What Should Labour’s Foreign Policy Be?
Labour Affairs does not usually comment on foreign policy issues. However, we do have views on foreign policy. In this editorial we explain what these are for our readers’ clarification. It should be clear why we do not take an active part in foreign policy discussions. We believe in non-interference in the internal affairs of other sovereign states and the promotion of peace. We reject the imperialist heritage of Britain’s past that lives on in the foreign policy of all the major parties. Here we set out some basic principles for what a non-imperialist Labour foreign policy should look like.
Labour has not had a particularly distinguished record on foreign policy. Although it likes to think of itself as a non-imperial party, its conduct is stained with imperialism and, worse, assistance in the imperialism of other powers to the detriment of our own interests. The current behaviour of the PLP over Russia and Syria is yet another unhappy example of this. Jeremy Corbyn is remarkable in his refusal to bend the knee to the continuous artificial righteous indignation, emoting, warmongering talk. His insistence on looking at the evidence of Russian and Syrian wrongdoing or more probably, the lack of it, seems, amazingly, to provoke indignation even within the Parliamentary Labour Party. Things have come to a pass when a leader of the opposition can be criticised for asking for evidence before a course of war is embarked on.
Imperialist attitudes and reflexes are often disguised in the minds of Labour Party politicians as a concern for ‘human rights’ but they are in fact a cover for post-imperialist adventures, often in the interests of a couple of foreign powers. Despite the wisdom of Jeremy Corbyn who, on the whole, has sound instincts concerning non-interference, too often the Labour Party allows itself to follow the reckless adventurism that appears to be the dominant trend in the Tory Party. The fake outrage over alleged Russian actions on British soil are the latest example. The Labour left is not immune either: too often it allows itself to be conscripted into campaigns against other countries for alleged ‘human rights abuses’ where evidence is weak and where antagonism is deliberately stirred up through false flag incidents to exert pressure on countries which the United States wishes to intimidate.
Labour needs to return to the instincts of Corbyn and to promote them as the basis for a sensible foreign policy. At the same time it should be made clear that our efforts in foreign policy should be to promote the interests of Britain, but not some post-imperial illusion of Britain as a world power nor as some auxiliary power of other nations who do not have our interests at heart.
We suggest the following as a guiding maxim for a Labour foreign policy.
We should keep our country safe and secure, respected for good government and above all we should keep our noses out of other people’s business. We should certainly not act as the agent of the interests of any other foreign power.
Relations between nation states are to a large extent governed by force or the threat of force. Where the interests of nations are perceived to coincide there is the possibility of alliance and co-operation. Where they conflict, it is often possible to seek a compromise so that the interest of all parties are addressed as far as possible. This is the task of a nation’s diplomats.
How can nations trust one another? If you are a government, it helps if you know that a country with which you are dealing will promote its interests and defend its vital interests. This gives you a good element of predictability in its behaviour. It also helps if you know that this will be the primary aim of its foreign policy and that it will seek to promote these aims as far as possible by diplomacy and will use its armed forces and intelligence services strictly in pursuit of these aims. Finally, it helps if a nation state is perceived to abide by agreements made in international negotiations, rather than ignore them when they become inconvenient. The whole purpose of formal agreements is that they be kept even if national interests shift. These factors all mitigate the raw use of force in international relations and Britain should promote and live by such principles.
What foreign policy is for: there are two main tasks.
- To promote our country’s interests and to defend our vital interests.
The main goal of any country’s foreign policy should be to promote the interests of that country. This applies to the United Kingdom as much as to anywhere else. In addition, all countries should consider carefully what their vital interests are. Vital interests are those whose protection is necessary to the survival of the state and society. Those interests which a country reasonably deems to be vital are those which it is entitled to use force as well as diplomacy to secure. It has a right to promote and defend its vital interests. It is also reasonable to employ intelligence services to gauge the intentions of both allies and potential rivals, but not to engage in sabotage and false flag activities.
These vital interests include:
- The threat of foreign invasion.
- The dismantling of collective security arrangements (about which more below).
- The protection of significant national minorities outside national boundaries.
