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Is Labour ready when it comes to foreign policy?

Once the election is over, pressing global issues will come rushing in for Keir Starmer.

By Lawrence Freedman

The theme of the Labour campaign is “change”. When it comes to foreign and defence policy, however, “continuity” is more prominent. At noon on 22 May, hours before Rishi Sunak called the general election, David Lammy and John Healey, the shadow foreign secretary and shadow defence secretary respectively, made this clear when they spoke at the London Defence Conference, held at King’s College London.

They began by emphasising, having recently returned from Kyiv, that when it comes to the UK’s commitment to Ukraine there will be no change. Nor will there be in the UK’s nuclear status. The Dreadnought-class nuclear submarine programme will proceed to completion, so that the first boats will enter into service early next decade. They accept in principle the move to spend 2.5 per cent of GDP on defence, up from the current 2.2 per cent, although it appears that the shadow chancellor will not yet let them match the Conservative promise to achieve this by 2030.

This promise of continuity, demonstrating that the country’s security is safe in Labour’s hands, symbolised the journey travelled since Keir Starmer took over from Jeremy Corbyn. Instead of the internal discord of the Corbyn years, Lammy and Healey insisted that their unity on these matters exceeded that of the Tories. Their joint appearance demonstrated how under Labour the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and Ministry of Defence (MoD) would work together in harmony. Healey referenced the excoriating article the former Conservative defence secretary Ben Wallace has written about the FCDO to show how bad things had become under the current government, although he didn’t say whether he agreed with the article’s thrust, which was how dovish and cautious diplomats acted as a drag when the need was to take a tough stance.

If Corbyn was still in charge, security undoubtedly would be a big issue. As he showed at the time of the Salisbury poisonings, he is prepared to give Russia the benefit of the doubt and, since the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, he has opposed sending arms to Ukraine. But now that he has been expelled from the Labour Party, and must run this time round as an independent, there is no incentive for Starmer to emphasise an area where there is little difference between the two parties. When asked at the London Defence Conference if foreign affairs risked getting neglected in the election – Keir Starmer’s recent six pledges were all about domestic issues – Lammy and Healey answered that when out campaigning they found that the concerns of voters were all about the cost of living and public services.

Conservatives and conscription

The Conservative campaign will make more of a feature of the dangerous state of the world. This was a major theme of Sunak’s election announcement in which he pointed to the war in Ukraine, the dangers a Russian victory would pose, and the issues of energy security it had raised. He also stressed the need to oppose the “forces of Islamic extremism”  and China’s attempt to “dominate the 21st century by stealing a lead in technology”. He concluded: “These uncertain times call for a clear plan and bold action to chart a course to a secure future.” On 25 May, he followed this up with his proposal to introduce mandatory conscription for 18-year-olds, with an option to join the military full-time or do other forms of part-time community service.

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Whether or not this is a vote-winner, Labour should have little difficulty pushing back on this as a means of addressing the recruitment problems of the army. (I dealt with this in a piece earlier in the year.) The first headlines suggested the re-creation of a mass army, though the military do not need the large numbers that would be generated by general conscription, and would not welcome the training demands these numbers would impose. The policy detail, however, shows that only 30,000 18-year-olds will be recruited by this means, numbers similar to the reserves or the Army Cadets. There may be a case for a new and imaginative approach to meet the shortfalls in recruitment, especially in specialist areas, but this scheme essentially appears as offering a serious commitment to the military as a way for a few (barely 5 per cent of the cohort) to opt out of a mandatory part-time scheme of public service.

The only difficulty for Labour with this issue is that addressing future military requirements, whether in personnel or equipment, draws attention to its equivocation over future defence spending – moving to 2.5 per cent when economic conditions allow or when international conditions demand? Already the Conservatives are using this to show that Labour is still “soft” on defence. Perhaps Labour might toughen their stance in its manifesto to close off this line of attack.

