Labour needs a new foreign policy to defend the multilateral order against the right

The party has to take on and defeat the neo-imperialists of the right – not just over austerity and welfare, but on its vision for the world. 

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Quiz question: who was foreign secretary in the 1924 Labour government, headed by James Ramsay MacDonald? Answer: James Ramsay MacDonald. Yes, in addition to the task of running the world’s second most-powerful country, Macdonald found time to run the empire and administer the post-war European order.

Not surprisingly, his achievements were slim. He persuaded the French to stop collecting Germany’s war debts by force; and he recognised the Soviet Union. But as the House of Commons library records: “Labour’s foreign policy was no surprise to the older parties; as foreseen by [Stanley] Baldwin and [Herbert] Asquith, it was in many respects indistinguishable from theirs”.

But what about the next Labour government? If it wants to be anything other than a footnote in the long story of decline, duplicity and aggression that characterises British foreign policy in the neoliberal era, what would constitute a distinct left-wing foreign policy?

Emily Thornberry had a stab at it in Liverpool in September. In a speech invoking the memory of the International Brigades, the Anti-Nazi League and the words of “The Internationale”, the shadow foreign secretary promised that, under Labour, Britain would “lead the world in promoting human rights, in reforming the arms trade, in pursuing an end to conflict, in supporting, not demonising, refugees, and in turning the promise of a nuclear-free world from an impossible dream to a concrete goal.”

These are laudable aims but they are not a foreign policy. a foreign policy begins from the questions: what are the long-term interests of our country and how should we achieve them, given the global power dynamics we are up against, our own resource constraints, and domestic public opinion?

You may, if you wish, reject such framing as a laughable hangover from the so-called “realist” school of foreign policy, but they happen to be exactly the questions that all other major powers are asking. We exist, in short, in a world populated by elites whose appetite for internationalism is waning, whose appetite for conflict is feeding gross brutalities, and whose appetite for nuclear proliferation is manifest.

“The Internationale”, in such a situation, remains a great tune but not the source of a concrete policy framework. So what should be the sources of a foreign policy for a left-wing Labour government, beyond morality and ideals? The answer lies in the question of how the left reframes the concepts of power, sovereignty and the national interest.

For the British business elite, roughly from the time of Sir Francis Drake onwards, power has meant the ability to use force to alter the terms of trade, benefiting British business. From the mid-19th century onwards, it also allowed them to buy off the working class with either material gains or what W.E.B. Dubois called the “wages of whiteness”. The short word for that is imperialism.

Sovereignty, for that elite, has undergone three mutations. It was absolute in the 19thcentury: we could sail a warship anywhere in the world, point its guns at the palace of the ruler and secure a trade treaty. From 1919 onwards, sovereignty was constrained by the rising power of the US, chaos in Europe, and the existence of the League of Nations and other multilateral agreements, including the Gold Standard.

In the post-war era, and especially during the consolidation of the EU, Britain has existed within a firmly multilateral environment. NATO, the EU, the UN, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and even the Commonwealth created an environment in which the “national interest” was reframed around the project of keeping the multilateral system aligned with to the commercial, financial, cultural and security priorities of the UK.

Amid the chaos and duplicity of the Brexit crisis, what’s been overlooked is how fundamentally a section of the Conservative right has departed from this doctrine. The fantasy of hard Brexit and the fantasy of “global reach” in defence are products of a deeper switch-off, reflected among the 31 per cent of people who say they actually want a no-deal Brexit in which we “walk away” from Europe.

As I’ve argued repeatedly, this is not born of mere nostalgia, but from the fact that the most influential section of the British business elite now frames its interests offshore - around the priorities of the Russian criminals, Gulf princes and Central Asian oligarchs whose money and property it manages. They are quite happy to see British automobile manufacturing go down the tubes, so long as Maseratis can still be imported. If they ever get their way, it would be like Tudor England having its foreign policy dictated by the Hanseatic League.

