Omar Islam: If Scotland wants to be serious on the world stage it needs a proper foreign policy

Scottish-Egyptian student Omar Islam says it's not enough for Scotland to define its foreign policy in terms of opposition to Westminster

THE wheels of the referendum machine have begun to spin again - a result of the cards played in the immediate aftermath of the 2014 vote on Scottish independence. 

A renewed drive for independence is kicking off, and it is important that it does not become a rerun of the campaign in 2014. A notable deficit in the independence debate revolves around foreign policy. 

From the 2014 campaign to the post-Brexit reality that we find ourselves in, the foreign policy discourse of the independence campaign can largely be condensed to two core arguments: opposition to Trident and a desire to separate ourselves from the UK’s disastrous foreign policy interventions.

A notable deficit in the independence debate revolves around foreign policy. 

Following the 2016 EU referendum, this discourse has been supplemented with a rabid EU love bomb. While we can’t fault the source and intent of this, it makes for a narrow and underdeveloped policy perspective. 

With the Egyptian president visiting Donald Trump recently, now is as good a time as ever to cast a light on the West’s prevailing relationship with dictators and tyrants in the Middle East.

The war on terror is over 15 years old, and the resultant false dichotomy between terrorist and tyrant which has been so strongly pushed by Western powers has given us little to welcome. 

The real dichotomy is that of state terror and non-state terror. The region is caught between tyrants and autocrats who enforce crackdowns on civil liberties, and nihilistic Islamist insurgencies running amok. 

In Egypt alone, over 60,000 people are reportedly behind bars, with well documented reports of brutal beatings, electrocution, rape, torture and death. Despite this, post-coup Egypt has hosted the leaders of France, Italy and Germany, with Sisi due to add Washington to the list of capitals he has visited, alongside London, Berlin, Paris and Rome.

The war on terror is over 15 years old, and the resultant false dichotomy between terrorist and tyrant which has been so strongly pushed by Western powers has given us little to welcome. 

Trump’s open arm approach is not foreign policy blip, and to call it so would be a misreading of Western foreign policy in the region. Sisi and his counterparts represent a return to form, the Arab tyrant with whom the West has an established playbook of cooperation. 

In the run up to the Arab Spring and since it, the West has diplomatically, militarily and economically aligned itself with these regimes. Despite repeated statements whereby Western governments stress their support for freedom, democracy and civil liberties; security cooperation remains the bedrock that informs our foreign policy, with the fear of terror and instability trumping the fluffy rhetoric.

Since Sisi took power in the 2013 coup d’etat, Egypt has been the recipient of over £1.6bn worth of EU arms shipments. The UK’s exports have topped over £150m alone. In context, this is not so surprising: despite a brief cool in EU/Egypt relations following the brutal death of Cambridge student Giulio Regeni in 2016 (many suspect state involvement), the EU has adopted a pragmatic approach to Sisi’s regime. 

The a-typical blind eye to human rights violations has returned, with the provision of military, economic and political aid attached to anti-terror cooperation and moves to curb migration from the North African coast.

Furthermore, with the EU seeking to stem domestic opposition to the flow of refugees into Europe, Egypt (which is already playing an openly active role in the Libyan crisis) is viewed as a crucial partner in securing the EU’s Mediterranean frontier in a bid to stem increasing crossing attempts from the Libyan coast

The Scottish Government has made commendable efforts to forge a new path that does not replicate the timidity nor inhumane approach the UK Government takes when engaging with foreign policy challenges and fallouts.

So we find ourselves in a precarious and farcical position, more so considering that many of the people seeking refuge in Europe are fleeing from the horrors and failures wrought by our regional 'allies'. Tyranny, security and 'stability' trump civil liberties again.

This cooperation loses sight of the strong relationship between the despots we support and the terrorism that we view them as a bulwark against. Despots stand up and justify their hard-handed approaches, unending injustice and oppression in the name of stability and fighting terrorism. "It’s us or them," they say.

Terrorists stand up and justify their indiscriminate violence and rejection of democracy in the name of liberation and fighting despots. Again, "it’s us or them". Despots lead us to oppression, instability and then radicalisation.

Radicalisation leads us to terror, instability and ultimately, despotism. It’s a never-ending cycle, a zero-sum game for both parties, with the citizens caught in the middle. By validating our 'allies' in the region, we validate the terror they feed off.

So, what can an independent Scotland do differently? We have a healthy baseline to build on. The independence movement has already made clear the contempt and disdain in which it holds British foreign policy. Trident, the obsession with projecting military power and quixotic foreign interventions are roundly rejected, with a desire for Scotland to conduct itself in a manner appropriate to her place in the world, which would certainly make for a refreshing break from the British state’s delusions of imperial grandeur.

If Scotland is to take its place on the global stage, we need to formulate a credible foreign policy rooted in the principles that define the independence movement: social progressiveness, internationalism and respect.

To this effect, the Scottish Government has made commendable efforts to forge a new path that does not replicate the timidity nor inhumane approach the UK Government takes when engaging with foreign policy challenges and fallouts.

While the Scottish Government sets out to support a UN initiative to support capacity building for Syrian women in the Syrian peace process and welcomes asylum seekers and refugees; the UK Government has an ever growing fetish for continued arms sales, deportations and resisting increased support for refugees. This is a welcome shift from the lip service we are accustomed to from the UK Government.

To conclude, the security paradigm which forms the bedrock of Western foreign policy must evolve to recognise the threat posed by the co-dependant relationship between state terror and non-state terror. It serves to measure that we wouldn’t fund, supply or endorse radical terror groups, so why would we extend that courtesy to the governments whose very nature legitimises them and allows them to thrive?

If Scotland is to take its place on the global stage, we need to formulate a credible foreign policy rooted in the principles that define the independence movement: social progressiveness, internationalism and respect. To do this, we must look at the world beyond the EU, and even Europe. 

If we want to win the next referendum, Yes cannot rely on disillusionment with the Westminster establishment alone. We need a well thought out and credible offering; not just on the economy, but on our place in the world. The time has come for Scotland to begin to chart a new course.

Picture courtesy of First Minister of Scotland

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