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  1. The New Tragic Age
7 May 2023updated 10 May 2023 5:30pm

Britain must be pragmatic, but we can still pursue our vision of a better world

We should not abandon idealism nor our faltering international institutions, but new alliances are also needed.

By David Lammy

If, as Robert D Kaplan argues in “The New Age of Tragedy”, the fate of the Weimar Republic defines the “ultimate doom” what lessons might we now draw? The first is perhaps that, in contrast to John Gray’s points, the accession of Hitler out of the ashes of the First World War was born of an excess of realism rather than idealism. The US president Woodrow Wilson argued in his “14 points” speech of January 1918 that the end of the war should bring a “just and secure peace” rather than simply a “new balance of power”. But instead the Treaty of Versailles prioritised punishing Germany at the expense of building a more stable international order, and in doing so laid the seeds of the next war. Congress refused to ratify Versailles and the US did not join Wilson’s own brainchild, the League of Nations, setting the country on an isolationist path and pre-empting the League’s chances of success.

In the depths of war in 1941, Churchill and Roosevelt signed the Atlantic Charter, which made a different judgement – that a “better future for the world” depended on the upholding of common principles, including territorial integrity, free trade and common access to raw materials. That agreement set the pathway not only for the creation of the UN, Nato, the IMF, the World Bank and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (the precursor to the World Trade Organisation), but also the so-called golden age of capitalism, which stretched from 1945 to 1973. And it reset the US on a path of international engagement.

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine demonstrates, we have not fully realised the visions of Wilson, Churchill or Roosevelt for a more just and effective global governance. But I do not believe that means we should give up on idealism altogether, and declare that international relations can be no more than a Hobbesian struggle of all against all, in which we seek to mitigate an endless cascade of disasters.

Britain must be pragmatic in the pursuit of our vision of the more ordered, fair and peaceful world we want to build. This requires maintaining a faith in international diplomacy as the pre-eminent lifeline in a world that risks slipping into chaos. This is because, first, the core challenges we face – the climate crisis, global health, resource scarcity, the negative by-products of technological advance – are international. If we pull down the shutters and seek to manage their impacts on national borders, we will have failed before we begin.

Second, the charges laid at the doors of Western powers by the Global South is that we have done too little to address these issues. This matters for reasons of realpolitik. In Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, Russia and China have increased their influence over the past decade at Western expense because they have more directly addressed regional economic and political problems such as a lack of financing for infrastructure development, and by using vaccine diplomacy during the Covid pandemic.

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There are opportunities to be grasped but we have to be willing to seize them. For Britain and its closest allies in the United States and Europe, navigating an increasingly dangerous and divided world of geopolitical competition and weaponised interdependence does not mean reverting to a blind faith in the international institutions that are indeed faltering. But nor does it mean falling victim to a fatalistic belief that their usefulness has passed.

Instead, it requires revitalising our diplomacy and recognising that our old alliances and international institutions remain desirable, but often not sufficient by themselves. New international groupings are, and should continue to, emerge. Britain cannot hope to tackle the world’s problems by going it alone. Instead, issue by issue, we can and must built the new coalitions that serve our interests and bring together those willing to take a common approach to shared challenges.

The West’s response to war in Ukraine has shown that not all of our multilateral institutions are crumbling. Quite the opposite. No one would have predicted the strength and resilience of Ukraine’s defence against Putin’s tanks, planes and missiles, just as no one expected the unity and potency of Nato and its members in their support. The greatest test for that alliance has not yet happened: our job as British politicians is to ensure it continues to stand behind Ukraine with military and economic support over this next year of waning attention and national elections. We must prove Putin’s assertions that his stamina will outlast ours to be false by standing with Ukraine until it prevails.

There is more the UK can do to build its resilience against 21st-century threats. That is why the Labour Party has put a new UK-EU security pact at the heart of our foreign policy. This will complement Labour’s unshakeable commitment to Nato, and seek new cooperation across foreign policy through regular EU-UK summits and structured dialogue to tackle Europe’s shared threats in areas such as cyber, energy security and organised crime. At the same time, we must maintain the commitment to Aukus, a dynamic new component of Britain’s security in a newly multipolar world, and an archetype of the smaller, smarter alliances we need to build as larger international groupings become log-jammed.

Helen Thompson is correct to highlight the significance of resource competition and energy scarcity in our geopolitics. Unlike the current Conservative government, our response will not be to complain about the Biden administration’s response through the Inflation Reduction Act. Domestically, we have committed to our own £28bn-per-year version of the inflation reduction act, Labour’s Green Prosperity Plan, and a supply chain taskforce to urgently secure Britain’s access to the critical materials we need. Internationally, we have proposed a new Clean Power Alliance of developed and developing nations committed to 100 per cent clean power by 2030. This will allow us to compete and protect ourselves from the fossil-fuel alliance of Opec.

Political leadership on the global stage requires a sober assessment of the risks we face, combined with an optimistic vision of how we avoid them and seize the opportunities that run alongside them. Labour’s foreign policy approach will avoid the hubris of successive Conservative governments that have argued, and behaved as though, Britain can act alone in the world. Our vision is more realistic, and because of that, it offers more reason for optimism. We will reconnect Britain, using the historic international institutions set up after the two bloody world wars of the 20th century where we can – and building new diplomatic groupings that can exercise a modern, smart power where we cannot.

Despite the great challenges the world faces, we cannot roll over and accept a new age of tragedy. Instead, we must use Britain’s incredible potential – our people, our world-leading universities, our science, our service sector, our culture, and our capacity for economic growth and the jobs of the future – to play our part in creating a new era of pragmatic hope.

David Lammy is shadow foreign secretary and the Labour MP for Tottenham

This article is a response to Robert D Kaplan, Helen Thompson and John Gray’s discussion in “The New Age of Tragedy”

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This article appears in the 10 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, What could go wrong?

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