While the conscription and spending issues may give defence some temporary salience in the campaign, overall Labour is probably right to assume that they have done enough to show that they are serious about national security and that concentrating on domestic issues is the key to victory in the election. This is confirmed by recent polling that shows Labour ahead on defence, although by less than on other issues. The main problem for Labour has been Gaza, where public opinion is strongly supportive of a ceasefire, and Starmer’s early apparently unconditional support for Israel, since corrected, led to a loss of votes in some areas with higher populations of Muslim and younger progressive voters. For Starmer this is another reason not to dwell on overseas issues.

After the campaign

However much it is discussed during the campaign, this remains a dangerous time in international affairs. Foreign policy will dominate the first weeks of the new government. One problem with an election being called for the start of July is that this is an exceptionally busy period in international diplomacy. Sunak will presumably take time off from campaigning to attend the G7 meeting in Italy from 13 to 15 June, if only to allow him to appear addressing important matters with world leaders.

Then, five days after the election, there will be a vital Nato summit in Washington. It starts on the day that parliament returns on 9 July and the swearing in of MPs begins. So Starmer will have to work out how quickly he can get across the Atlantic and start to appreciate the challenges of performing on the international stage without much sleep. Once he joins the summit, it will be an opportunity to get to know the leaders with whom he’ll be working over the coming years. As they will be marking the 75th anniversary of the alliance, he will no doubt recall the role played by the Labour government of the time, and in particular the foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, in its creation. But he will also have to decide whether as the new boy he is going to be attentive but largely passive during the deliberations of the 32 member states, or to contribute.

There will be big issues on the agenda, largely to do with Ukraine. The Conservative governments could pride themselves as being the first movers on Ukraine, setting the terms for alliance debates on how it should best be supported. How will Starmer, deal with questions such as whether Nato does a better job than last year in supporting Ukraine’s aspirations to join the alliance as the best guarantor of its security? What can be done to make the process of getting more and better weapons and ammunition to Ukraine faster and more efficient? Can the allies demonstrate that the funding and will is there to support Ukraine over the long term and not just over 2024?

On all these matters, Lammy and Healey answered positively when visiting Kyiv earlier in the month, stressing their “ironclad” support. But the 2.5 per cent issue will be present. Grant Shapps, the Conservative Defence Minister, has said that his intention would be to get this target accepted as the norm for all Nato countries as the percentage of GDP to be spent on defence, instead of the current 2 per cent.

And then, the day after the State Opening of Parliament is expected on 17 July, a meeting of the European Political Community (EPC) is scheduled to take place at Blenheim Palace in Woodstock, Oxfordshire. This is a relatively new body, first proposed by President Emmanuel Macron of France in the spring of 2022 after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, deliberately taking the conversations beyond EU states and encouraging the UK to get involved. This opportunity was accepted by Sunak. When he announced in March that he would be hosting the next event, the fourth, he added to the need to support Ukraine the issue of working “together to grapple with the huge challenge of illegal migration across the continent”. Sunak described the meeting as “an important forum for cooperation across the whole of Europe on the issues that are affecting us all, threatening our security and prosperity.”

Hosting the meeting therefore provides an opportunity to Starmer to start to make his own mark on international diplomacy. The EPC idea also fits in with Lammy’s view that security provides the optimum way to start to improve relations with the EU without appearing to be reversing Brexit. At the same time, the EU will be looking to see what Starmer has in mind on the other Brexit-related issues, especially easing trade flows, but little will be done on those issues until after the summer break. The security issues are more pressing.

Unfortunately it is all going to be a bit of a rush. By the time of the Nato summit, the new ministerial teams will still be getting acquainted with their offices on either side of Whitehall. Even by the time of the EPC meeting, the transition from opposition to government will still be underway. Special advisers will not yet have been approved and gained their clearances. This is also a time of churn at the top levels of the civil service. Awkwardly, the national security adviser, Tim Barrow, is leaving his post to prepare to be the next ambassador to Washington (there have been reports that Starmer was unhappy with the appointment, not because of problems with Barrow but because he might have wanted to put his own person into such a crucial position at such a crucial time). Barrow is being replaced by General Gwyn Jenkins, currently vice-chief of the defence staff. So Starmer will not be inheriting a settled team at the top, other than the chief of defence staff, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, who will be left in a potentially influential position.

