Socialist Internationalism: Beyond the Manifesto on Foreign Policy

Labour’s goal should be to transition the UK out of its post-imperial phase of militarism and support for US hegemony, and into a new foreign policy paradigm of socialist internationalism.

Labour’s current foreign policy, contrary to the caricatures, is pretty mild stuff overall. Any objectionable aspects are those born of compromise with the party right, while the more encouraging ones are those accurately reflecting the values and ideas of this new iteration of the party. Either way there is plenty of scope for development and improvement.

Labour’s goal should be to transition the UK out of its post-imperial phase of militarism and support for US hegemony, and into a new foreign policy paradigm of socialist internationalism. This would involve dismantling the previous era’s militaristic legacy, promoting economic and environmental justice, and adopting a clear and active preference for dialogue over conflict (not only because violence causes misery and costs lives, but also because it is generally the arena where the strong are strongest and the weak are weakest). On the basis of these fundamental principles, how does the 2017 manifesto read, and what can and should be amended?

The main overarching message of the foreign policy section of the manifesto is a commitment to multilateralism, the primacy of international law, and the value of diplomacy to avoid or resolve conflicts. There is scope for Labour to develop this policy strand significantly, carving out a new and distinct international role for the UK. As one of the most multicultural cities in the world, London boasts a population with an unparalleled diversity of global knowledge and language skills. This would be the ideal recruitment base to help establish Britain’s capital as an international diplomatic hub; a forum for dispute mediation and conflict resolution. Where the principal parties to disputes and conflicts are unable or unwilling to enter dialogue, London could facilitate direct or indirect ‘track two’ diplomacy between lower-level parties on either side, helping to create the conditions for more formal negotiations at a later date.

This could serve as a concrete form of solidarity with certain global south actors. For example, Israel has tended to be averse to meaningful negotiation with the Palestinians, since any just and viable resolution would necessitate concessions almost entirely on the Israeli side. It has therefore promoted the idea that it has ‘no partner for peace’ and is faced not by a people with entirely legitimate grievances and rights, but with extremists and pathological haters pursuing maximalist objectives, ignoring the fact that both the PLO and now Hamas sign up to a two-state settlement on the internationally recognised borders, an outcome Israel has always been desperate to avoid. The isolation and immiseration of Gaza, and the frequent violent assaults on its civilian population, flow directly from this policy, backed by the West.

Here and elsewhere, when stronger parties - fearing the concessions necessitated by negotiation - prefer to keep disputes within the arena of violence, London could serve as the arena for dialogue-promotion and ‘track two’ diplomacy, bringing excluded actors in from the cold where possible and desirable, undermining strategies of negotiation-avoidance amongst stronger parties, and empowering more moderate elements within the latter. Through active promotion of the peaceful settlements of conflicts, and a strategy of undermining those who prefer to dominate through force, a Labour government could offer a glimmer of hope to peoples like the Palestinians that some respite, and even something resembling justice, might still be possible for them. Through this and other complementary policies, Britain would shift from being an enforcer of global north power to being a facilitator of constructive international relations.

The manifesto’s commitment ‘to review all training and equipment contracts with repressive regimes’ could have far- reaching implications if properly applied. Careful work will be required to ensure that existing rules are seriously observed, and that new rules are introduced to end the historic policy of backing authoritarianism wherever that serves the priorities of British state and economic power. The commitment to ‘[cease] arms exports to countries where there is concern that they will be used to violate international humanitarian law’ will also need work to ensure that it means what it says, through a strengthening of the existing rules, the institutionalisation of practices in government that would ensure the proper observance of those rules, and the galvanising of pressure from outside government – within the Labour movement and wider civil society – to guard against backsliding once Labour are in office.

The implications of observing these very basic moral standards (in the case of Yemen, the simple refusal to continue acting as an accessory to mass murder) should not be underestimated. Arms exports – mostly going to Saudi Arabia, Donald Trump’s United States and Narendra Modi’s India - play a significant role in helping the UK to maintain a domestic military industry, the sine qua non of remaining a global military power. Winding down these exports will ultimately mean relinquishing that status.

