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.
This article appears in the 14 Dec 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special