So whatever the outcome of the Brexit crisis, one of the most meaningful contributions a left government could make to foreign policy would be to re-embrace multilateralism. This means we have to engage positively with European defence and security policy; to invest in a defence industrial strategy that would allow the 2 per cent of GDP allocated to military spending to create positive multipliers at home, and to be scaled above 2 per cent in time of need; and, as Thornberry suggests, to use our influence as a nuclear-armed power to press for disarmament, not re-armament.

The ideal of a multilateral order, in which shared sovereignty creates an international legal system, and gives the major powers the right to police that system, is one of the British left’s main gifts to modern diplomacy. It was the Fabian intellectual Leonard Woolf, scribbling away in the back offices of this magazine, who first outlined a plan for what would become the League of Nations. In International Government (1916) Woolf argues not only that traditional concepts of sovereignty must be abandoned, but that modern life in a relatively globalised economy renders them meaningless. 

Ramsay Macdonald himself, in a long-forgotten book, called National Defence (1917), went further. He argued that a new system of international law could only work if it were shaped, continuously, from below, by a semi-permanent conference of labour and trade union organisations, whose job was to create, in each country, a “checking and controlling political organisation expressing the popular will” and whose ultimate weapon against imperialist war would be a global general strike. (Yes, Ramsay Macdonald!)

Multilateralism, for the left in Britain, has always gone alongside a critique of the colonialist and racist ambitions of the right; with a non-nationalist view of sovereignty; and an ambition to mobilise the power of the working poor, across borders, to constrain the power and predatory instincts of national elites.

The question for Labour today is, how do we turn that into action, in a world where the internationalist instincts of the working poor are being eroded and destroyed, and where global institutions are being hollowed out by an emergent Great Power system.

The first thing is to start expressing our commitments clearly. Thornberry’s speech to the Labour conference gave all the right signals, namechecking Gandhi, Martin Luther King, the International Brigade and “The Internationale”, but this needs to be translated into clear proposals for the main institutions in which Britain still matters.

It means the reform of NATO, into a defensive alliance whose aim is to stabilise its relationship with Russia, and eschewing expeditionary and proxy warfare. It means the revival of the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament process – if necessary with the European democracies taking the lead.

It means, in precise opposition to the Tory conceit of “global reach”, reorienting Britain’s foreign and defence priorities towards promoting stability in Europe. It means fighting for democracy in Eastern Europe, and capacity building among democratic and progressive forces in Russia, Belarus and Central Asia.

It means facing down Russia’s attempt to destroy Europe, and Western democracy with it – through the mixture of propaganda, organised crime, murder and cyber-war known as “hybrid warfare” – and doing so clearly in the name of multilateral order that Putin is trying to trash. It means calling out the dupes of Putin inside the British Labour movement as clearly as Thornberry called out the anti-Semites in her September speech.

It means clear proposals to stop arming and supporting the professional murderers and torturers who run Saudi Arabia. And, in an era where America is trying to kill the peace process between Israel and Palestine, it means defending it.

All of which leads us back the issue de nos jours, (and in fact nos jours infinis du futur): Brexit. If your entire foreign policy, and the tradition it is drawn from, favours multilateralism, it is madness to participate in the destruction of the one successful (albeit flawed) multilateral institution on your doorstep. Even if the current arrangements are doomed, you have to purposefully save what you can, and sell the idea to the British public.

The sight of some Labour MPs queuing up to vote alongside the Tories, in return for a few billion quids’ worth of pothole filling across the English Midlands, is sickening. There’s no talk here of Gandhi or “The Internationale”, only cringeworthy excuses about “not being able to face” a bunch of Mail-reading xenophobes in their constituencies, in the case of the 2016 referendum result being “betrayed”.

No set of principles survives contact with the reality of modern diplomacy. But multilateralism, peace and disarmament only ever happen if you set out a clear set of principles and actions: once the outcome of Brexit is known, I expect Theresa May or her successor to trigger a general election. In that election, Labour has to take on and defeat the neo-imperialists of the right – not just over austerity and welfare, but on our vision for a world order and the place of the UK.

Paul Mason is a New Statesman contributing writer, author and film-maker. As economics editor at Newsnight, then Channel 4 News, he covered the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and the Gaza war. His latest book is Clear Bright Future: A radical defence of the human being.