The limits of Labour’s multilateralism

Submitted by Matthew on 24 May, 2017 - 12:06 Author: Clive Bradley

There has been some recent media attention on Jeremy Corbyn’s alleged past links to the IRA and the claim that he is a “pacifist” — meaning, he is opposed to any and every kind of military intervention, even around “humanitarian” issues.

Corbyn does have a record of support for the Republican movement in Ireland (that is, not the IRA as such, but the nationalists fighting for a united Ireland), and he was long involved with the Stop the War Coalition, which did indeed oppose — sometimes, in Workers’ Liberty’s view, with terrible arguments — the major military interventions involving Britain since the Iraq war (Libya; Syria); the key forces within it including Corbyn, also opposed intervention in Kosova.

But in both cases, while Corbyn’s own politics are influenced by a left-wing tradition of political “softness” towards noxious movements simply because they are at odds with “the West”, his record is probably more concretely connected to a desire to resolve conflicts through negotiation and diplomacy. (This is true, I think, even of his more controversial statements about, for instance, Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement). And this commitment to diplomatic solutions comes top of the Labour manifesto promises on foreign policy. “We will put conflict resolution and human rights at the heart of foreign policy, commit to working through the UN, end support for unilateral aggressive wars of intervention and back effective action to alleviate the refugee crisis,” it states, boldly.

Referring to “ongoing wars across the Middle East, unprecedented numbers of refugees, global terrorism, climate change, the threat of nuclear conflict, a devastating food crisis across East Africa and beyond, an erratic US administration and a more combative government in Russia…” it insists that: “We [must] exhaust diplomatic solutions alongside international, regional and local partners within the framework of international law.”

Though describing the Trump administration as “erratic” seems a bit of an understatement, here Labour is at least prepared to call into question a “special relationship” that previous Labour governments (Blair, obviously, but going back long before that) have embraced. The statement goes on: “When [Trump] chooses to ignore [our shared values] whether by discriminating on the basis of religion or breaking its climate change commitments, we will not be afraid to disagree.”

On one key conflict, Syria, Labour promises to “work tirelessly to end the conflict and get the diplomatic process back on track” — which is implicitly critical of recent military actions. It is unclear what this implies regarding the ongoing, less high-profile Western military involvement in the Syrian conflict. And Corbyn personally does not have the best record on denouncing Syria’s murderous president Assad. But as far as it goes, Labour’s policy is unobjectionable. “Labour is committed to a comprehensive peace in the Middle East based on a two-state solution — a secure Israel alongside a secure and viable state of Palestine.” This for sure is the only basis upon which peace can be
achieved.

The Party also promises to address other conflicts — it mentions “Kashmir, Libya, Nigeria, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen.” Indeed on Yemen — where the Tory government has backed a brutal Saudi-led war, Labour demands “a comprehensive, independent, UN-led investigation into alleged violations of [human rights] in Yemen, including air strikes on civilians by the Saudi-led coalition. We will immediately suspend any further arms sales for use in the conflict until that investigation is concluded.” This would be a welcome change indeed in British foreign policy. A more comprehensive look at arms sales in general would have been more welcome still.

Many such conflicts pose sharply perhaps the most vital issue facing Europe and the Western world — the refugee crisis, which is driven by wars and poverty and shows no sign of abating. On this, Labour is vague: “In the first 100 days of government, we will produce a cross-departmental strategy to meet our international obligations on the refugee crisis.” That is an improvement on the Tories’ utterly lamentable record.

The commitment to “conflict resolution”, if it led to anything in practice, would be a part of any meaningful solution to the crisis. But only part. Immigration is at the heart of the political debate. The issue was clearly central in fact to the Brexit vote. It is the issue which, above all others, the Corbyn leadership finds it hardest to challenge mainstream prejudices. On one level this is hardly surprising — given the toxic stream of anti-immigrant propaganda delivered daily by so much of the media (the Daily Mail being an obvious example). If Labour took an unequivocal line supporting free movement it would be savagely attacked in the press — and many of its core voters, those who voted for Brexit and so forth, would prove hard to win over in the short term (certainly before the election).

While Labour this time certainly avoids the idiotic pandering to these prejudices which marked the Miliband campaign in 2015, still it is backtracking from earlier, stronger statements. Labour is, of course, better than May’s Tories. But a general sense of good-will towards immigrants and migrants, and promises to “meet obligations”, do not equal a policy.

And on defence policy, Labour’s current commitments are a very long way to the right of what might be expected from the Corbyn team. Labour will support Trident. More: “Conservative spending cuts have put Britain’s security at risk, shrinking the army to its smallest size since the Napoleonic wars”.

Labour, by contrast, commits “to spending at least two per cent of GDP on defence [to] guarantee that our Armed Forces have the necessary capabilities to fulfil the full range of [their] obligations.” No doubt this reflects compromises with Labour’s pro-NATO right wing.

There is certainly much to support in Labour’s manifesto commitments on foreign policy, but the broad sweep of it is pretty “mainstream” — multilateralist, favouring diplomacy over armed intervention, with some commitments to the rights of immigrants (whether from EU countries or refugees), but nothing hugely specific, and nothing which could be construed as particularly radical. It is, nonetheless, for sure, a step forward in comparison to the Blair years.