increased aid. But a grand plan for the Middle East, which would bolster the region's democrats while reducing the appeal of political extremism, is in the long-term interests of the west.

The British government should support what would be an effective and judicious use of soft power. The initial signs are not encouraging. The coalition has announced its intention to withdraw all UK funding from the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the UN agency that co-ordinated the trade union struggle against apartheid in South Africa and Stalinism in Poland, at a time when unions have been playing a leading role in the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. The General Union of Tunisian Workers was at the forefront of the revolt against Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali's government. In Egypt, where the trade unions have been state-controlled since the Nasser era, an independent confederation has been formed to fight for political freedoms and workers' rights. History teaches us that strong, intermediate institutions are an essential guarantor of democracy. The coalition should reverse its ill-timed decision to end ILO donations.

It remains unclear whether the Arab spring will result in the spread of democracy, as in eastern Europe in 1989, or whether authoritarian forces will fill the void, as happened in Europe after the uprisings of 1848. What we can say with certainty is that the west's history of supporting the region's autocrats means that it has incurred an obligation to do all that it can to work for the former possibility.

The experience of the past decade proves that neither the military adventurism of the Blair government nor the debased "realism" beloved of Foreign Office Arabists is a viable policy option. Instead, we need an approach that combines scepticism towards military intervention with an unambiguous commitment to the promotion of democracy. A grand plan for the region - and the enlightened statecraft that it would herald - would go some way to repaying the west's historic debt to the people of the Arab world.

This article first appeared in the 07 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The great property swindle