Unless the West respects international law, it has no hope of preventing a new era of militarism

All strategies to cope with global chaos have to be based around repairing the UN, not abandoning it.

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They probably laughed at Leonard Woolf as he scrawled out his design for a “supranational authority” in the back offices of this magazine, in London’s Great Queen Street in July 1915.

That summer the war machine was only just revving up to full speed: Germany had used poison gas for the first time in April; British and Commonwealth troops were still trapped in the chaos of Gallipoli; German U-boats were sinking 30 civilian ships a month. To think not only of peace but to begin designing the international architecture for peace must have seemed crazy.

Yet Woolf achieved it. Woolf’s collected articles, published as the book International Government in 1916, laid the legal and moral foundations for the League of Nations and ultimately for the UN.

Though opposed to conscription and surrounded by the pacifist bohemians of the Bloomsbury set, Woolf was no pacifist. He understood a principle that the British left needs to understand, as we grapple with new proxy conflicts between the West, Russia and China. If you are going to empower a supranational body to act as the world’s policeman, its actions should take place only on the basis of international law. Anything less, said Woolf, and you were simply replicating the problems of militarism and imperialism.

We must defeat Germany, said Woolf’s collaborator George Bernard Shaw, “because she has made herself the exponent and champion in the modern world of the doctrine that military force is the basis and foundation of national greatness, and military conquest the method by which the nation of the highest culture can impose that culture on its neighbors”. If you only replace the old balance between great powers with a new one, you invite the new one to be overthrown by military means once a new power rises

Today we’re facing the uncontrolled return of great power politics. Vladimir Putin wants to carve out a territorial sphere of influence for Russia in which international law, universal human rights and the rule of law itself all become secondary to the interests of the kleptocratic elite running Russia. China, likewise, is carving out a land and sea commercial empire, in which its own laws, its own standards of behaviour, and its own anti-universalist political culture will dominate. Its latest outposts are Greece and Serbia. 

The US, meanwhile, has become the world’s most unstable democracy; a once global superpower and law enforcer, turned in on itself and unable even to enforce the rule of law in in Maricopa County, Arizona, let alone the Middle East.

In the face of this new international disorder, both the right and left wings of the British labour movement are clutching at political principles that no longer help. To understand why, let’s imagine the worst-case outcome of the present tension. Trade wars intensify. China annexes Taiwan. A regional war breaks out between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Putin shifts the focus of his hybrid warfare efforts to the Baltics and Scandinavia. After a flurry of proxy conflicts, the two inevitable moments of 21st century regime change take place: a democratic revolution overthrows Putin and United Russia, while in Beijing a radical reform movement sweeps the communist bureaucracy from power.

Any politician who can’t imagine this happening should not be allowed to issue even a press release, let alone commission a frigate. Suppose, however, that at the end of this turmoil, the world emerges with some chastened but battered democracies in control. What would they need to create? The United Nations.

And on what principles? The same principles Woolf spelt out in 1915 - that force can only be applied under international law, and that the size and military strength of powerful countries gives them a de facto veto over such action, which has to be recognised de jureThat is why, at present, Jeremy Corbyn is absolutely right to go on defending the principles underlying UN-approved military action. It is why the Conservatives, together with their friends on the Labour right, are wrong to undermine them.

Either the UN is dead as a supranational legal entity – in which case you move to a Plan B, which I will outline below – or it is saveable. At the moment it is wise to act as if it were saveable, even as Sergei Lavrov and Nikki Haley thow bile at each other across the table.

If it is saveable, then faced with Russia’s persistent use of its veto power to stifle even basic investigations of chemical weapons breaches, and to prevent Assad being brought to international justice, you have to make compromises that seem unpalatable if, in the back of your mind, you are still running a 19th century imperial power.

So when May accuses Corbyn of “letting the Russians have a veto over our foreign policy”, let’s analyse calmly what that really means. Russia has a veto over actions Britain can take in the enforcement of international law because we signed the UN Charter. It has no veto over our relationship with Ireland (though Brussels does); or our trade policy with China or our policy of stationing troops recruited in Nepal on the island of Borneo.

Russia has the power to say: if you want to take certain actions - like theatrically bombing Syria to punish the Assad regime, which is our ally - you must take them unilaterally, imposing your superior conceptions of human rights and legality by force. That’s what we signed up to when we founded the UN.

In the same spirit, Corbyn is right to go on asking questions. His challenge to May during the first Skripal debate was laser-focused: where was the proof that the Novichok was made in Russia? It turned out neither Porton Down, nor the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, could provide it, and that the case of diplomatic sanctions on Russia was based on human intelligence, most of which has not been seen by politicians.

Likewise with the chlorine attack on Douma. Since reputable journalists and the Russians themselves have claimed it could be a false flag operation, then - even though these claims are dubious - before launching military action that could bring British forces into direct conflict with Russian forces, it would have been wise to wait, find evidence and construct alliances.

The fact that Corbyn signalled his opposition to unilateral action, and that large sections of the population share his position, probably had a role in limiting the action Britain signed up to in the strike on Syria. As one of the most pro-Nato voices on the British left, having been attacked as a “Nato Troll” by George Galloway, I have no problem whatsoever with Corbyn’s question, his lines of attack, his reservations about military action, and his determination to stick with the UN as the guarantor of international law.

