Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Labour must have a robust rather than comfortable foreign policy


Ed Miliband has taken another tentative step at redefining Labour's foreign policy with an article in The Observer on Sunday.  His article can be summarised as: the Government is wrong to prioritise trade or narrow British interests (arms sales are often bad); Labour should support democracy movements; however, any such support must be “practical” but not military, for the neocons taught us that democracy cannot be imposed “at the point of a gun”.   In conclusion, “soft power [such as the World Service and British Council] will often be a better way to achieve hard results”. 

Miliband’s article is heavy on sentiment and light on practicality.    He does not set out how his views can be applied to the reality of an unstable, dangerous world in which the democratic and human rights of civilians are routinely trampled on.  The Labour leader quickly needs to move beyond posturing if he is to be taken seriously as an alternative Prime Minister capable and and willing to tackle international crises not merely opine about them. 

Here’s why.  It is understandable, possibly even necessary for Miliband to succumb to the urge to repeatedly lance the boil of Iraq by jabbing at “neocons” and their attempts to “impose” democracy.  He’s right to want to bring opponents of the Iraq war back into the Labour fold.  But in so doing he must not let his foreign policy be dragged back into Labour’s comfort zone, not least because we are in the midst of popular, democratic uprisings in the Middle East which may yet require the kind of military posturing that such people so abhor.  To win back former Labour voters on the anti-Iraq ticket will be a pyrrhic victory if the majority of the country comes to view him as weak, isolationist and naive in the field of foreign policy.

The huge popular opposition to the Iraq war has some perverse effects.  In Libya today, there is a very real possibility that Colonel Gaddafi will seek to foment a bloodbath precisely because he knows that to do so will probably decrease not increase the likelihood of Western military intervention.  He knows that the riskier such intervention becomes for our troops, the more our leaders baulk at deploying them for fear of enraging the anti-war brigade.  It is a mixture of realpolitik, barbarism and madness, but it has a whiff of the cruel logic developed by numerous dictators and genocidal maniacs who have long observed that the international community’s record on intervening to prevent human rights abuses or prevent genocide has been woefully inadequate, verging on criminally negligent. 

Our recent past is littered with evidence of this negligence, paid for by the vulnerable and innocent.  The Serbs ravaged Bosnia Herzegovina under the watchful eye of the EU and UN peacekeepers before the bloodshed belatedly shocked the US into forcing the West to take robust military action to prevent the slaughter.  A previous Labour leader, Tony Blair, learnt from the mistakes of the preceding Tory government, and spearheaded robust military action to prevent Kosovo going the way of Bosnia.  Rwanda showed that despite the UN's Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the international community would indeed sit back and watch as 800,000 civilians were massacred by little more than a hate-filled, machete-wielding mob.  The more recent genocide in Sudan showed that the Genocide Convention was not worth the paper on which it was written, for signatories are obliged to act to prevent genocide once they admit it is happening.  The then US Secretary of State Colin Powell did describe events as genocide, but still the crimes were met with inaction.

We must remember that Tony Blair's interventionism and was the exception to the rule in British foreign policy-making.  Blair's policy of liberal intervention, outlined first in his Chicago speech of 1999, made the case for a more robust approach to failed states where the human rights lives of civilians were being trampled on by vicious and illegitimate leaders.  In the speech, he said in reference to Kosovo:

We cannot let the evil of ethnic cleansing stand. We must not rest until it is reversed. We have learned twice before in this century that appeasement does not work. If we let an evil dictator range unchallenged, we will have to spill infinitely more blood and treasure to stop him later.

If the world would not even intervene militarily in Rwanda, it is hardly surprising that a fascist dictator such as Saddam Hussein assumed that he could continue to unashamedly defy numerous UN Security Council.  He even managed to turn the UN 'Oil For Food' sanctions regime into a stick with which to beat the West, by spending money supposedly destined for medicine and food on building palaces while blaming the resulting civilian hardships on us.  The political consequences for Western leaders who chose to back George Bush's plan to liberate Iraq have been dire and the intervention itself provoked a phenomenal backlash in Western countries.  It is hardly surprising then that dictators such as Gaddifi might conclude that the West has no stomach for a fight, even when the protection of civilian life, rather than any grand geopolitical aim is the sole motivating factor.  We should hope he is profoundly mistaken, but with Western governments already backtracking from even a no-fly zone, it seems Gaddafi may be prove to have been shrewd in his analysis of our weakness.

Blair made this point in Chicago a full 12 years ago:

One of the reasons why it is now so important to win the conflict is to ensure that others do not make the same mistake in the future. That in itself will be a major step to ensuring that the next decade and the next century will not be as difficult as the past. If NATO fails in Kosovo, the next dictator to be threatened with military force may well not believe our resolve to carry the threat through.

Labour must not now disown this doctrine in the interests of short-term internal political expediency.  We must reiterate that we would be prepared to intervene in situations where there are failed states. Labour must not revert to its comfort zone or seek merely to appease the left. It must set out a credible foreign policy. An ‘ethical foreign policy’ Mk II is long overdue but it must be ethical and robust rather than merely comfortable.

It will be a long process, but one we must not shy away from because of the polarisation and acrimony caused by Iraq. We must remain in solidarity with oppressed people and be prepared, in extremis, to do what is practical to relieve their suffering - up to and including military action. We have a responsibility to protect.  We have a responsibility to drive forward changes at the EU and UN level to ensure that the 'responsibility to protect' is not merely enshrined in law but is practicable. Just as with those left wingers who went to Spain to fight Franco, we must not assume that the morally upstanding position of someone from the left is always to oppose war. If the situation in Libya deteriorates and Libyans call out for us to intervene militarily, their calls must not fall on deaf ears in Britain, especially not in the Labour movement.  This may place Ed Miliband and indeed David Cameron in an uncomfortable position. But doing the right thing in international relations is often uncomfortable, and often politically costly, as Tony Blair found out.  Strong political leaders must nonetheless do what is right, not what is necessarily popular or politically expedient.

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GARY KENT WILL BE WRITING ABOUT 'Helping Iraq stand on its own two feet - learning lessons and liberal interventionism' IN PRAGMATIC IDEALISM: IDEAS FROM LABOUR'S NEW GENERATION - A PAMPHLET I AM EDITING AND WHICH WILL BE PUBLISHED SOON.

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