These big conferences are the events we know about. As we have seen too often in recent years, the international system is capable of delivering nasty shocks, for which preparations have not been made and which require improvised responses. In 1964, on the same day that Harold Wilson came to power, with a tiny majority after 13 years of Conservative rule, Nikita Khrushchev was deposed as leader of the Soviet Union and China tested its first atomic bomb. In recent days we have seen an attempted assassination of the Slovakian prime minister and the death of the Iranian president and foreign minister in a helicopter crash. The Chinese have been engaged in aggressive military manoeuvres around Taiwan, deliberately intended as both a punishment and a warning as President Lai Ching-te, who is not to Beijing’s taste, takes office.

Progressive realism

While the election is underway, officials in both the FCDO and MoD will be trying to work out how to prepare for a change of government, reading up on what they can expect from their new ministers (assuming that Starmer does not pull any surprises in his cabinet appointments). Both Lammy and Healey have recently been setting out their stalls. In Lammy’s case this came in the form of an article in the US journal Foreign Affairs, an abridged version of which appeared in the Guardian. This is the key paragraph explaining his big idea of “progressive realism”:

“Progressive realism advocates using realist means to pursue progressive ends. For the British government, that requires tough-minded honesty about the United Kingdom, the balance of power, and the state of the world. But instead of using the logic of realism solely to accumulate power, progressive realism uses it in service of just goals – for example, countering climate change, defending democracy, and advancing the world’s economic development. It is the pursuit of ideals without delusions about what is achievable.”

It is self-evidently the case that a left-of-centre government is going to want to demonstrate that it can be inspired by the great causes of our time, while acknowledging that its idealism will have to be tempered by the limits on what can be achieved. Nonetheless, the term risks being one of those attempts to appeal to two disparate audiences as if by combining words that conflict they can show that such a separation need not be the case.

Lammy is well aware that the tension may turn out to be inescapable. In his essay he deals with the two areas in which the previous Labour government discovered how progressivism and realism could pull in opposite directions. The attempt by Robin Cook, Tony Blair’s first foreign secretary, to add more ethics to foreign policy “at times snagged on the limits of idealism, particularly when it came to hard choices about arms exports”. Lammy also recalls Cook’s prescient warnings about the Iraq War, which is now taken as a failure of “liberal interventionism” (although the underlying rationale for Iraq was actually more realist).

Iraq, says Lammy, is an error not to be repeated, while going on to note the dangers of inaction as dangerous situations develop. He gives the example of Syria. In practice, most foreign policy problems – notably, for example, the Hamas-Israel war – present not straightforward examples of progressivism or realism but hard dilemmas, with mixtures of ethical and prudential considerations.

The basic point about realism is that you take the world as you find it and not as you want it to be. Explaining to governments whose internal policies you dislike how they fail to meet your high standards on human rights is likely to cause irritation as much as conversion. If important interests depend on those governments – say, energy security and Saudi Arabia – then the complaints are apt to become muted.

The basic problem of foreign policy, therefore, is that you have to deal with foreigners who have their own interests and values. Arguably this is a greater problem than before, as more countries wish to avoid becoming associated with either a pro-Western or pro-Russian/Chinese camp. The issue was put starkly in last year’s “refresh” to the 2021 Integrated Review:

“Importantly, however, systemic competition is developing into a highly complex phenomenon that we must navigate with an understanding that not everyone’s values or interests consistently align with our own. Today’s international system cannot simply be reduced to ‘democracy versus autocracy’, or divided into binary, Cold War-style blocs. As IR2021 identified, an expanding group of ‘middle-ground powers’ are of growing importance to UK interests as well as global affairs more generally, and do not want to be drawn into zero-sum competition any more than the UK does. We will need to work with these countries to protect our shared higher interest in an open and stable international order, accepting that we may not share all of the same values and national interests.”