The legal opinion supplied to Tom Watson MP is quite clear – and in no ways legally innovative. The only grounds for taking unilateral military action are self-defence, the permission of the UN Security Council, or an invitation to use force by the government of the state where it’s being used.

Even by the government’s own, twisted legal criteria, May is left having to portray a well-telegraphed, punitive and theatrical missile strike as an urgent, unavoidable act to avert humanitarian disaster. Sadly, the real humanitarian disaster – mass displacement of civilians as Assad retakes Eastern Ghouta, the likely torture and execution of opponents, the mass traumatisation of children – was never going to be stopped by missiles fired from 400km away.

But the problem for Corbyn, and the wider constituency he represents, comes if the doom scenario I outlined above starts playing out. Putin’s appetite for isolation, sanctions and opprobrium is a) larger than most people anticipated and b) growing.

In this context, the residual Stalinism of parts of the British left, combined with the vague anti-imperialism that has taught several generations of progressive people that Britain and America are the worst perpetrators of militarism and duplicity in the world, needs to be challenged.

For example, if it could be shown incontrovertibly that Putin ordered, and the Russian state executed, the attempted assassination of the Skripals, then Britain should not only be enacting increased financial sanctions against the Russian state (as Corbyn has called for) but taking steps to bring Putin himself to stand trial – not at the Hague but at the Old Bailey.

Britain should, in all circumstances, be taking steps to protect itself from the hybrid warfare strategies the Kremlin is operating. It should increase conventional defence spending, and refocus military assets towards Europe, giving up the conceited doctrine of “global reach”.

It should integrate its armed and security services with those of the EU. It should turn Brexit into a name-only project, designed to hug close the only remaining stable democratic countries in the West. And it should increase its use of soft power – supplying BBC World Service language services not just to Russia, but to the states in Eastern and Southern Europe where Russian influence is growing.

Beyond this, if things really do go to shit, we have to design a response in which Britain operates as a relatively independent, strong military and diplomatic power, placing itself firmly on the side of democratic states in the emerging great power system, and resisting the attempts by the new despotisms to undermine our democratic culture and institutions.

To the neocons, and their Blairite echo chamber, it means saying: the fact that we want to participate in a reformed and democratised NATO and the EU does not mean we will uncritically support Israel, nor arm the Saudis, nor take part in the US project to encircle Iran, nor back every knee-jerk piece of militarist grandstanding you decide to stage.

But it also means being hard on the small but influential pro-Putin lobby inside British politics. Right now, their main contribution to proceedings is to throw a shower of trolling and fake news at anything that undermines Russian’s diplomatic position. Putin’s chosen vehicles to destabilise Britain were Brexit and - as across Europe - the populist xenophobic right. The fact that “even Peter Hitchens thinks Corbyn is right” is not, in light of this, a useful argument.

For clarity, I am not saying here that it’s illegitimate to have interest groups or committees promoting friendship with other countries inside the Labour movement; nor to have diplomatically aligned yourself with the positions of other countries in the past. The problem people on all sides of British politics face is that the Skripal case shows that somebody - and it is most likely an actor within the Russian state - just crossed a line of acceptability that demands all parties and governments adjust their response to the seriousness of the threat.

And things are moving fast. The conflict with Putin is so politically useful to Theresa May, as part of the British right’s campaign to delegitimise Corbyn, that it’s impossible to imagine she won’t go on picking fights with Russia.

Labour’s foreign and security policy up to now has been principled but reactive. Until the Skripal case, it was safe to assume that by sticking to the issues that matter to swing voters – the NHS, a softer Brexit strategy, welfare and policing – Labour could deflect the perennial attempts to use terrorism, war and security to fuel scare stories about a radical Labour government.

In the changed circumstances, Labour has to take foreign, defence and security issues head on. It has to explain to Labour voters that there is a threat to global order; that it does come from Putin – though the most urgent threat remains jihadi terrorism – and that there is something more we can do than simply hide from it hoping it will go away.

In the past week, Theresa May has managed to sideline parliament in the decision on military action, sideline Corbyn as a Privy Councillor, by giving selective briefings to his rivals in the PLP, and, ultimately, sideline the UN Security Council itself.

This is an open goal for a left-wing internationalist party like Labour.To use it, we need to clearly differentiate Labour’s position from the Iran lobby, the Putin lobby, the deluded amplifiers of the Russian troll farms - and that strange conglomerate of the far-left and the isolationist right who see Putin and Assad as somehow the inheritors of Che Guevara.

Today, Vladimir Putin is manipulating international law and paralysing the institutions that are supposed to guarantee it. If we want the Russian people to one day reject Putin, and rebuild their democratic institutions, we must stick with international law, no matter how irksome. Most of the dissidents and democrats I have met in Russia, even people suffering from surveillance and repression, believe Western intervention against Putin has one aim – to revive the regime of plunder and chaos the West imposed in the 1990s.

But at the same time, social democrats and their allies in the West have to begin constructing strategies that could survive the breakdown of both international law and order. The principle should be that, even if it breaks down, the only good thing we have ever created is the global governance system that’s being challenged today. All strategies to cope with global chaos have to be based around repairing the UN, not abandoning it.

That’s what Woolf, Shaw and the Webbs did. They showed vision and communicated it in the teeth of the same bullshit Labour’s leadership is getting today from the Mail and Murdoch. In the end, it paid off.

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 bestselling book Postcapitalism has been translated into 16 languages. His play Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere was televised on BBC Two in 2017.