- The maintenance of economic trade routes and resources necessary to the economic viability of the state (about which more below).
These are the scope and limits of any foreign policy which claims to be fair to its own population and to its neighbours, be they allies or rivals. This is all that should be meant by an ‘ethical’ foreign policy.
Activities that do not promote a country’s interest or seek to secure its vital interests or which undermine them should be stopped. It is as simple as that. This includes moralistic interventions in the affairs of other countries, which are usually designed to stir up hatred or to disrupt those countries. It also includes acting as the agents of foreign powers such as Israel and the US. This is particularly reprehensible as it threatens to damage the interests or even the vital interests of the country by promoting those of countries whose interests do not coincide with ours. In recent decades the UK has been assiduous in promoting the interests of the US and Israel at the expense of our own. The Labour Party needs to make it clear that these activities will cease.
If there are human rights, they relate to the vital interests of human beings. Humans are social animals who have developed practices and institutions over centuries to attend to those interests. Very different social arrangements have been developed in all parts of the world to ensure that life is bearable and for people to live contentedly. Stable social arrangements of this kind, especially those that include political arrangements that allow different communities to live together in harmony, are particularly important. Throughout the world, different groups have been thrown together through historical accident and it is one of the main tasks of governments to ensure that stable social arrangements are protected. Above all, educated liberals in the West should not assume that the arrangements that they currently favour should be promoted across or even enforced upon the rest of the world. This is a lesson that the Labour Party, with its post imperial heritage and liberal universalist mindset needs to especially take to heart. It is Labour’s job to defend and expand democracy in the UK, it is none of its business to promote democracy elsewhere in the world.
It is also not our job to campaign for human rights. Many of these so-called rights are western obsessions: homosexual proselytization, the promotion of ‘gender diversity’, feminism. They are not rights in the sense described above, that is practices that address vital interests or are essential to promote peace in their own societies. They are all too often used to demonise countries with different traditions and values to our own. We should accept such countries and societies as they are and if for some exceptional reason we have to have a point of view on their internal affairs (for example where a British citizen is affected), we should express it privately or through diplomatic channels. We should also remember that the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights included rights to employment, health care and education. These are genuinely associated with human vital interests. They have been considered ‘too expensive’ since the 1980s and cut from the budget of poor countries when they need financial aid. The UK should refrain from supporting such activities.
These human rights initiatives, often supported both on the right and the left, are a post imperial reflex which assumes the superiority of Britain and its assumed right to tell other countries how they should behave. One can expect such behaviour from the right but the left urgently needs to control its own post imperial illusions, such as imposing homosexual rights in Chechnya to take just one recent example.
- To maintain international security and peace.
Our foreign policy should do this because it is in our country’s interests to do so. We don’t need an ‘ethical’ foreign policy that assumes a ‘holier than thou’ stance towards other countries. We have enough in our own country to be ashamed of without criticising the practices of other countries. The best way to promote our image abroad is to attend to the injustices that we inflict on our own citizens.
The promotion of international security and peace is the best way of securing a nation state’s interests when it cannot impose its will by force on other nations. This is actually the situation of all nation states in the world at the moment, including those who are deluded enough to think otherwise. Going to war with significant powers (as opposed to beating up small and weak nations) is very risky and can lead to national catastrophe. Britain should know this after bungling two world wars within forty years of each other and losing an empire as a result. War is a last resort when all other means to defend a country’s vital interests have failed. Because the UK has not been invaded and humiliated in its own territory it has not taken that important lesson to heart.
Much better is the promotion of collective security. Collective security means that a group of nation states consider their interests and how they can best be promoted as a group. Naturally this implies compromises, but if all are satisfied that their vital interests are protected and guaranteed by arrangement between trustworthy partners, such an outcome should be acceptable. The maintenance of an able diplomatic service which has signed up to such aims should be a priority. Labour needs to give some thought as to what it wants the UK’s diplomatic service to do. This includes maintaining the expertise to understand other countries with which we have dealings and listening to that expertise.