This would not be a bad thing. Far from endangering jobs and undermining the country’s security, such moves could complement wider policies to create jobs and meet the real security threats that we will face in the coming decades. It cannot be beyond the wit of the UK to find a better use for the skills, knowledge and expertise of those working in the arms industry, and in any case, the threat of climate change dictates an imperative to divert resources to the development of green technologies and the fast transition of the UK to a low-carbon economy. This connects with Labour’s industrial strategy, creating both the skilled, secure and well-paid jobs of tomorrow and the high-tech export industries that will serve as a far better guarantor of our future prosperity and security than the further enrichment of BAE Systems. As a bonus, these changes will also boost British exports, close the trade deficit, and reduce our reliance on foreign capital inflows, helping to further dismantle the relationship with the Gulf regimes.

The ‘Defence’ section of the manifesto is palpably a compromise with the party right. It commits Labour to spending ‘at least 2 per cent of GDP’ on the military, placing the UK significantly ahead of most OECD countries, including the more social democratic and egalitarian economies of northern Europe. This is plainly unjustified at a time when domestic infrastructure, industry and public services are in desperate need of investment, and when Britain could give far more in terms of international aid. Given that 53 per cent of the public agreed with Corbyn’s argument, made after the 2017 Manchester bombings, that British military interventions in the Middle East have contributed to the terrorist threat, it is clearly possible to make the case that being a global military power does not necessarily serve the real security needs of the British people. Indeed, the experience of successive, disastrous military interventions, not limited to the calamitous ‘War On Terror’, has created a political conjucture in which, it is possible to advance some wider arguments about Britain’s potential new role in the world.

International conflict is perhaps best understood not as a question of an innocent Britain forcefully meeting a series of motiveless and inexplicable external threats, but rather as the outcome of complex dynamics between the UK and other actors. These dynamics are capable of either escalating toward violence or de-escalating away from it, depending on the behaviour of those actors. This is not to exonerate any violence or aggression on the part of, say, Al Qaeda or Vladimir Putin’s Russia, but rather to take the practical step of analysing the conditions under which conflict with such actors becomes more or less likely.

With tensions between the West and Russia raising the risk of an accidental or unplanned nuclear exchange to its highest level since the darkest days of the Cold War, the manifesto commitment to renewing Trident is reckless in the extreme, and to retain such a position on grounds of petty internal party politics would display a profound lack of seriousness. The responsible approach is a proactive policy of nuclear disarmament, in accordance with Britain’s commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This could contribute significantly to a de-escalation of international tensions, heightening humanity’s chances of survival.

Space might then open up to consider the UK’s position within NATO. The ugly, nationalistic chauvinism that Putin represents should be understood against the backdrop of Russia’s post-Cold War demise as an international power, its disastrous adoption of neoliberal shock therapy in the early 1990s, and the eastward expansion of NATO even after the purported Soviet threat to the West had disappeared. Putinism is a right-wing backlash against decline, analagous to Trump and Brexit in their own contexts. A careful de-escalation of tensions with Russia would change the dynamics that feed Putinism, and Britain could contribute significantly to such moves, perhaps first as a dovish member of NATO, and later on as a prime mover in the dismantling of that organisation in a post-Putin era. In addition, meeting commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and adopting a dovish role in NATO will win Britain the credibility required to play the dialogue-promotion role suggested earlier. Each policy complements the other in the overall transition to socialist internationalism.

The pursuit of economic justice for the global south deserves a separate article, but there is clear scope for Britain to use its influence to drag the IMF and other international institutions out of the neoliberal era. Corbyn has spoken of using the UK’s status as a major financial centre to close off avenues forto illegitimate capital flight from the global south. Labour’s ‘development’ policy is certainly way ahead of its stance on ‘defence’ in terms of reflecting the principles of socialist internationalism.

None of the above will be possible without pressure from the movement to strengthen the leadership’s position against the representatives of the status quo ante within the party. Britain is still richer and more powerful than 95 per cent of the world’s states, and the responsibilities that come with that are immense. A renewed and rebooted Labour movement needs to be ready for this challenge when it comes.