The eruption of democracy movements across the Middle East and North Africa is, even in its early stages, the most important development of the early 21st century, with potential long- term consequences greater than either 9/11 or the global financial crisis in 2008.
The death of Osama bin Laden this week was a devastating but not terminal blow to al-Qaida. We will continue to fight against terrorism wherever it rears its head with renewed determination, particularly in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where now is the time for the Taliban to make a decisive break from al-Qaida and engage in a political process.
But, in the long run, it is the people of the Muslim world who will inflict the greatest defeat of all on al-Qaida and its ideology.
Some wrongly thought that 9/11 was the expression of Muslim grievances; it was not. The true expression of what the people of the Muslim world want was seen in Tahrir Square, Cairo, in 2011, not at Ground Zero in 2001.
There are already three lessons we can learn from what has happened in the Middle East and North Africa.
The first is that the forces that led to the Arab Spring will sweep more widely across the globe. Demands for open government, action against corruption and greater political participation will spread by themselves over time – not because Western nations are advocating them, but because they are the natural aspirations of all people everywhere.
The second is that Governments that set their face against reform altogether – as Libya has done and Syria is beginning to do – are doomed to failure. Simply refusing to address legitimate grievances or attempting to stamp them out will fail. The idea of freedom cannot be confined behind bars, however strong the lock.
The third is that these political changes will now reveal an immense economic task. While the people of Egypt and Tunisia made a monumental effort to bring change in their countries, the economic challenges they now face will be at least as great.
There is a potentially explosive tension between people’s expectations of immediate economic benefits from their revolution and the need for these new governments to take painful measures to open their economies and offer more opportunity to their citizens.
We have to do our utmost to help the Arab world make a success of more open political systems and economies, and it is massively in our own interests to do so.
If the Arab Spring does lead to more open and democratic societies across the Arab world over a number of years, it will be the greatest advance for human rights and freedom since the end of the Cold War.
If it does not, we could see a collapse back into more authoritarian regimes, conflict and increased terrorism in North Africa on Europe’s very doorstep.
That is why we are engaged in Libya with our allies, responding to the Arab League’s calls for military action to prevent the loss of countless lives. We have gone to great lengths to ensure that we have a legal mandate from the UN and that militarily and politically we are working as one with Arab states to protect civilians and support the legitimate opposition.
In Syria, we are mustering international diplomatic action to pressure President Assad to stop the killing and repression to take the path of genuine reform. I have instructed our diplomats to begin discussions to seek United Nations condemnation of the situation in Syria.
Across the region, we urge Arab nations to address grievances through dialogue and democratic reform not violence. Long-term stability requires real steps towards representative institutions, political pluralism, a free media and economic fairness.
Each country is sovereign and has the right to develop in its own way and in accordance with its own culture and traditions. But we can also encourage positive change by being open ourselves to a dramatic new level of engagement with the countries of the Arab world. This would bring huge benefits for these countries and for our own security.
Our Government will use Britain’s weight and influence in the European Union, the United Nations, the G8 and the International Financial Institutions to call for a transformative new relationship with the countries of the Middle East and North Africa.
It is also crucial that the European Union’s response matches the epochal nature of these events.
I have never believed that the EU could or should act as if it were a nation state with a national foreign policy. Any attempt by EU institutions to do so would end in embarrassing failure. I do believe that it is very much in the nations of Europe’s interests to use their collective weight in the world to advance common goals and values and changes in the Arab World are exactly such an instance.
Europe’s reaction to the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe was far-sighted and an astonishing success. In 1990, the EU and Nato allies offered “the hand of friendship” to the new democracies of central and eastern Europe. Twenty years later, countries that laboured under communism have become free, democratic states and members of the EU and of Nato.
Our challenge now is how we mirror that achievement to the south, transforming countries whose success is closely tied to European security and prosperity but whose future will not lie within the EU.
The EU already has the tools and the resources for the task. What it has lacked is the will to use them well. We should use the EU’s economic magnetism to encourage and support real political and economic reform. That means a new partnership with the southern neighbourhood with a simple proposal at its heart: that the EU will share its prosperity and open up markets in return for real progress on political and economic reform.
This level of ambition would be in accordance with our beliefs, in line with our national interest, and support international peace and security.
We call on governments of the region to join us in this approach. We do so as a country that has many long-term and historic friendships in the Middle East and North Africa.
We value and are committed to our cooperation in security, defence, diplomacy and trade. We are working alongside Arab nations to counter terrorism, to support the people of Libya, to resolve political deadlock in Yemen and to bring stability in Afghanistan, and there is potential for even greater co-operation in the years ahead.
But to those who think there is another road – one of repression, tightening security, and a hardening grip on citizens – we offer a word of caution.
No government on earth can resist demands for democratic change forever, if their people want it and demand it.
Reform is not a threat to stability, it is the guarantor of it over the long term.
William hague is the Foreign secretary. This is an edited extract from the speech that the Richmond MP delivered to the Lord Mayor’s Banquet in London this week.