Leader: Britain's role in the world

Troubled Labour leader Ed Miliband is said to "not do foreign". But we must consider Britain's place in an increasingly international world.

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It is often said that Ed Miliband “does not do foreign”. Unlike Margaret Thatcher, when she was in opposition and travelled to Washington, DC, to deliver speeches, or indeed Harold Wilson in the 1960s, the troubled Labour leader has delivered no major statement on Britain’s role in the world.

Mr Miliband might not have a coherently expressed world-view, yet he and his party have acted boldly on defining world issues. In 2011, he supported the government’s intervention in Libya. That country is now a disintegrating state. Militant jihadists control swaths of the desert nation. Because of the chaos, Islamic State – whose barbarism knows no limits, as demonstrated yet again by the burning to death of First Lieutenant Muadh al-Kasasbeh, a Jordanian pilot who was being held hostage – is now also active in Libya. In recent weeks, its operatives have launched suicide attacks on Tripoli.

More successful was Mr Miliband’s intervention in August 2013 to thwart British involvement in the US-led military action against the nefarious regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, which had used chemical weapons to kill its own citizens. This intervention prevented Britain from being sucked into a wider and more dangerous regional conflagration. It also inadvertently led to a Russian-brokered settlement under which Mr Assad agreed to surrender most of his stockpile of chemical weapons.

Behind the scenes, Labour has been thinking seriously about Britain’s role in the world and in Douglas Alexander it has an impressively deliberative shadow foreign secretary. In a wide-ranging speech delivered at Chatham House in London on 2 February, Mr Alexander outlined what he called Labour’s new “progressive internationalism”.

Mr Alexander reasserted Labour’s commitment to multi­lateralism and to the principle of pooling sovereignties in multinational institutions such as the European Union. He conceded that Labour had been chastened by the Iraq war and recognised that foreign and domestic policy had become intertwined in an age of globalisation: “The experience of the last century has taught us that strength at home has been a contributor to peace abroad. If we are unable to deliver broad-based prosperity for our people – built on the foundation of an economy that works for working people – then the attraction of populism and introversion will grow.”

Labour is fond of a buzz phrase, or an overarching theme, to define its foreign policy. After Tony Blair’s landslide victory in 1997, Robin Cook, the then foreign secretary, announced that the party would be pursuing an “ethical foreign policy”, which turned out to be utopian nonsense, even if the aspiration was admirable.

And, in a speech in Chicago in 1999, Mr Blair announced, “We are all internationalists now.” He went on: “The most pressing foreign policy problem we face is to identify the circumstances in which we should get actively involved in other people’s conflicts” – something he became all too fond of.

Yet here in this speech were the outlines of Mr Blair’s doctrine of “liberal interventionism” that would ultimately lead to the invasion of Iraq, the aftershocks from which continue to be felt today, not least in the loss of trust many have in the Labour Party, as well as the rise of the Islamic State jihadists.

Is Mr Alexander’s “progressive internationalism” anything more than a resonant phrase? After all, who would advocate pursuing a “regressive” foreign policy?

In his speech, the shadow foreign secretary said: “I believe these three principles – prioritising domestic strength, promoting the principle of solidarity and preserving global norms – are the basis of a progressive approach to foreign affairs.” None of this was especially remarkable and yet the backdrop to his speech was: a Middle East riven by wars and the exodus of millions of refugees; a revanchist Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine; the emergence of radical populist parties and nationalist movements throughout Europe; Islamist terror and intra-Islamic conflict.

In such circumstances and during a period of much darkness, Mr Alexander’s modest and sober commitment to the principles of international co-operation among like-minded “communities of fate” and his rejection of introversion and the “politics of despair” should be applauded.

This article appears in the 06 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, An empire that speaks English

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