An immediate priority is that we should refrain from adopting an aggressive approach to Russia and more generally to assisting American plans to dominate parts of the world and to intimidate countries seeking to chart their own course. Assisting a foreign power, the promotion of whose interests are opposed to our own is not only bad foreign policy, it could be regarded as treason. The best way to ensure security within our own borders is to not give people in other countries grievances against us by attacking them or colluding with their attackers. Our own internal security services, who are certainly no angels in their own conduct, have pointed out the threats to our security that have arisen from our interference in the affairs of other states.
Britain is geographically located in Europe and should attend to its interests there. Russia is both a part of Europe and of Asia. Russia is an essential component of any European collective security arrangement. Russia has twice in the last two hundred years been subject to devastating invasions from Western Europe. It will not tolerate the threat of a third. At the same time there is no evidence whatsoever that it seeks to expand territorially beyond its current boundaries. It has repeatedly called for European collective security arrangements. We should press for such arrangement for Europe and Russia based on:
- non-aggression between signatories.
- non-interference in elections and arrangements for transfer of power in other countries within the agreement.
- respect for existing borders and respect for the rights of minorities within those borders.
- Respect for the economic model and economic interests of the signatories as long as this does not imply predatory economic behaviour of some against the interests of the other signatories. Separate economic treaties should promote trade and economic intercourse between participants.
- There should be some provision against external aggression against the signatories, but the evidence of such aggression should meet a high standard of proof.
When 2. is violated then the conditions for the fulfilment of 3. are threatened. It is a particularly important provision.
Global threats to collective security.
Where countries pose a threat to regional or world peace, such as Israel in the Middle East, it is proper to speak out and criticise their behaviour while working towards solutions that respect populations which are being oppressed such as the Palestinians. Israel is a particular concern for a number of reasons:
- It refuses to delimit its own borders, making a negotiated settlement of disputes with the Palestinian people and neighbouring nation states nearly impossible.
- It illegally occupies and settles territory that does not belong to it, promoting insecurity and conflict in a region in which Britain does have an interest through trade routes and raw material supply.
- It consistently behaves in an aggressive way towards neighbouring states and advocates the use of force as a means of settling perceived threats to its interests. This has the potential to threaten the vital interests of the UK.
- It to a large extent controls the foreign behaviour of the United States to promote its own unwillingness to define its borders, its illegal occupations and its aggression towards neighbours. This makes it a far greater threat to world peace than it would otherwise be.
We should work within the structure of the United Nations to reduce tensions and increase security, imperfect though the UN is. It is, potentially at least, a forum for the resolution of differences. But we should be realistic about the fact that it is dominated by great powers. We should also note that the human rights provisions within the UN Charter have the potential to destabilise world peace for reasons outlined above and we should refrain from promoting them or assisting countries who promote them to further their own interests.
Our diplomatic service should be oriented towards explaining to foreign powers what Britain’s interests are and how they can be reconciled with those of our neighbours and other countries. It should have the expertise needed to promote collective security arrangements in our region and to ensure civilised relationships with all countries with whom we have dealings. It and the foreign intelligence service should be firmly limited to gathering intelligence to promote these objectives.
Our defence budget should serve our foreign policy aims. It should have nothing to do with projecting force around the world but be concerned with protecting the security and integrity of the country and its borders and littoral seas. There are no other major functions that our armed forces can or should usefully perform.
The Labour Party
The Labour Party has been historically compromised by Britain’s imperial history. We do not advocate feeling ‘guilty’ about this but would prefer to promote a realistic view of our place in the world based on respect for the interests of other nations. Since the Second World War British foreign policy has degenerated into subservience to the foreign policy of the United States in the mistaken belief that this is the most effective way to promote our own interests. There is no evidence whatsoever that this policy has succeeded in doing so.
The Labour Party should adopt a policy that refrains from assisting the interests of foreign powers. It should not seek for Britain to ‘punch above its weight’ in the world by interfering in matters that do not concern it. It should refrain from moralism when commenting on or dealing with foreign powers. The best way for Labour to promote the good name of Britain in the world would be to enact policies that serve the interests of our own people such as renationalisation, industrial democracy, regional policy, good public services and fair taxation. This is why Labour Affairs makes the promotion of these policies a priority.