Wanted: A new Labour foreign policy
It comes as no surprise that Jeremy Corbyn leapt to Russia’s defence after the Salisbury poisoning
After a crushing general election defeat, the Labour Party faces a difficult path back to power under its new leader. In this special section, six writers examine the career and character of Sir Keir Starmer, outline the massive challenges he faces in making his party electable again, and advise him how to set about his formidable task
While the Labour Party’s many woes in the last few years under Jeremy Corbyn have been scrutinised relentlessly by a hostile press, there is still a sense that on some issues he got off lightly. As a journalist covering conflict and foreign policy for more than a decade, it often felt as if my own personal criticisms of the Corbyn project’s view on international relations were being mainly broadcast to an echo chamber.
Corbyn’s meteoric rise to popularity, especially among people in my own generation fed up with Tory austerity and reeling from the financial crash, placed critics in an awkward position. Critiques of Corbynite foreign policy, even from the left, were widely attacked as bad-faith attempts to sabotage the chances of a socialist economic model.
However, in creating my new podcast Corbynism: The Post-Mortem, exploring the failures and successes of the Corbyn project, I was surprised to find that a consensus view on progressive foreign policy was easy to identify, despite years of intellectual neglect on the British left.
To understand Labour’s predicament, it would be unfair to lay all the blame at Corbyn’s door. Labour’s contemporary internationalist decline started under Tony Blair, and the Iraq war mutilated the party’s moral and intellectual standing.
Robin Cook was a rare breed of politician, not just because he was able to set out in such clear terms what an ethical and progressive foreign policy should look like, as he did in a flagship speech in 1997, but also because he displayed the courage to back up his convictions, by resigning from the cabinet in 2003 in protest at the Iraq war.
While Cook was lobbying to save lives in the Balkans, Corbyn was protesting against it
Cook opposed the invasion of Iraq, warning that it was “against Britain’s interests to create a precedent for unilateral military action”. And far from it making the world a safer place, we’ve witnessed a resurgence of totalitarian dictatorships following the fall of Saddam Hussein.
Today, Iraq is the prism through which all foreign policy discussions on the left take place, often divorced from any actual policy proposals on the current situation in the Middle East, and instead serving as a blanket condemnation of any and all intervention in foreign affairs.
The legacy of Britain’s failure in Iraq and its impact on the moral compass of the Labour Party culminated in Ed Miliband’s opposition to humanitarian intervention in Syria following the Assad regime’s murder of more than 1,500 people using chemical nerve agents in August 2013.
Unlike Iraq in 2003, Syria in 2013 was engaged in a bloody civil war, with the regime using air power to exterminate and extinguish the civilian uprising against it. But unlike the Balkan conflict of the 1990s, the Labour Party decided the most moral course of action was to do nothing to stop the suffering and murder in Syria. Years later, hundreds of thousands are dead, the war rages on, Syria lies in ruins, Assad hangs on to power and the Labour Party still has no policy on how to stop the bloodshed.
Miliband’s decision to play politics with the lives of Syrian civilians was loudly cheered by Labour’s hard-left “anti-imperialist” faction, led by Corbyn as head of the Stop The War Coalition. Two years later, Corbyn was leader of the party. Far from learning from the mistakes of the Iraq war, Labour had decided to abandon ethical foreign policy in favour of a worldview that split the world into imperialist and anti-imperialist factions, with Britain firmly on the side of imperialism.
Corbyn’s brand of foreign policy made a mockery of Cook’s. While Cook was lobbying to save lives in the Balkans, Corbyn was protesting against it. After Cook had successfully helped to prevent a genocide in Kosovo, Corbyn was signing an Early Day Motion falsely denying the scope of the war crimes Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic had committed.
It is laughable to suggest that a man who denied Serbian war crimes, blamed Nato for Russia’s criminal invasion and annexation of parts of Ukraine, and hosted a talk show on an Iranian state propaganda network that was sanctioned by Ofcom for airing forced confessions is doing so out of deeply-held ethical principles. Labour has been led for five years by a man who personally invited a member of the Assad regime to parliament to deny that it had used chemical weapons, all the better to lobby against Western air strikes.
It comes as no surprise that Corbyn leapt to Russia’s defence following the Skripal poisoning in Salisbury, only this time not as an inconsequential backbencher but as leader of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition.
Labour should put human rights and the protection of civilians at the centre of its foreign policy platform. It should also broaden the scope of intellectual debate on these topics and to stop seeing all global issues as “another Iraq”. This means confronting all regimes who abuse human rights, even if they are our allies — even if, sometimes, and always as a last resort, that means having to commit to military action.
To return to the moral high ground, the Labour Party must become a truly internationalist party again.
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