Only Labour can mend the UK’s reputation on foreign policy

To paraphrase Trotsky, you may not be interested in foreign policy, but foreign policy is interested in you. National security will be an issue in the general election but thankfully Corbyn’s ambiguities have been muscled out by a tough-minded Labour approach including securonomics.

We live in an age of crisis, upheaval, insecurity, and rapid change. Like it or not, we are in a long-term conflict with Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea over democracy and justice in the future governance of geopolitics.

Their determination to dominate the world already involves war in Ukraine, the threat of war against Taiwan, hybrid operations to destabilise and divide in many places, and attacks and deaths on our streets. European intelligence agencies are warning about Russian sabotage across Europe.

If we win in July, foreign and security policy will be of greater consequence than many yet understand, but it connects to all domestic policy and the prospects of growth.

Compared to the chaos of the Corbyn years, the Labour Leadership is much better prepared for the battle to make the UK a more consequential player. David Lammy and his team have been travelling the world to win back friends and allies neglected by the Conservatives and to try to hit the ground running. Various think-tanks have been examining our approach in detail and are suggesting many useful points along the lines of the recent Chatham House report on “realistic ambition.

Labour has only ever had 16 Foreign Secretaries. The two who changed so much, after our only two landslide victories, were Ernie Bevin and Robin Cook. Bevin was a working class boy who escaped poverty, founded the TGWU, and helped build the British bomb and the crucial NATO defensive alliance. Cook was a tough cookie who put action on the environment, increased international development, and human rights into our foreign policy.

Cook was sadly saddled by a sloppy journalistic shorthand description of his mission statement as an “ethical foreign policy,” although he never used these words. The phrase lumbered us with an impossible benchmark and ignores the fact that all policies flow from our deep ethical values.

Foreign policy, however, is intrinsically more complex and contingent on events over which we have little control and sometimes little or no warning and then comes the hard slog. President Biden’s national security adviser Jack Sullivan says that diplomacy is “a thousand ‘no’s until one day you get to a ‘yes’.”

Lammy’s doctrine of progressive realism requires tough-minded honesty about the UK, the balance of power, and the state of the world and is “the pursuit of ideals without delusions about what is achievable.”

We have our work cut out just correcting many mistakes made by the Conservatives who have shredded our foreign policy reputation over the last 14 years. But we are also dealing with a completely transformed world and one that is changing profoundly by the day.

Lammy points out that in 1997, the British economy was larger than India’s and China’s combined, the increase in global temperatures from the long-term average was under half what it is today, and American dominance was so striking that some people saw the spread of the liberal democratic model as inevitable.

Today, he writes, the global order is messy and multipolar. China is a superpower with an economy five times as large as ours. Power has shifted to many more states, which means that geopolitics takes place on a much more crowded board. Wars are increasing in scale and intensity. Democracies are on the back foot. The task of saving the planet has begun in earnest as states both compete and cooperate in an energy transition on which humanity’s future depends.

Deciding the trade offs between idealism and realism is not an easy task and is best done on a case by case basis. Dealing with the
dictatorship in China sticks in the craw but we have no choice, as Rachel Reeves recently put it, to compete, challenge, and co-operate with the regime. If Trump wins, we will have to make the most of our vital relationship that is built on intelligence-sharing and burden-sharing, although it seems likely that any American President will be shifting the focus from Europe to the far east.

For our own sake, Europe and Nato have to be at the heart of our policy. We cannot rejoin the EU but a focus on the defence of our
common neighbourhood is essential and on which we have much to offer. A new security pact with Europe on issues as varied as technology, climate change, and energy can do much to end our isolation and reduce frictions over trade.

It is both realistic and progressive for Labour to do its utmost to help ensure that Ukraine is not reduced to a vassal of Russia as that will only encourage further predations.

We face so many existential questions that will determine our weight in the world. We shouldn’t bask in nostalgia but nor should we ignore how to develop and put our assets in hard and soft power as well as diplomacy and development at the service of both our own interests and wider humanity.

If we don’t win power, we cannot change anything and if we don’t protect our security like hawks, we cannot advance freedom at home and abroad. It’s time for Labour.


If you enjoyed this piece, see Gary Kent’s previous piece, ‘Ireland and NATO’.