Outside of world war foreign policy has rarely looked more perilous. President Putin is no longer bashful about his desire to become a ‘major player’ in the Middle East, a region where hellish fires continue to rage fiercely. NATO and Russia are playing out old Cold War grudges across the former Soviet republics, and the pressure cooker like atmosphere on the Korean peninsula has increased tenfold.
In contrast to such a complex picture the need for the left to formulate a foreign policy fit for modern challenges couldn’t be clearer. From a UK point of view, redefining Labour’s foreign policy post-New Labour was always going to be challenging.
Few on the left or right would wish to associate themselves with the toxic reputation of military interventionism. Indeed, it is because of this legacy that isolationists of the right, think Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump, have flourished. Interventionism and engagement with international institutions has been engulfed within the globalist narrative, and they have capitalised on this.
Can the public see Corbyn chairing COBRA?
The recalibration of British foreign policy is a challenge endured by policymakers of both left and right. However, the Labour Party’s challenge seems all the more impenetrable with Jeremy Corbyn at the helm.
It appears to me that today’s Labour Party finds itself stuck between disavowing the mistakes of the past and presenting themselves as strong and competent on the global stage. Failure to do the latter makes it all too easy to portray Corbyn and his cabinet as shaky-kneed appeasers, unable to defend British interests when under threat.
In other words, it is no longer good enough to say: ‘the Iraq War was terrible’, instead the left must put forward an alternative view of Britain’s role in the west and most importantly what would a genuinely left wing foreign policy look like.
Corbyn is not at a protest march any more, you can’t be Prime Minister if your only foreign policy formulation is ‘the west is to blame’. There lies the fundamental problem the British electorate has with Corbyn. Everyone can picture him preaching to the converted at a rally, but can hardly see him chairing a COBRA meeting.
Attitude to Military Action
I put forward the thesis that individual military actions may be deeply unpopular with the general public. In fact, on the surface at least the public might seem fairly isolationist in their foreign policy outlook.
However, I also believe that there is not an overwhelming desire for Britain to vacate its responsibility in defending itself and their allies. Such fragmented public thinking can also be found in America. In the land of the free, a hostile attitude towards federal state intervention usually holds pretty strong. Paradoxically, government funded programmes such as Medicare are often hugely popular.
I believe this is borne out in the opinion polls on the Trident nuclear defence system. For example, a Yougov poll (July 2016) shows Labour were twenty points behind the Conservatives when it comes to making decisions on Trident. The system as a whole also enjoys a steady level of support with 44% supporting renewal compared to 22% saying it should be scrapped altogether. This may be by no means conclusive but support for a nuclear deterrent shows the public still want a strong defence despite the financial cost.
Is there still a Third Way?
Potentially, there might be public resonance to be found in a modern ‘third way’ foreign policy. This would fall between the hawkish interventionism and the modern isolationism. Strong diplomacy and commitment to institutions (NATO, UN, EU etc.) would be its central tenets. For example, polling in 2013 showed approval for a ‘no-fly’ zone over Syria (61%).
After recent interventions in the Middle East, understandably there is little appetite for ‘boots on the ground’. Having said that I don’t think the public wants government to be passive when implementing practical solutions to global problems and no fly zones could be one part of this. It’s hard to see Corbyn agreeing with any of this; at best, he is ambivalent to Trident and has been a longstanding critic of western foreign policy.
Another myth that needs to be eradicated is that being a pacifist is inherent to being left wing. As Clement Attlee biographer John Bew has written (CapX 15th May 2013); Corbyn is the antithesis of the leftist internationalism of the Attlee years. The Attlee government’s idea of ‘collective security’ underpins organisations such as NATO and the UN.
Corbyn’s brand of foreign policy may go down well in the People’s Republic of Islington or at a Momentum Rally. But it’s not in Labour’s traditions and it won’t find much favour come June 8th.
I have just graduated from Aston University with a Masters degree in Policy and Social Research.
Before that I was a journalism student at the University of Wolverhampton.
I have a longstanding interest in politics and in particular foreign policy and international relations.