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Corbyn might want “a world of peace” but hermit security is not an option for the UK

Approaching every conflict with fixed, preconceived notions doesn't just reduce the complexity of foreign policy to student slogans - it's dangerous, too.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal after the Commons had voted in support of air strikes against Isis in Syria, George Osborne described how the “controversy over US and British engagement in the Iraq War, compounded by the trauma of the Great Recession, caused my political generation, in both countries, to look inward”. In early September, when I spent a day with the Chancellor in the north of England, he spoke at length about how this new inwardness – in effect, a new isolationism – had affected British prestige and influence. Dismissing the suggestion that he was a neoconservative, the Chancellor – who at least has a coherent world-view, unlike the Prime Minister – described himself as a liberal interventionist: “My generation has got to win an argument, because of what happened in 2003, again, that Britain is a force for good in the world and we shouldn’t be embarrassed to say so. And we shouldn’t be embarrassed to assert our values . . . of openness, tolerance, freedom, democracy, which I think are universal values.”

We discussed the failures of the Iraq War and its long, disastrous aftermath. Osborne said that he had learned from and been changed by the experience. “I think we ­always know the price of military action,” he told me. “What’s more difficult to judge sometimes is the price of the absence of war, to borrow a David Hare phrase.”

If Osborne is both a foreign policy realist (doing trade deals with China while turning a blind eye to its human rights abuses and authoritarian excesses) and an idealist (asserting British values and morality), Jeremy Corbyn is a utopian. He never speaks about the national interest and, because his politics were forged in the fires of the upheavals of the late 1960s and the anti-Vietnam War protests, his instinct is to denounce “Western imperialism”. As he told Stop the War’s Christmas fundraising dinner, “I’m not interested in bombs. I want a world of peace.”

No one sane wants a world of war but sometimes nation states must fight for peace. It’s not something that arrives gift-wrapped. To approach every conflict with fixed, preconceived positions is to reduce the complexity of statecraft to a student slogan as well as to show little feeling for what Max Weber described as “the tragic sense of life, the awareness of unresolvable discord, contradictions and conflict which are inherent in the nature of things and which human reason is powerless to solve”.

Because Corbyn is an isolationist (he is deeply Eurosceptic, opposed to Nato and the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent, which he considers “immoral”), foreign policy was always destined to split the Labour Party under his leadership.

Yet Corbyn is correct to assert and defend his positions – he won an astounding mandate in September and knows he has the support of most of the members and activists. But he must do more than speak to the converted. What the Labour leader needs most pressingly is to understand better the country of which he aspires to become prime minister. Perhaps he doesn’t want to – after all, he has spent his entire career surrounded by people just like him – but he needs to make the effort all the same if he is ever to be taken seriously by world leaders.

Some on the left may wish it otherwise but Britain remains a great power and, indeed, a force for good when world order seems to be crumbling. As a P5 nation – a permanent member of the UN Security Council – and a prominent member of Nato, Britain cannot simply ignore its responsibilities. Staying on the sidelines and hoping for a “political solution” to a catastrophe such as the Syrian War without being prepared actively to achieve it is not an option – not when Europe is destabilised by the worst refugee crisis since the end of the Second World War and the virus of violent jihadism is mutating.

Here’s a suggestion. Corbyn and his peacenik advisers would do well over the Christmas holiday to study John Bew’s new book, Realpolitik: a History. A New Statesman contributing writer and academic in the war studies department at King’s College London, Bew is among the brightest of the new generation of British historians.

In Realpolitik he quotes the “realist” Hans Morgenthau’s observation that no nation can “escape into a realm where action is guided by moral principles rather than by considerations of power”. But a realist foreign policy pursued without regard to morality has severe limitations. And one driven by the will to power and self-interest alone can be ruinous, as the experience of Germany in the 20th century demonstrated.

Yet idealism can be fraught with danger, too – just ask Tony Blair, who argued for “a more subtle blend of mutual self-interest and moral purpose in defending the values we cherish”. The result: the Iraq War.

In the age of Isis, we must accept that there is, as Barack Obama put it in a 2007 interview with David Brooks of the New York Times (drawing on his reading of the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr), “serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain” and that “we should be humble and modest in our belief that we can eliminate those things”. But humility in and of itself is not enough. Political leaders should be humble and modest, yes, but also pragmatic and prepared to intervene if the logic of the situation demands it. Power must be balanced by power.

Nor should foreign policy problems be approached with a pre-prepared script (Corbyn and Ed Miliband) or, as Bew writes, “with unshakeable faith in one’s methods” (Blair and Cameron). The Syrian War – with its hundreds of thousands dead and millions of refugees, and still without a sense of an end after more than four years – has taught us this, if nothing else. We can’t simply turn away from what’s happening and wish it wasn’t so. A condition of hermit security isn’t possible in such an inter­connected world. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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