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21 July 2022

Labour must fill its foreign policy vacuum

It’s not enough for Keir Starmer to assert that the UK will play a leading role in the Western alliance. The question is what role?

By Paul Mason

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February not a single Labour MP has voted or spoken against the government’s policy of sending arms to Ukraine and imposing sanctions on Vladimir Putin’s regime. Likewise, not a single major Labour-affiliated union has echoed demands from the “anti-imperialist” left to cease arms supplies to Kyiv.

For those of us who support Ukraine’s resistance, this is a remarkable achievement. But it’s not enough. As a recent report for the Henry Jackson Society, a right-wing think tank, observed, Labour “lacks a coherent foreign policy capable of standing up to and responding to upcoming crises”.

In the report Azeem Ibrahim, a professor at the US Army War College and former adviser to Joe Biden, praises Keir Starmer’s response to Ukraine but he warns that, compared with the Johnson government’s Integrated Review – a comprehensive and sophisticated document on the UK’s response to the breakdown of the rules-based global order – “Labour has no competing document or strategy of the same depth. Nor does it appear to evidence the institutional muscle to develop one.”

Instead, says Ibrahim, Labour has a set of principles derived from its respect for the international rule of law and human rights. Much of the party’s foreign policy – its response to the Afghanistan debacle, the run-up to Ukraine, China’s crackdown in Hong Kong – has been formulated on the hoof and gives neither allies nor adversaries signals of coherence at the level of sophistication required from an incoming government of a country with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

In a way, that’s not only Starmer’s problem. Since Tony Blair left office, taking with him the discredited policy of liberal interventionism, successive Labour leaders have been content to muddle through without an overarching vision. Better a set of uncontroversial principles, was the assumption, than a utopian vision of the world to be imposed by depleted uranium shells.

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Labour, however, now looks like a potential government, come the next election. In the interregnum it is likely to face Liz Truss as prime minister, a politician wont to combine bellicose rhetoric with diplomatic ignorance. And the Ukraine crisis, which looks set to escalate into a Europe-wide energy crisis, will ensure foreign policy remains front and centre for the media, even if the electorate is usually nonplussed by it. So Labour needs to simultaneously reckon with the legacy of Blairism, develop a grand strategy of equal sophistication to the Integrated Review, and take both the party membership and potential voters with it on the journey.

It should be clear why a set of humanitarian principles is not enough: the international order is falling apart. In their joint declaration on 4 February this year, Putin and Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, warned there can be no future for universalism. Universal concepts of democracy, freedom and human rights are over, they said. Henceforth these ideals will be defined by billionaire totalitarian kleptocrats in Moscow and Beijing.

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This new situation is a challenge for all those categorised as “idealists” in the sphere of international relations, who believe that the defence of our national interest is only possible through a foreign policy that reflects our values, ethics and way of life. The Ukraine crisis has been a heyday for the “realist” school of thought, which says national interest alone should guide Western actions – and that the West has no interest in the survival of Ukraine.

The Labour tradition is, and always has been, rooted in idealism. Since 1915, when Leonard Woolf, beavering away in the offices of the New Statesman, wrote the treatise International Government, Labour has seen international law, enforced by a supranational court empowered by treaty, as the bedrock of its foreign policy. As in the time of Clement Attlee, who saw the League of Nations disintegrate in the mid-1930s, Labour now needs to work out how to remain idealist in an increasingly realist world.

In essence, the pursuit of ideals such as universal human rights through foreign policy, support for opposition movements fighting for Western concepts of democracy, and determination to stick with the UN when it is paralysed by great power politics is going to get you into a lot of trouble. It could even, as EH Carr pointed out in his famous critique of interwar utopianism, become the driver of global conflict.

Labour’s single major statement on foreign policy recently has come in a speech by David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary, in Massachusetts. It contains a sophisticated analysis, not just of the international dynamics of conflict but of the social dynamics driving them: the acceleration of cultural conflict by social media; the offensive use of disinformation by Russia and China to undermine Western democracies; the impossibility of containing Putin by reason or through trade.

As to actions, Lammy pledged four: to strengthen Britain’s defences and “lead the debate about European security”; to “sprint towards decarbonisation”; to expel dirty money from London’s finance system; and to “restore soft power” – enhancing the BBC, the British Council and the aid budget.

These pledges, welcome though they are, do not constitute a foreign policy. They do not allow allies to answer questions such as: will we send troops to country X if it’s engulfed in genocidal violence; or, would a Labour foreign secretary have sent HMS Defender to cruise a few kilometres off the coast of Crimea in the summer of 2021; or, will we ditch more than a decade of reluctance to sell arms to Saudi Arabia due to the exigencies of the energy crisis?

More fundamentally, Labour has as yet no answer to the question posed in the Integrated Review: does the emergence of systemic competition – where Russia and China are obliged to attack and undermine our social system for theirs to flourish – mean the rules-based order is dead or, in Monty Python terms, “just resting”? If it is dead, with the UN permanently zombified, Taiwan doomed to imminent conquest and numerous major states – India foremost – sliding towards ethno-nationalist authoritarianism, the British people have a right to know how Labour would deal with that.

It’s not enough to assert that the UK will play a leading role in the Western alliance. The question is what role? Starmer has stated that the UK will be a “bridge” between Europe and the US: but to achieve what? What is its position on European strategic autonomy – a concept that senior German Social Democrats are coming around to as they examine the paralysis of the Biden administration

Can Britain, cast adrift from the EU and reliant on a fragile American democracy, even have a grand strategy independent of these two giants? And what if their strategies diverge? Ibrahim is right to worry that not only does Labour lack answers to these questions, it lacks the institutional firepower and the political culture to understand them. 

Since the end of the Cold War, Labour’s foreign policy could be summed up as “what the Americans are doing, only less of it, and done nicer”. That era may be drawing to a close.

Soon Labour’s response won’t be measured in words: it will be measured in how much money it will commit to reversing army cuts, what priority it will place on state investment in space, artificial intelligence and smart reindustrialisation; and whether the £28bn-a-year committed to decarbonisation constitutes a “sprint” or a canter. Under Starmer, Labour has become adept at not committing to concrete policies, let alone concrete amounts of money. But the world of international relations abhors a vacuum.

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