Leader: This should not be the start of a new age of British isolationism

In refusing to grant a majority for early military action, MPs were rejecting not interventionism per se but a particular – and unwise – intervention.

After an era of interventionism, stretching from the bombing of Iraq in 1998 to the Libya mission in 2011, the vote in parliament on 29 August against military action in Syria is being portrayed by some as the birth of a new age of isolationism. The morning after the government’s defeat, an anguished Paddy Ashdown wrote: “We are a hugely diminished country this AM. MPs cheered last night. Assad, Putin this morning. Farage too as we plunge towards isolationism.” For him and others, “All is changed, changed utterly.”
 
Beyond the parliamentary theatrics, however, it is doubtful whether the vote will prove the defining moment that some suggest. The narrow defeat of the government by 13 votes was more by accident than by design. Labour, which did not oppose military action in its amendment, failed to anticipate the result or David Cameron’s abrupt decision to rule out intervention. Of the 577 MPs who took part in one or both votes, 492 supported the potential use of force. Yet, for largely political reasons, it is in the interests of both Mr Cameron and Ed Miliband to avoid a second vote and the party divisions that would result.
 
In refusing to grant a majority for early military action, MPs were rejecting not interventionism per se but a particular – and unwise – intervention. It is just two years since parliament voted by a majority of 544 to support military action, in that case against Libya, with just 13 dissenting voices. In similar circumstances, it would undoubtedly be prepared to do so again.
 
That Mr Cameron lost the vote was a result not of his failure to assert the moral case for intervention against the Syrian regime, but his failure to address adequately the practical and strategic concerns expressed by MPs of all parties. It was never explained how limited missile strikes would prevent the further use of chemical weapons or other arms against civilians by Bashar al-Assad’s administration or his opponents, nor was it made clear how Britain would avoid being drawn into a wider and more dangerous regional conflagration.
 
If devoid of the significance that some have attributed to it, the Syria vote provides a moment to reflect on the purpose of British foreign policy. Dean Acheson’s gibe in 1962 – “Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role” – continues to resonate. Having gone to war so often in the past 15 years, we feel a sense of impotence when we do not. This is exacerbated by an increasingly powerful isolationist tendency, most visible in the form of the UK Independence Party, which combines an aversion to foreign entanglements with hostility to the European Union, open borders and overseas aid.
 
Yet between the poles of intervention and inaction, there is still much good that the UK can do. It should work with others at the G20 in St Petersburg to address the shortfall in humanitarian support for Syrian civilians, four million of whom have been displaced internally, and the two million who have fled the country. The Syria Regional Response Plan for refugees, which has called for funding of $3bn, remains 60 per cent short of this total.
 
In addition, Britain should intensify efforts to reach a political settlement, including greater engagement with the newly moderate Iranian leadership, as advocated by the shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, and some Conservative MPs.
 
Policymakers must reject the false choice between a neoconservative adventurism that disregards the limits of military force and a parochial isolationism that seeks refuge in the pursuit of narrow national interests. The priority remains to craft a multilateral approach that combines a commitment to ethical principles with an awareness of the gulf between the desirable and the possible. If the Syria vote encourages greater reflection on this task, then it could yet prove a significant moment in the search for a consistent post-imperial foreign policy.
A Stop The War campaigner holds up a placard outside Parliament on August 29, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

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Donald Trump's threats give North Korea every reason it needs to keep nuclear weapons

The US president's warning that he may “totally destroy” the country is a gift to Kim Jong-un's regime. 

Even by Donald Trump's undiplomatic standards, his speech at the UN general assembly was remarkably reckless. To gasps from his audience, Trump vowed to "totally destroy" North Korea if it persisted with its threats and branded Kim Jong-un "rocket man". In an apparent resurrection of George W Bush's "axis of evil", the US president also declared: “If the righteous many do not confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph". 

For North Korea, Trump's words merely provide further justification for its nuclear weapons programme. Though the regime is typically depicted as crazed (and in some respects it is), its nuclear project rests on rational foundations. For Kim, the lesson from the fall of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi was that tyrants pay a price for relinquishing their arms. The persistent threats from the US strengthen the regime's domestic position and reinforce a siege mentality. Though North Korea must be deterred from a pre-emptive strike, it must also be offered incentives to pursue a different path. 

As Trump's Secretary of State Rex Tillerson remarked last month: "We do not seek a regime change, we do not seek a collapse of the regime, we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula, we do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th Parallel. We are not your enemy... but you are presenting an unacceptable threat to us, and we have to respond. And we hope that at some point they will begin to understand that and we would like to sit and have a dialogue with them."

The present nadir reflects the failures of the past. In 1994, the Clinton administration persuaded North Korea to freeze its nuclear programme in return for economic and diplomatic concessions. A communique declared that neither state had "hostile intent" towards the other. But this progress was undone by the Bush administration, which branded North Korea a member of the "axis of evil" and refused to renew the communique.

The subsequent six-party talks (also including China, Russia South Korea and Japan) were similarly undermined by the US. As Korea expert Mike Chinoy records in the Washington Post in 2005, the Bush administration provocatively "designated Macau's Banco Delta Asia, where North Korea maintained dozens of accounts, as a 'suspected money-laundering concern.'" When a new agreement was reached in 2007, "Washington hard-liners demanded that Pyongyang accept inspections of its nuclear facilities so intrusive one American official described them a 'national proctologic exam'".

For North Korea, the benefits of nuclear weapons (a "treasured sword of justice" in Kim's words) continue to outweigh the costs. Even the toughened UN sanctions (which will ban one third of the country's $3bn exports) will not deter Pyongyang from this course. As Tillerson recognised, diplomacy may succeed where punishment has failed. But Trump's apocalyptic rhetoric will merely inflate North Korea's self-righteousness. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.