Local to Global: Facing the Threats of Tomorrow

Labour should not count its chickens before any general election and especially one that will take place in highly dangerous international conditions where various vultures are preying on weaker states and making the UK vulnerable. 

Jeremy Cliffe rightly says we face “…a febrile and multipolar world in which the US remains pre-eminent and in which all actors are testing the forms and bounds of the shifting geopolitical geometry.” 

We cannot imitate ostriches by deluding ourselves that we can just focus on domestic imperatives. They are profoundly shaped by the impact of external events on our spending, supplies, and stability. To paraphrase Trotsky, you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.

Putin has launched a war of conquest based on lies and delusions. Putin’s tropes, some of which were initially swallowed by Labour’s hard left, are described as “a haphazard and dangerous pile of accessory grievances” by Mary Elise Sarotte, author of “Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate.”

Any Russian victory over Ukraine will subordinate a people who voted to escape the Soviet orbit in 1991 and want to align with the West. Other former parts of the USSR could be next as Russia rebuilds its army in a few years. European defence spending would have to increase even more and for decades to come as a more credible deterrent.

However, Russia’s “despotic militarism” of aggression abroad and repression at home, and what Rafael Behr calls “a glorified petrol station” run by an indicted war criminal, pale compared to the power of China, which seems ruthlessly determined to dominate global politics. 

Bluntly, China is a genocidal, totalitarian, and aggressive state. It’s also the second biggest economy on which we have become highly reliant. It has hoovered up rare metals on which renewable energy relies and Taiwan’s semiconductor industry represents a tasty morsel. Its advanced cyberwarfare capacity could cripple vital utilities and hold us to ransom. Remember, many people are only a week’s wages or a few meals away from penury and panic.  

German foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock stresses that "A military escalation in the Taiwan Strait, through which 50 percent of world trade flows every day, would be a horror scenario for the entire world." This rebuked President Macron’s view that Europe shouldn’t get caught up in crises that are not ours.

If China swoops on Taiwan, UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly estimates a hit to global trade of $2.6tn. The Observer details severe shortages in crucial goods and parts in the UK from any sanctions against China. The £32bn trade with China could crash and endanger up to 130,000 jobs plus the loss to universities of 60,000 Chinese students and huge revenues for cash-strapped higher education. 

For realist reasons, the West generally sees China as a threat and a partner at the same time. The German SPD rightly argues that global crises such as climate change, food supplies, and health security are too complex to be solved by democratic states on their own. 

We have to live with devils and sup with a long spoon while reducing our dependence on China. With China where necessary and without where possible, perhaps.

We cannot know for how long. Autocracies brutally bulldoze through strategic decisions compared to dilatory democracies. The perennial problem with one man rule is in revering his health and judgement rather than reason. Dictatorships can collapse any time though the consequences of unmanaged change are incalculable.

Labour can now proceed without the albatross of hard left simplicities but boosting our foreign policy expertise and interest is the best antidote to transcending intellectual stalemate encapsulated in WB Yeats’ classic observation that sometimes “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”

We need to be more confidently convinced of our foreign policy course based on our values and interests and, therefore, be more convincing to friends and enemies alike. Labour cannot, to paraphrase Trotsky again, issue a few social democratic declarations to the world and hope for the best. 

We should mine our history for lessons. Just two for now. Labour undertook a Zeitenwende or turning point in the 1930s when we dumped pacifist leader George Lansbury who advocated appeasement and opposed rearmament. Clement Attlee was then able to take the party into the coalition that helped defeat the Nazis before laying the basis of post-war security – the NHS and Nato.

In 1997 Foreign Secretary Robin Cook is often said to have advocated an ethical foreign policy. But he actually suggested a foreign policy with an ethical dimension. The distinction is crucial to eliminating false dichotomies when we must box clever and combine cunning with progressive values: hawkishness where necessary and humanitarianism where possible, perhaps. 

Our social democratic comfort zone is in building international development superpower, advancing women’s rights, and expanding the rule of law and democracy. But we also have an eagle-eyed duty to protect ourselves and others, where possible, from predators.

Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy rightly argues we need to rebuild bridges through a new EU-UK Security Pact, bizarrely refused by Boris Johnson. It would embrace collaboration on Ukraine, counter-terrorism, climate crisis, energy security, and the challenges of Artificial Intelligence and Biotech.

It's not given that our core alliance will actively include America if a republican populist wins the election. Even if Joe Biden retains the Presidency, America will, as an Asian power, “burden shift” defence spending to the Indo-Pacific. Europe will have to step up to the plate. A Labour Government could be a decent, decisive, and imaginative actor in a world where the drumbeat of war is perilously loud.

This is the fifth 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, Britain in a Multipolar World: Embracing Foreign Policy.