Corbyn's emphasis on diplomacy and dialogue puts him on the right side of history

With the wreath-laying furore behind us, it's time we had a proper look at Labour's foreign policy – which, as it turns out, isn't even particularly radical

David Wearing
Friday 31 August 2018 14:32 BST
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The Labour leader’s take on international affairs may be sharply different from that of the political class, but the concrete set of policies his party espouses are reformist, not revolutionary
The Labour leader’s take on international affairs may be sharply different from that of the political class, but the concrete set of policies his party espouses are reformist, not revolutionary (EPA)

After a summer of turmoil, there are now reportedly two schools of thought on foreign policy in Jeremy Corbyn‘s inner circle. One believes that the Labour leader’s radicalism in this area is a political weakness or a distraction that should be set aside to ensure focus on domestic policy, the party’s strength. The other side takes the view that not only are there important principles at stake, but that in fact Corbyn has some compelling dividing lines to draw here with his opponents and predecessors.

So long as Corbyn remains leader, it is the latter camp that is likely to win out. The prominence of foreign policy is simply an unavoidable fact of life for any British government or opposition, irrespective of any desire to focus on the domestic. The UK is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, a nuclear power, one of a tiny minority of states capable of projecting military power on an intercontinental basis, and one of the largest economies in the world. Corbyn’s stances in this area will continue to be shaped by his longstanding worldview, and the fact that the recent furore over his participation in a Palestinian wreath laying ceremony in 2014 has had no discernible effect on Labour in the polls means that there is little incentive for him to change course.

It may be, however, that the underlying premise of this disagreement at the top of the party is a faulty one. Because when we look seriously at the actual substance of Labour’s foreign policy, what we find is not particularly radical. Corbyn’s personal philosophy on international affairs may be sharply different from that of the political class, but the concrete set of policies Labour espouses under his leadership are (to make a strictly analytical rather than a value judgement), mildly reformist, not revolutionary.

Labour’s current policy position is set out in four key texts: Corbyn’s speech to the foreign policy think tank Chatham House in May 2017, his brief speech in response to the Manchester Arena bombing that same month, a speech to the United Nations in Geneva in December 2017, and the party’s 2017 election manifesto. The defining themes throughout are the importance of international law and the UN system, the value of multilateral and inclusive dialogue to avoid or de-escalate conflict, and the urgency of tackling global poverty and inequality. Scholars of international relations looking to categorise this overall stance are likely to find liberal multilateralism – a conventional tradition in the academic literature – to be the closest fit.

This is not to imply any sense of business-as-usual. Corbyn’s strongly sceptical view of western military interventionism, together with his critique of corporate-friendly globalisation, situate his policy platform firmly on the left-hand edge of the liberal multilateralist paradigm, and at odds with a great many of its adherents. But these are hardly off-the-wall positions in the context of numerous western policy failures (from the Iraq war to the financial crisis) over the past two decades, and align to some degree with a growing disquiet in the centre left of established thinking.

One of Corbyn’s most ostensibly challenging positions was the one articulated after the bombings in Manchester during last year’s general election campaign, when he argued that a connection exists between western military interventions in the context of the “war on terror” and the persistence of the terrorist threat. Again, within the academic literature on non-state violence this is an entirely mainstream and unremarkable analysis when taken with Corbyn’s acknowledgement of the importance of other factors, such as the ideological outlook of the terrorists and their socioeconomic backgrounds. It is also a common view amongst the general public, with 53 per cent of those subsequently polled agreeing with Corbyn’s analysis versus 24 per cent who disagreed, and with voters across all parties more likely to agree with him than not. What generates near hysteria from media pundits and political opponents elicits merely a shrug elsewhere.

“Radicalism” is a relative term. While the formal foreign policies of Corbyn’s Labour are hardly radical when set against the spectrums of expert or public opinion, the underlying view of the international scene that guides Corbyn personally on these matters is very much at odds with that of the political class, and this perhaps is the real source of tension.

Barack Obama’s presidency should not be sentimentalised, given the active enabling role his administration took in Saudi Arabia’s devastating war on Yemen, and his culpability in the resulting humanitarian disaster (AFP/Getty)

Like many on the left of his generation, Corbyn is a product of the 1960s peace movement, opposition to the Vietnam war, and the global campaign against apartheid. His worldview is one that sees modern international relations – specifically the large imbalances in military power and economic autonomy – as the product of centuries of formal empire, out of which a more informal system of quasi-imperialism has evolved in recent decades.

This sharply contradicts the conventional wisdom of the political establishment, articulated by former Labour foreign secretary David Miliband, that “if the world is increasingly divided between firefighters and arsonists then Britain has, for centuries, been a firefighter”. Many in the global south do not recognise this version of history, to put it mildly. For them, and for much of the grassroots left in Britain, global north states such as the UK are not inherently benign actors, and have in fact long presented a challenge, and even a danger to, the nations and peoples of the south. Evidently Corbyn shares this view – an authentically radical one in relative if not objective terms – and this rather than his formal policy programme seems to be the actual cause of the resentment from his opponents and detractors. There is a palpable sense that Corbyn is regarded by a significant number of them as not just mistaken but treacherous – his crime being a refusal to uphold the official faith in the inherent virtue of British power in the world.

Again, however, when we get down to concrete policies, there is little to shock. Corbyn’s vision of future UK relations with the global south were set out most clearly in his December 2017 Geneva speech to the UN, where he advocated for British participation in UN peacekeeping missions, a crackdown on tax havens to help protect the fiscal autonomy of developing states, a marked increase in support for refugees, and a stronger response to global warming. There is little reason to suspect that this is a mild veneer disguising a revolutionary reality. Those who knew Corbyn best during his days in the political wilderness affirm that he could never be heard expressing support for violent struggle, with the hard-left former MP George Galloway referring to him rather sniffily as a “woolly Californian”. So even in that area of foreign relations most closely associated with his radicalism – relations with the global south –there is little in his formal policy stances to seriously offend the average genuine liberal, whatever deeper philosophical differences they may have with him.

