The return of the internationalists? Unpacking Labour’s position on foreign policy.

November 3, 2017

Last week, Chuka Umunna spoke to Chatham House in a much-needed intervention on the state of British foreign policy. While it may not endear him to Labour’s leadership team, it confirmed that he remains a serious force on the backbenches. In a reminder of why he was once tipped as a future Labour Party leader, he spoke eloquently about the views of his father, an immigrant from Nigeria who arrived in 1964, about Britain’s historic role in the world. Bennett Umunna “saw the ugly side of the Empire but he never gave up on the idea that Britain was also a force for good”.

In recent years, the British foreign policy debate has not kept up with the pace of global political and economic change. For that reason alone, there was much to commend in Umunna’s sense of urgency. To adapt to the challenges of the twenty-first century, as he put it, “we need to look ahead and develop a proper national strategy on the basis of a clear understanding of what our interests are”. In doing so, he also signaled concern about undue “timidity” in our foreign policy, alongside the temptation to regard “decline” as some sort of unavoidable national fate. “We must act and decide on our future, because if we do not, if through fear and timidity we dither and do nothing, there are consequences of inaction.”

This emphasis on proactivity instead of passivity chimes with some of the broader themes of a Policy Exchange report from the start of this year, The Cost of Doing Nothing: The Price of Inaction in the Face of Mass Atrocity, to which two Labour MPs, the late Jo Cox and Ali McGovern, contributed, and at the launch of which Gordon Brown spoke. By Umunna’s reasoning, the UK is approaching a fork in the road. “We can surrender to our fatalism and allow ourselves to sink into decline,” he argued, “Or we can act to uphold our values of democracy and liberty by a readiness to argue for them and defend them.”

The speech was also refreshingly radical in its diagnosis of current trends in global affairs. Much has been written about the so-called crisis of the “liberal international order” in recent years. But there comes a time when the wailing and gnashing of teeth has to give way to some tough-minded critique. Too many defenders of that order have laid the blame for its deterioration at a resurgence of political populism in the West. For Umunna, the grumbling of disgruntled elites with a vested interest in defending the status quo is no answer to the problem. To that end, he aimed an unexpected kick to the guts of Davos Man, that beleaguered species first identified by Samuel Huntington in 2004. “I believe in the values of this order, but it has lost the moral energy of its birth in the Second World War.” In recent times, said Umunna, it has become “a feeble version of the original and it now belongs to Davos Man with his sense of privilege and entitlement.”

In terms of analysis, the speech channeled the work of some of the more innovative exponents of “liberal internationalism” in the American academy, such as the Princeton professor John Ikenberry. This thesis is based on a greater understanding of the context in which the liberal international order first emerged. It argues that the post-1945 international system arose from the creation of a new social contract in the West in the middle part of the century. This was seen first in Roosevelt’s New Deal and Britain’s wartime coalition government and secondly, in measures such as the Atlantic Charter and Marshall Plan.

Today, the reason why the liberal international order is in crisis, so this argument goes, is that the social contract on which it was based has fractured across the West. This is because of a convergence of challenges including stagnation of median incomes, social fragmentation and the demographic time-bomb caused by an ageing population. “Without consensus at home, the rules based international order will become weaker”, says Umunna.

More specifically, the speech also stressed the unique role of the British Labour Party at the creation of the post-war order. The Attlee government had “a belief in a robust national defence married to a passionate commitment to social justice”. Too many people in the modern Labour Party “forget that Foreign Secretary Bevin was the driving force behind NATO”.

One suspects that there is more than historical amnesia at work here. Jeremy Corbyn has repeatedly questioned the purpose of NATO, describing it as a danger to world peace and once suggesting it should have been wound up with the Warsaw Pact. Last month, the Young Labour Party conference went even further, condemning NATO and calling for Britain to withdraw from the “lynchpin and institutional expression of American imperialism”. No political party in the world played a greater role in NATO’s creation; today, no mainstream political party in the West is more hostile to its existence.

Another reason why Umunna’s speech marked a departure point in current foreign policy analysis on the British left is that it did not reach for easy answers to complex problems. There was no love lost for Donald Trump; but nor was there any point in expending all one’s intellectual energies in ever-louder expressions of moral outrage. First of all, the trends underway in US foreign policy have longer roots. It was under President Obama, as Umunna noted, that “America loosened its ties to Europe and turned to face the growing power of Asia”. Whoever sits in the White House, there are some cold hard facts of history that we cannot simply dismiss with a wave of the hand. The United States “is our ally and the Atlantic remains our strategic frontier.” The relationship “gives us security, and it amplifies our capabilities”. With half an eye on the Blair government and half on the current front bench, Umunna also said “Labour has swung from uncritical support for US foreign policy with disastrous consequences to our current anti-Trump hostility. Neither approach benefits our national interest over the long term.”

What, then, is to be done? Rather than weeping at the demise of a rather halcyon image of the good old days of liberal international order, Umunna’s proposals for increased proactivity had some teeth. First was the soft power component. The Foreign Office is world class but underfunded, as are the British Council and BBC World Service. At the multilateral level, Umunna also returned to the idea of UN Security Council (UNSC) reform, bringing in India, Brazil, Germany and Japan. He even went so far, in unpropitious circumstances, as to revisit the idea of creating a Rapid Reaction Force under UNSC control. “We should consider renewing attempts to expand the UN Security Council to include India, Brazil, Germany and Japan, and to promote the idea of a Rapid Reaction Force under its control, however difficult this might prove to be.” Some might view this as a potentially risky game to play for Britain, given that it has less international clout today than it did at the creation of the UNSC in 1945. There may also be some rolling their eyes at the same old mantras of UN reform being rolled out again. But it makes sense for the UK to get ahead of this debate and to lead the way in articulating how the relevant structures might be adapted to new global realities. It is always better to be with the builders and visionaries than the naysayers (those attempting to hold on, with loosening grip, on the status quo).

Most eye-catching of all was Umunna’s insistence that the defence spending commitment should rise above NATO’s two per cent of GDP, lifting it incrementally to 2.5 per cent over a five-year period. This was something suggested in a March 2017 Policy Exchange report on The UK and the Western alliance: NATO in the new era of realpolitik. It is easier to make such bold suggestions from the backbenches but Umnuna is right to use the latitude to reinvigorate the debate about national defence. It puts him ahead of the government and also on a potential collision course with his own party.

Labour internationalism, it seems, survives in the parliamentary party. Umunna has given it a post-Blairite voice and there are others, like Dan Jarvis, who share the same conviction – one which goes to the heart of the Labour Party story. Time will tell if this tradition will prevail. For the moment, it seems that it still has a fighting chance.

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