Something of a test may come later this year, following the American presidential election. In his essay, Lammy describes that the United States and Europe will remain “the rocks on which the United Kingdom builds its security, but the government’s ties with both must evolve”. Little has yet been said about how relations with the EU will evolve but Lammy, who knows the US well, has made no secret of his attempts to find common ground with Trumpist Republicans. He has even claimed a friendship with Senator JD Vance of Ohio, on the basis that they share humble backgrounds. Forging these links does no harm, but it would be unwise to assume that they would be a great help in the event of a new Trump administration.

Defence review

Healey’s focus has been on how to sort out the Ministry of Defence. He has spoken of the need for a defence review, which is the sort of thing new Labour governments like to commission. In a speech in March, he came forward with some interesting and largely sensible ideas for defence reorganisation, although he is by no means the first defence secretary, and probably won’t be the last, to demand new initiatives to deal with the chronic problems in military procurement. The problem again is one of time. The issues will come rushing in and he will have to commit to plans and capabilities long before a review can be completed and a plan for reorganisation implemented.

For example he has raised questions about the “tilt” to the Indo-Pacific announced in the 2021 Integrated Review, observing:

“It’s fine to send a new aircraft carrier on a gap-year tour of the Pacific. But its real job has got to be in the Atlantic and in the Med. It’s marginal to any balance of power in the Indo-Pacific; in the Atlantic, in the Arctic, as far as the northern European security is concerned it’s pivotal.”

It’s a fair question to raise but when he gets the answer from the military and MoD officials he will discover that the tilt has come to involve far more than the occasional visits of naval vessels, but embraces the Aukus nuclear submarine and advanced technologies programme with Australia and the US, and a new jet fighter with Italy and Japan, as well as a variety of other arrangements with countries in the region. This is not something that the government will find it easy to walk away from. Recent statements indicate that this is now appreciated.

Equally, waiting to raise the defence budget may not only indicate complacency over the scale of the challenges now being faced, but also potentially require yet more pruning of forward commitments. The benign conditions of the 1997-98 review hardly apply now.

Both Lammy and Healey have been doing the hard yards since their appointments to their current positions in November 2021 and April 2020 respectively. They have worked on their briefs and on getting to know the key people at home and abroad. The biggest uncertainty surrounds Starmer, who has little experience in foreign affairs and has thus far shown little interest. His handling of the Israel-Hamas war in its early stages should serve as a warning of how these issues can develop out of nowhere and bite the unprepared. In 1997 Blair’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, was a former diplomat. Sue Gray, Starmer’s chief of staff, has much relevant experience to bring to her new role but not in foreign affairs. Her reported “shit list” of crises that a Labour government could face – collapse of Thames Water from overcrowded prisons, bankrupt councils, universities going under, NHS funding and public sector wage demands – are domestic rather than external.

However much political leaders in opposition expect to concentrate on domestic policy, they soon find that foreign policy draws them in. In all countries these are issues dealt with at the highest levels of government. Starmer will have no choice but to do likewise. The change will be abrupt. Whatever his reluctance to make a big deal of foreign and defence policy during the election, once it is over, the big issues will come rushing in. One of Starmer’s first tasks will be to write his “letters of last resort” – instructions to the UK’s nuclear submarine commanders, about how they should respond in the event of an all-out attack that has devastated the UK and left it without a government. He will get a series of urgent briefings on the international conflicts currently raging, giving him a chance to ponder their implications for the UK. And then, still only days after announcing his cabinet, he will be off to a vital summit in Washington where every comment will be scrutinised. From not wanting to dwell on defence and foreign policy during the election, he will soon find himself talking about little else.

Lawrence Freedman is a regular contributor. This piece originally ran on his Substack “Comment is Freed

[See also: Rishi Sunak’s national service plan is a ludicrous fantasy]

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