Britain in a Multipolar World: Embracing Foreign Policy

Useful idiots who supported Soviet invasions, or “fraternal assistance” in the Orwellian lingo of the day, were rightly damned as “tankies.” Progressives now back genuine assistance to Ukraine including heavy metal military kit. We are all tankies now, perhaps.Russian aggression has triggered a steep learning curve on defence and foreign policy. Neutral Finland and Sweden wish to join Nato. Poland has transferred Soviet-made jets to Ukraine.It’s also auf wiedersehen to German assumptions that trade with Russia could boost peace after Putin exposed dangerous reliance on Russian energy. How can Russia ever be trusted again?German Social Democratic Chancellor Olaf Scholz launched the “Zeitenwende” – the turning point – and announced a 100 billion Euro boost to German defence. Its intellectual infrastructure also needs to catch up; there is only one professor of military history in Germany.Wishful thinking also applied at home. The Cameron government believed that economic liberalisation and trade with China could drive its political reform. That has gone into reverse and worse.Russian links shamefully led our capital to be dubbed “Londongrad” or the “London Laundromat” as Russian oligarchs washed billions through the UK and property, much empty. Vigorously applying sanctions and eradicating kleptocracy are vital for a Labour Government.Many were slow in understanding Putin’s expansionist ambitions. The Conservative government’s integrated review in 2021 of external policy – its map of the world and the UK’s role – failed to foresee Russia’s actions while Boris Johnson opined that tanks were passé.Sparkling speeches by David Lammy and John Healey as well as articles show Labour’s forensic analysis about security.

Meantime, Jeremy Corbyn asserts that wars end in negotiated settlements and we should skip combat. It reminds me of the quip about Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky marooned on a desert island with only baked beans and no means of opening them. Lenin’s cunning and Stalin’s battering fail but Trotsky pipes up: comrades, imagine we had a tin-opener.There may be no resolution for years. Ukraine may regain its lands but maybe not Crimea and the Donbas. A vengeful Russia could wait us out before pouncing again as Ukraine lingers in a limbo that kyboshes vital external investment.Other countries in the former Soviet “prison of nations” would be next. In opposing Russia’s attack on Ukraine, Kenyan foreign minister Martin Kimani powerfully focused on “recovery from the embers of dead empires in a way that does not plunge us back into new forms of domination and oppression.” Africa’s current borders were imposed but African nations “rejected irredentism and expansionism on any basis, including racial, ethnic, religious, or cultural factors.”China could also subdue Taiwan. The UK cannot ignore this because Taiwan drives the digital world as the single largest producer of vital semiconductors, including 90% of the most advanced ones.The UK should assist the Indo-Pacific politically, diplomatically, and militarily but we cannot do everything. Countering threats to Europe must be our priority. Hilary Benn advocates “a formal foreign policy and security partnership with the EU.”The Foreign Secretary’s absurd bluster, in introducing the recent refresh of the Integrated Review, that “on every continent of the world, the United Kingdom walks taller today than it has done for many years” is only because, as David Lammy retorted, “too much of the Government’s effort is focused on undoing their mistakes.” It’s better than the last review but Labour will judge it robustly as it is developed in detail.However, these deep challenges impose economic and intellectual burdens for any incoming Labour Government and the necessary review of the refresh of the review. The first requires increased defence and diplomatic spending as well as new defence industry capacity, perhaps even tank factories.The second requires a philosophical reset. Russian victory means universal human rights count for nothing in a world where borders are forcibly altered at a whim and genocide is normalised. Former Labour Foreign Secretary David Miliband calls this the age of impunity.WH Auden’s 1952 poem, The Shield of Achilles, movingly describes such a world: “That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,/Were axioms to him, who’d never heard/Of any world where promises were kept,/Or one could weep because another wept.” Remember the grim reality of rape, torture, and execution in Bucha. Auden’s dystopia is alive and growing.Deterring war requires democracies containing autocracies beyond our electoral cycles. They win if we take our eye off the ball. Safer routes to sustaining solidarity with Ukraine and other victims are bipartisan, tripartite, and purple.The main parties should be in strategic lockstep wherever possible, especially since defence spending decisions take decades to implement. More defence capacity requires social peace at home via government,unions, and employers working together – “neo-corporatism.”Purple means embracing feminist foreign policy. Former Swedish foreign minister, Margot Wallstrom, defines this as “nothing about us, without us.” The German (Green) Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock says that “living in dignity does not entail having to hide in your house all day.” The US Institute for Peace estimates that the durability of peace accords erode by 15 years without female participation.Pax Americana was bloody in Vietnam and Latin America and leads some to be relaxed about its decline. Be careful what you wish for. The Biden Administration says it will not abandon Europe but a Republicansuccessor, especially Trump, would be unreliable. Putative Republican candidate Ron DeSantis diminishes the “territorial dispute” between Ukraine and Russia. That should drive efforts for European “rearmament,” in Paul Mason’s words.But countries representing half the world’s population have not embraced Ukraine. Most are hedging their bets, exploiting Russian weakness, don’t have a dog in this European race, or have been intimidated. Opposing Russia and China’s form of multipolarity in which they see themselves as a new global driving force does not mean accepting subordination of the Global South.A Hobbesian world obstructs social democracy, development, women’s rights, and much more. We are in a long haul struggle with Russia and China. Enduring domestic crises tempt progressives to relegate foreignand security policy. We just don’t have that luxury.


This is the fourth in a series of columns covering Labour’s foreign policy challenges. The author, Gary Kent, studied International Relations, has been a Labour member since 1976 and has worked in Parliament since 1987 where he has focused on Anglo/Irish and Anglo/Kurdish relations. He writes in a personal capacity. 

If you enjoyed this piece, check out Gary’s previous piece Struggle for Peace: The Belfast Agreement