This potential, practical common ground between Corbyn and more pragmatic elements of the centre left is reflected in the resemblance between his preference for dialogue over conflict and that of Barack Obama. In the American context, Obama was the reaction to George W Bush, just as Corbyn was a reaction in the British context to Bush’s valet, Tony Blair. Although each come from different political starting points, they share a scepticism that conflicts can be solved militarily, and a willingness to point to the experiences of the 2000s to underline the point.

Obama’s presidency should not be sentimentalised in hindsight, given, to take one example, the active enabling role his administration took in Saudi Arabia’s devastating war on Yemen, and his culpability in the resulting humanitarian disaster. But on Iran at least, Obama took a view (under considerable fire from his opponents) which Corbyn would recognise, namely that diplomacy is most required precisely with people we dislike, and is almost always preferable to military conflict.

Here, Obama’s approach was a direct rebuke to that of his predecessor. When Iran offered a “grand bargain” to the Bush administration in 2003, offering to withdraw support for Hamas and Hezbollah, sign up to the Arab peace initiative for a two-state settlement to the Israel-Palestine conflict, and submit to nuclear inspections in return for a normalisation of relations, the offer was summarily rejected by Washington on the grounds that “we don’t talk to evil”. It is likely that a lot of subsequent pain in the region could have been avoided had that door not been slammed shut, and Obama’s push for the nuclear deal during his presidency was part of an effort to revive these possibilities, reintegrate Iran into the international system and thus de-escalate wider conflicts and tensions. The other parties to the deal have worked hard to maintain it after President Trump walked away, demonstrating the fact that its strategic wisdom remains widely appreciated.

Former Labour foreign secretary David Miliband (pictured with Hillary Clinton) said: ‘If the world is divided between firefighters and arsonists then Britain has for centuries been a firefighter’ – a view sharply contradicted by the Labour leader (AFP/Getty)

Obama was notoriously careful about spending political capital, and his drive to secure the Iran deal resulted in weaker stances elsewhere, not least on Israel-Palestine where he showed a consistent unwillingness to apply the serious pressure on Israel that any fair resolution to the conflict will require. Israel-Palestine is the issue area where Corbyn is politically weakest due to Labour’s much discussed problems with anti-Semitism, but his policy stance itself is an entirely conventional one: support for a two-state settlement with “a secure Israel alongside a secure and viable state of Palestine”. Moreover, the wisdom of emphasising diplomacy over the “we don’t talk to evil” approach is clearly one that could be usefully applied to this case.

When Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian elections, a hypothetical Prime Minister Corbyn at that time might have urged the west to take the approach it eventually took with Iran on the nuclear issue: one that says “we don’t like your ideology or your policies, but we recognise that it’s better to talk through our problems if possible”. Instead, the new government was cast beyond the pale and sanctioned, leading to a civil war between the key Palestinian parties, the isolation of Gaza, over a decade of immiserating siege, several rounds of devastating violence between Hamas and the Israeli military, and the total collapse of the peace process. The recent acceptance from Hamas of a two-state settlement (a position long in gestation within its leadership) hints at the possibilities of what might have transpired had the diplomatic approach been taken from the start. Again, a good deal of pain over the past decade might have been avoided.

One of the reasons that Obama, a cautious moderate, arrived at a similar place to the more philosophically radical Corbyn in respect of the question of diplomacy over conflict is the experiences of the past decade and a half in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in Libya on his own watch. While Corbyn and Obama would disagree about whether these ventures were crimes or merely mistakes, the upshot places them in the same reality. The application of western military force is repeatedly showing itself in practice to be a futile and destructive endeavour, making the search for negotiated settlements, even in situations as unpromising as Syria, the more attractive or least unattractive proposition. Whether one likes it or not, the west is apparently unable to impose its will militarily on the global south as it once could, forcing a shift of emphasis to diplomacy irrespective of whether that is taken up with reluctance or enthusiasm.

The deeper trends in international relations are also driving in this direction. The end of the Cold War may have given the west a deceptive notion of its own omnipotence, but the slow and steady return of global south powers such as China and India to the levels of international prestige they enjoyed before the ravages of European colonialism only serves to further underline the point that a reliance on mere strength – military, diplomatic or economic – will not serve the global north states well going forward.

Adjusting to these new realities is proving challenging for some in Washington and London. Senior Obama aide Ben Rhodes referred contemptuously to the US foreign policy establishment as “the Blob”, in his frustration with its resistance to his boss’s approach. Across the Atlantic, one senior British general went so far as to threaten a mutiny if Corbyn made any attempt to “emasculate and shrink” the armed forces. Quite the revealing turn of phrase. But the fact remains that the experience of the “war on terror” has been a political disaster for Anglo-American militarism, creating space for less chauvinistic figures – from Obama to Ed Miliband to Corbyn – to emerge from various points on the liberal-to-left spectrum, and raising the prospect of some significant policy changes in the future.

Notwithstanding the current right-wing moment in both the UK and the US, the long-term demographic trends point to an inexorable shift in the political balance of power in favour of the Democratic and Labour parties, both of whom have been experiencing internal left-wing insurgencies to varying degrees. There is now a fair prospect of a future President Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren making some degree of common cause on the international stage with a future Prime Minister Corbyn. And while this would not herald a strictly revolutionary change in Anglo-American foreign relations, it would represent a very real and important departure from the days of Bush and Blair.

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