As was probably expected, Open Labour’s pamphlet on foreign policy, launched this week, has caused some controversy. Co-authored by Harry Pitts and Paul Thompson, the pamphlet seeks to develop a new foreign policy for Labour, breaking from the ‘two camps’ mentality and narrowly conceived ‘anti-imperialism’ of the Corbyn leadership, which Pitts and Thompson argue is unsuited to the post-Cold War world. Much of the pamphlet focuses on military intervention, which Pitts and Thompson argue has been much neglected by proponents of an ethical foreign policy since Robin Cook.
Several years ago, I co-wrote, with Yasmine Nahlawi, an essay in Renewal, the journal which Thompson founded in 1993, on the catastrophe in Syria. In our essay, Yasmine and I made some arguments similar to those in the pamphlet—we thought that the legacy of the ‘two-camp’ mentality, and the intellectual rot of Labour’s internal divisions, lay behind policy confusion on Syria. Though much of our analysis focused on providing humanitarian aid, we suggested that limited military intervention, which did not offer a solution to the conflict, should be considered as an option in order to save lives. But despite being perhaps more sympathetic than most to the task Pitts and Thompson have set themselves, I found myself disappointed by their pamphlet.
Part of the problem is in opening the discussion Open Labour wants to start with an emphasis on military intervention. ‘For some reason,’ Mary Kaldor said at the pamphlet launch event, ‘we’ve been completely obsessed with the issue of when is it right to use military force.’ Kaldor, a proponent of a ‘human security’ approach, is much more concerned with the ways in which states intervene, and argues that military interventions are rarely appropriate.
Not even the most hawkish of hawks, after all, believes in intervening everywhere. Debates about intervention have nothing to tell us, for example, about human rights abuses in China or Nicaragua or Saudi Arabia or the Philippines or any number of repressive states with which nobody seriously wants to go to war. Even in cases where intervention might be necessary, a Britain which has weakened its relationships with the European Union and the United States—however hopeful Pitts and Thompson might be for an alliance of values between the soft left and the Biden White House—is unlikely to play a leading role. Much of Pitts and Thompson’s argument, then, concerns a set of circumstances so specific and so limited as to make their case almost wholly theoretical.
This abstraction means that Pitts and Thompson do not successfully break out of the already existing frames of reference in Labour’s internal discourse, but instead simply continue the pro- and anti-intervention debate. They cite approvingly Jo Cox’s essay in a 2015 Fabian pamphlet, which argued against British withdrawal from the world. But what made Cox such an important and incisive voice in Labour’s foreign policy debates was not just her criticism of what she described as the ‘”nothing can be done” sect’ but also the ‘”something must be done” brigade’. The Labour Party has its own two camps on foreign policy, more or less mapped on to the divides between ‘Corbynites’ and ‘Blairites’. Hilary Benn’s speech on airstrikes against ISIS may have been ‘widely lauded’, but it was also pretty vapid.
The authors describe Corbynism as ‘the most recent meaningful hegemonic force in the contemporary Labour Party’, and so it is to Corbynism that they direct their challenge. Much of Pitts and Thompson’s critique of Corbyn’s foreign policy positions is correct. But they reserve almost all of their criticism for the ‘do-nothings’.
Many of Corbynism’s failures on Syria had their roots precisely in this internal two-campism. The Syrian community’s efforts to reach out to Labour under Corbyn came to nothing, because the community was seen to be advocating military intervention in a manner unpalatable to the leadership; we now know that during this time Emily Thornberry was briefed by the Assad apologist Peter Ford. A key element of foreign policy in dealing with repressive regimes must always be engagement with civil society, as Kaldor argues. In countries like Syria or Palestine, that includes displaced people beyond national borders and diasporic communities in Britain. And this makes the case for escaping the abstractions of factional debate. Coming to the discussion with too many preconceived notions and ideological red lines, characteristic of Labour’s two camps, mean that these communities can be spoken over, or simply picked up and thrown aside when they are convenient to make some other point. That Lisa Nandy has already met with representatives of the Syrian British Council is a move in the right direction.
In trying to fashion a foreign policy platform between the two poles of contemporary Labour politics, there are more rewarding places to start. Living in ‘global Britain’ means foreign policy comes home. Pitts and Thompson are right to draw attention to the nature of systems like Russia’s, where the boundaries between the state and oligarchic capital are blurred. But this is as much a domestic question in Britain as a foreign one; Kaldor pointed to the centrality of London to these oligarchic systems in the discussion at the launch. The ‘Russia Report’, which many hoped would point to direct links between Boris Johnson and the Kremlin, actually pointed to the ways in which a poorly regulated financial system allows the free flow of dodgy money. The London property market is a good place to launder dirty money, wherever it comes from.
Britain’s empire of tax havens is not only bad for the British people, but for the world—even the United States has expressed dissatisfaction with this global archipelago of dark money. UK Export Finance funnels British money to fossil fuel projects overseas which make a mockery of the government’s domestic pronouncements on climate change. Britain’s arms industry exports death and destruction around the globe for profit. Lisa Nandy is to be applauded for restating Labour’s position that the UK should not be selling arms to Saudi Arabia, a declaration that goes further beyond ‘two-campism’ than Thompson and Pitts, who offer surprisingly little criticism of states aligned with the West in their piece. These points of intersection between domestic and foreign policy, entirely within the remit of the British government, should be emphases of any left foreign policy.
International law figures in debates about intervention as something that is broken by our enemies and defended by our force. But there are much less blunt instruments at hand most of the time. Labour would do well to consider how, for example, it can support efforts by international lawyers, many of them British-based, to ensure that war criminals in countries like Syria cannot hide from justice forever. And defending international law abroad also means upholding its principles at home. For all the failures of Corbynite foreign policy, it is the former leader and his supporters who have taken the most principled line on the appalling Overseas Operations Bill.
Alex Sobel said at the beginning of the launch that the pamphlet’s purpose was to start a conversation, and that it was envisaged as the first in a series of similar publications. That Pitts and Thompson sought to open this conversation by arguing against the policy of the last leadership is understandable, but their contribution does not, in itself, open up new horizons for foreign policy under Starmer.
Much of what I have said here lies beneath the surface of Thompson and Pitts’s contribution, and they can rightly feel aggrieved at misrepresentations of their position. Yet their argument for intervention does not break sufficiently with Labour’s two camps; they argue forcefully against those who would oppose military intervention in all circumstances, but with little acknowledgement of how limited the appropriate circumstances are. There is no recognition here of how Labour’s manifesto commitments in 2017 and 2019 contain much that has merit, including in the areas outlined above. We should be mindful of Jo Cox’s critique of the do-somethings as much as of the do-nothings. This is not just soft-left difference-splitting—it is the basis of an ethical foreign policy.
George Morris is co-editor of Renewal: a journal of social democracy