Sir Malcolm Rifkind “A need for the Commonwealth to lead not follow and to demonstrate by its own behaviour .... that a free and democratic world is the best prospect for mankind as a whole.” [photo: Victoria Schofield]

“Very sadly, the world as a whole, and his neighbours in particular, have found they cannot trust President Putin which will make the resolution of the current crisis [in Ukraine] very much more difficult,” said the former British Foreign Secretary, Sir Malcolm Rifkind QC.

Sir Malcolm was delivering the annual Gladwyn Lecture at the Palace of Westminster in London on 14 March under the auspices of the Council for Education in the Commonwealth. The event coincided with Commonwealth Day.

The veteran Conservative, who was also a member of the Commonwealth’s Eminent Persons’ Panel, addressed two distinct but complementary themes, viz. the manner in which the British Empire evolved into the Commonwealth, a free association of 54 states, and how the Russian Government over the last 30 years, but especially under Vladimir Putin, has determined its relationship with the 14 new states which had, together with Russia, once formed the Soviet Union, the name adopted for the Russian Empire after 1917.

Yet another topical issue that Sir Malcolm addressed was “a major new challenge facing the Commonwealth, and the wider world, with particular reference to education, human rights and personal liberty,” namely the threats posed by a rising and muscular China.

Noting that Putin’s open aggression has not been limited to Ukraine, Sir Malcolm said: “Because of Russian military invasion Georgia has lost the two provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia which the Kremlin describes as independent states like Donetsk and Luhansk. Part of Moldova, in Transdniestra, has Russian troops which keep it locked in a frozen conflict. Until this year the worst example was the annexation of Crimea regardless of the will of its inhabitants and in breach of solemn international undertakings by Russia to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity.”

It was Sir Malcolm’s view that “Russia, under Putin, had an alternative strategy it could have followed as regards its new independent neighbours. It could have held out the hand of friendship, respected their new status and offered to help them build new institutions and create a new society.”

That, pointed out Sir Malcolm, is to a great degree what the United Kingdom did when the British Empire broke up. “Starting with India and Pakistan, each of its dependencies and colonies became independent states. The result was that the British Empire evolved into the Commonwealth of Nations.”

If such a course had been pursued, the results would have been far more attractive:

“That should have been Putin’s policy especially as regards Ukraine and Belarus, fellow Slavs although with different national aspirations.  If he had done so many Ukrainians might not have aspired to NATO membership. They would not have been frightened of Russia. Together with the new states of the Caucasus and Central Asia they might have become partners working with Russia for economic and social progress. Some, like Ukraine, might have chosen a close relationship with Western and Central Europe just as India has a close relationship with Russia or Pakistan with China.”

The contrast with the UK’s approach could not have been starker. “Britain … accepted the end of its empire in good grace, treated all its previous colonies and dependencies as friends, provided them with aid and supported their economic and social development, as we still do. The consequence has been that we have a Commonwealth of friends; so much so that 53 independent states have chosen to remain associated with the former colonial power and have welcomed the United Kingdom’s Queen as the Head of the Commonwealth, and the Prince of Wales, when he becomes King, as the next Head.”

Moving on to another of the themes of the lecture, Sir Malcolm drew attention to the “deep divide” that exists between “open, liberal and democratic countries and those that are not only authoritarian but ideological as well. The latter are, thankfully, few but as they include China they are of major significance to the world as a whole.”

Sir Malcolm gave a personal example to show how the Chinese leadership has an insufficient understanding of the principles on which truly free societies operate.

“When I was Foreign Secretary,” he said, “I met the Chinese Foreign Minister in Beijing to discuss Two Systems in One Country, for Hong Kong, which would happen in 1997. When I asked him whether the people of Hong Kong would continue to enjoy the Rule of Law after they became part of China, he told me not to worry. China believed in the Rule of Law. In China, he said, ‘the people must obey the law’.

“I informed him that when we referred to the Rule of Law it was not just the people who were under the law but the Government, and its Ministers, as well.

“That the Chinese Foreign Minister could not understand.”

Sir Malcolm referred to the “growing Chinese economic and financial stake in many Commonwealth countries as a reality which cannot be lost sight of. “This Chinese penetration,” he noted, “has been combined with the increasing use of Chinese surveillance through both software and hardware.”

Concluding his remarks, he underlined the “fundamental challenge between the free world and the dictatorships. As we meet, a massive invasion of free and democratic Ukraine is being undertaken on the orders of President Putin. His fellow dictator, Xi Jinping, has threatened an invasion of a free and democratic Taiwan.”

Against that backdrop, there was, asserted Sir Malcolm, a need for the Commonwealth to lead not follow, and to demonstrate by its own behaviour, nationally and internationally, that “a free and democratic world is the best prospect for mankind as a whole.” In doing so, he expressed his conviction that “education will be the key to [the Commonwealth’s] success.”

Venkat Iyer is the Editor of the Round Table Journal.