“It’s very easy to provoke an outburst of empathy,” said Rory Stewart. “The problem is sustaining it.”
It is evening in Amman, Jordan, from where Stewart spoke to me over video. We had initially planned to discuss his new report, “The Afghan refugee crisis: How to resurrect the global refugee resettlement coalition”, released last month by the Atlantic Council, a think tank based in Washington DC. But between my interview request and our call, Russia invaded Ukraine, and so Stewart, a former UK international development minister, agreed to talk about Ukraine too.
He is well-placed to comment on military intervention, having served as the deputy governor of two Iraqi provinces for the international coalition following the war in Iraq in 2003. He also set up a charitable foundation in Kabul, Afghanistan, serving as its chief executive from 2005 to 2008.
“I certainly think the response on Ukraine has been stronger than on Afghanistan,” he said, sitting in front of a wall of books. He added that the response so far had been stronger than the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, expected. “And it’s impressive to see the way that the United States, United Kingdom [and] Europe have come together, and the speed with which they’ve been willing to speak up.”
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Still, he added, there’s “a long way to go”. Stewart believes that the strength of the world’s response rests on whether countries are willing to impose oil and gas sanctions. “It will have huge economic consequences for the European economies and, through the European economies, for the global economy,” he said. “But it must be done, because unless we do that, Putin is not actually going to feel much pain from this.”
Was it fair, then, to say that he believed those sanctions should be imposed sooner rather than later? “Immediately,” he replied.
I asked Stewart whether he thought that the world’s response was stronger in the case of Ukraine than of Afghanistan because of racism and colonialism – there are media personalities expressing ahistorical shock that war is happening in Europe, and noting how comparatively civilised Ukrainians are. I didn’t mean to suggest that the world shouldn’t respond with strength and solidarity for Ukraine, I hastened to add, but were Ukrainians being offered what Afghans were not, in part because of outdated ideas about who is worthy of support?
“Possibly,” he allowed. “And we often worry about this.” As an example, he pointed to the 1990s and early 2000s, where some worried that the reaction to war crimes in Bosnia and Kosovo was stronger than the reaction to war crimes in Rwanda.
Still, he said, the horror expressed last August as Afghanistan fell to the Taliban was intense. Stewart, who spent much of his professional life in Afghanistan (including, famously, when he walked across it), was an outspoken critic of the withdrawal, which he described to me as a betrayal. As the humanitarian crisis last summer began to unfold, he made videos on Afghanistan asking people to show sympathy and support for Afghans. In the beginning, he would get two million views, he said. Three weeks later, that number was closer to 40,000. The challenge, in his opinion, was not in getting the world’s attention, but in keeping it.
The Russian war in Ukraine – as with the US war in and withdrawal from Afghanistan – will result in a broader humanitarian conflict. It already has: according to the UN, more than 600,000 people have already left Ukraine since Russia attacked less than a week ago. What, I asked, did he make of other countries’ response towards Ukrainian refugees?
“At the moment,” he said, “we’re still lacking real leadership, and [a] real international refugee coalition. It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about Afghanistan or Ukraine.”
Stewart, who throughout our interview was at once smiling and solemn, views this as an opportunity. “Putin has given an extraordinary opportunity to democracies, to show why democracy matters, why our values matter. This invasion of Ukraine could be an opportunity really, after nearly 20 years of decline in the confidence and legitimacy of democratic states to rebuild [that confidence].
“One way to rebuild it is to be generous towards refugees.”
Stewart’s proposal is this: a coalition led by the US, Canada, the UK and the European Union would commit to take a “predictable, sustainable” number of refugees each year. Stewart proposed to set that number at 0.05 per cent of each country’s population each year.
“Now if we can put this in place, this could be a real example of the sort of idealism that’s really been lacking in international refugee policy since the late 1970s, early 1980s.”
Why, I asked, did he think that the world hasn’t taken an ambitious approach to refugee policy since then?
“It’s isolationism, it’s extraordinary isolationism,” he answered. Today, in the US, even progressive Democrats hesitate to sign up to refugee targets. “And that tells you a great deal about what’s happened to American domestic political culture.” But launching this kind of global refugee coalition, Stewart said, could be an opportunity for the US president, Joe Biden, to step up and encourage other countries to follow his example.
“What has happened is that the democratic West has been revealed as the sleeping giant, not Russia,” Stewart concluded. It is hard to find Americans in government who will paint themselves as enthusiastic champions for refugees. But this, he said, “is an opportunity for the United States in particular to show moral leadership. To take this moment when everybody is focused on Ukraine and say, ‘OK, we’re going to do this properly. And we’re going to make President Biden’s legacy the creation of a global refugee coalition.’”