After the general election, we need to re-define our national interest for a changing world

June 5, 2017
  • As the world changes around us, Britain needs a serious debate about what constitutes its national interest that goes beyond Brexit negotiations.
  • The focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s past views on national security have detracted attention from the fatal incoherence in his future foreign policy vision.
  • While the “national interest” has been the leitmotif of the Conservative campaign, there is still much work to do when it comes to explaining what that really means.

Election campaigns rarely lend themselves to moments of great clarity on international affairs. But watching the leaders’ debate in Cambridge last Wednesday night, one cannot fail to be struck by the British habit of discussing the world through high-minded platitudes and cosmopolitan canards. When the campaign comes to an end next week, the exercise in bubble-blowing will have to come an end. After five years of coalition government, a divisive national referendum and two general election campaigns, the business of redefining the British national interest in a changing world must begin in earnest. Whoever forms a government has serious work to do – the more so because so much energy will be taken up by Brexit negotiations.

In fairness to the participants in the debate, the BBC’s carefully assembled audience in Cambridge seemed to be receptive to seven shades of “why can’t we all just get along”. The local nationalist parties, SNP and Plaid Cymru, offered lengthy expositions of their internationalist credentials. This is ground which the Labour Party also regards as terra firma. A particular highlight from the campaign has been Jeremy Corbyn’s proposal for a new Minister of Peace which would raise serious questions about the future role of our two and a half century old Foreign Office.

Meanwhile, the world is tilting on its orbit and the seasons are beginning to change. Vladimir Putin and Emmanuel Macron are butting heads; or, at least, the French president is making a virtue of being seen to take a firm line on European security, as the prelude to the re-making of the EU on a new Franco-German axis. Angela Merkel and Donald Trump are poking fingers in each other’s eye, while casting glances at their electoral base. Faster than expected, the Europe and the United States are diverging on key issues from security to climate change. The damage is not irreversible but the mood within the Western alliance is more sour than it has been at any point since 2003. The UK, which has so often styled itself as an Atlantic bridge in the past, is on an enforced hiatus due to the election campaign. Whoever forms the next government will have a challenge job keeping their balance in these countervailing headwinds.

While the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris climate change agreement is a significant moment, it is but one dimension of a complex and rapidly changing international scene. That Trump has happily handed over the moral high ground to Europe on climate change should not disguise the fact that he has a serious point about the consistent failure of Nato members to take their burden-sharing responsibilities seriously. While the tone of is now one of outraged urgency, the real sin is the complacency of many years leading up to this point.

Jeremy Corbyn has come under pressure for his views on national security but he has been defter in response than many expected he would be. Most of the media scrutiny has focused on his past views and previous record, particularly his alleged support for the Provisional IRA, during the worst years of their campaign. Following a sleight of hand first used by Ken Livingston, they have repackaged themselves as avante-garde peacemakers, prepared to have difficult conversations before the British government eventually saw the light and followed their lead.

For most of those who were actually involved in the peace process in Northern Ireland, Corbyn and McDonnell were worse than irrelevant – they were regarded as active spoilers of the many attempts to bring violence to an end before 1998, prepared to parrot Sinn Fein’s script every turn. The one dissenting note was in 1998, when John McDonnell worried that the republican movement had moderated its aims too much to take part in the Good Friday Agreement. The same feint has been deployed by the Labour leader when asked about his “friends” in Hamas and Hezbollah. Now he now explains was an attempt to use “inclusive” language as part of his campaign for peace. Rather than moral clarity, we are subjected to a rhetorical game of cat and mouse. The method of rebuttal is to obfuscate and only time will tell if the mud has stuck. Among a younger generation of voters, it has become clear, these arguments belong to an era that has long since passed.

More importantly, the emphasis on the Labour’s past pronouncements has meant that he his current views on world affairs have yet to have been subject to the scrutiny that one might otherwise expect. Corbyn has made his career by pronouncing on world affairs from behind a megaphone, to cheers from like-minded comrades. His worldview is riddled with fatal inconsistencies that government would soon test. One notable example is his attitude to dealing with security threats as they emerge abroad. On the campaign trail, the Labour leader has repeatedly referred to the security problems caused by “ungoverned spaces”. But how can this problem ever be addressed when he is doctrinally opposed to intervention – humanitarian or otherwise – in the affairs of other states?

Beyond that is his unabashed opposition to the most fundamental presuppositions on which British foreign policy has operated for seventy years. The faction at the top of the Labour Party is offering the most radical foreign policy platform put forward to the country since the Second World War. In its willingness to dismiss the crucial pillars of the post-1945 international order – put in place by a Labour government – it has more a whiff of the type of “strip the altars” radicalism more often associated with Donald Trump.

It is worth comparing these views to those found in the 1983 Labour manifesto, which promised to scrap Trident. Much to his chagrin, Corbyn and his team have failed to change Labour Party policy on Trident in time for the manifesto. But it remains firmly on the chopping board as soon as the opportunity arises. One recalls the fate of Clive Lewis, whose tenure as shadow defence secretary was brought to an abrupt end when he told the Labour Party conference that he did not want to “pick a scab” by revisiting the issue of Trident. He was swiftly shunted aside by the anti-nuclear deterrent campaigner, Nia Griffith. Then, even when Griffith also agreed to follow the party line for the duration of the election campaign, she was then undercut by Emily Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary, who suggested that support for Trident could not be guaranteed by a defence review if Labour wins the election.

Win or lose, for the Corbynistas, the revolution never ends. Ultimately, purity demands obeisance to a pre-cooked script. And when it comes to Nato, Corbyn’s views are more radical than even the 1983 manifesto. That document declared that “Labour believes in collective security” and would continue to support Nato, albeit while seeking its reform. The current Labour leader does not believe in collective security and has said that Nato “should have been wound up in 1990 along with the Warsaw Pact”. He has repeatedly evaded the question of whether, as Prime Minister, he would act if Article 5 was invoked. Once again, he is outstripping Donald Trump in his contempt for the structures which had been in place for nearly three quarters of the century.

Throughout all of this, the leitmotif of the Conservative campaign has been its commitment to the “national interest”. When it comes to national security and foreign policy, the national interest is not a bad place to start. This sentiment will dominate Brexit negotiations, of course, and It has already lead the Prime Minister to the conclusion that “no deal” is better than a “bad deal”. But a discussion of the national interest cannot start and end with Brexit.

The Conservative manifesto promises an “global, outwardlooking Britain” that “should play an active, leading role in the world”, as well as “advancing the interests of the British people”. Yet this will require a more capacious definition of the national interest. Leverage and influence comes from looking beyond one’s own shores, and seeking synergies and possibilities for collective action. Further cost-cutting, retrenchment and retreat – or confusing self-interest with the national interest – will not serve these larger goals.

For decades, Britain has liked to style itself as the Atlantic bridge between Europe and the United States. This balancing act is likely to be more difficult to maintain than ever before. There is no getting round the fact that for post-Brexit Britain to play a global role, this will require more national resources. Debates over intervention, for example, cannot be wished away, and are likely to return before long. What actions can Britain take to bolster Nato, whose key players are more divided than at any point since the end of the Cold War? Should foreign aid be refocused in a way that also supports stability operations – in places such as Sierra Leone and Mali – as well as development? This was the suggestion recently made by Andrew Mitchell, former secretary of state for international development and General Lord Richards, former chief of the defence staff. Such new thinking is deeply necessary. More importantly, a new strategy is needed that draws together all these elements as part of a coherent whole. For the moment, as the election campaign nears completion, the inbox of the next government is filling up fast.

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