by John Rees, November 4, 2017
Zombie foreign policy now dominates the ministries of the Western powers. Out-of-date Cold War structures further burdened by post-Cold War failures and defeats have left an exhausted but malignant security and defence establishment losing public support.
But failed institutions don’t just fade away, they have to be replaced. Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn brings a unique, at least in the establishment, set of views and values to this debate which could do just that.
The trouble is Labour policy is the exact opposite of its leader’s: It is pro-Trident, pro-NATO, and in favour of spending 2 percent of GDP on defence – a NATO requirement that very few NATO countries, including Germany, actually bother to meet.
And every major shadow cabinet appointment to a foreign affairs portfolio reflects the Ministry of Defence line almost immediately. The hapless shadow defence secretary, Nia Griffiths, turned in the blink of an eye from anti-Trident campaigner to Trident defender.
Her short-lived predecessor, Clive Lewis, even made the extraordinary claim that NATO is an internationalist and collectivist example of Labour values.
Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry, though generally more combative and effective, used her 2017 Labour Party conference speech to endorse NATO and reinforce the commitment to 2 percent of GDP being spent on defence.
The painful irony is that Labour’s policy seems to be becoming more establishment just at the moment when an unprecedented crisis is engulfing Western foreign policy.
The primary arm of Western defence policy, NATO, is facing a little acknowledged existential crisis. NATO is a creature of the Cold War.
Its aim was, as Lord Ismay, its first chief, said, to “keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down”. It is woefully ill-equipped to deal with a world that has left the Cold War era far behind.
Territorially alone Russia itself controls a fraction of the area of its Cold War East European empire, its armed forces and arms expenditure are a fraction of the US’s, and its ability to project its force internationally is limited to its near abroad, with the notable exception of Syria.
The credible threat of Russian invasion no longer lies in Hungary or Czechoslovkia, let alone Western Europe, but in the Baltic states if at all. The danger of a nuclear exchange with Russia is lower than at any time since it acquired such weapons in the 1950s.
The fact that Putin is playing a weak hand in a way which exploits Western failures in the “war on terror” cannot disguise the fact that he presides over less Russian territory than any leader since Catherine the Great was on the Russian throne, with the sole exception of the post-1917 civil war.
The decision to renew Trident looks, in this context, like to most expensive act of hubris by any British government since the Suez crisis of 1956.
NATO has of course tried to adapt. It has adopted an “out of area” operational policy, turning it, without public debate, from a defensive to an aggressive military alliance. The Afghan war and the Libya intervention were NATO operations.
Both were catastrophic failures to which the ongoing war in Afghanistan and the continued chaos in Libya stand as monuments.
Nato’s post-1989 expansion into Eastern Europe, despite recent Nato spin, was in contravention of the promise not to do so given to Mikhail Gorbachev by US secretary of state James Baker, who said in 1990: “There would be no extension of NATO’s jurisdiction for forces of NATO one inch to the east.”
Nato’s expansion has now led to British troops being deployed in, for instance, the Baltic states and Ukraine.
And the Nato alliance is fraying at the edges in any case. Nato member Turkey cares much less about its membership of the defence pact than it does about its war with the Kurds. In pursuit of that war it is currently invading part of Syria, without comment – let alone restraint – by Nato. This even though Turkey’s endgame strategy in the Syrian civil war now means it is increasingly leaning to Russia.
All this at a time when the US, the dominant state in the Nato alliance, has a President who had to be coerced by his own political establishment into abandoning his campaign trail hostility to Nato.
Is there any informed commentator who really believes that any Nato action decided by the current US administration – and there will be no Nato action which is not – will lead to a more stable or peaceful world?
The special relations
And then there is the British establishment’s commitment to the “special relationship” which runs wider than Nato. Quite how little Trump cares about this was evident from the tariffs slapped on Canadian aerospace manufacturer Bombardier. No amount of PM-POTUS hand holding prevented that.
And is the joint US-UK obsession with arming Saudi Arabia, still engaged in a genocidal war of choice with its neighbour Yemen, leading to peace and stability in the region? Saudia Arabia’s monarchy certainly isn’t impressed.
It may be the biggest purchaser of UK arms, but it is equally happy to have a Russian Kalashnikov factory built in the kingdom as well.
Is it really a defensible use of taxpayers’ money for the British navy to be opening a new base in Bahrain, whose ruling monarchy have so recently and brutally suppressed their own people’s democracy movement?
The only purpose this serves is not a return to East of Suez imperial grandeur but under-labouring for the US’s pivot to the Pacific.
And there lies another quagmire. The UK has no independent foreign policy on the immediate issue of North Korea, nor on the strategic issue which lies behind it: the rise of China. “What Donald says” is not a policy, but a policy vacuum.
The truth is this: Western imperial architecture is outdated, its wars have ended in defeat, its allies are untrustworthy, and its leading state is losing the economic race to China.
Public opinion has long since rumbled the establishment bluff. Majority hostility to the “war on terror” conflicts is an established fact. Trident renewal, for a programme that has cross-party support, had failed to gain anything like hegemonic public support.
Nato only gains grudging support because few mainstream politicians will challenge the establishment consensus, although in the UK that support is declining.
Jeremy Corbyn’s views mirror those of this considerable section of the public, particularly those likely to vote Labour. His opposition to Trident is long-standing and his refusal to be bullied into saying he would “push the button” has done him no harm at all.
At last year’s CND mass demonstration in opposition to Trident, Corbyn was the keynote speaker. He was a central figure in the opposition to the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the intervention in Libya. He led the opposition to the bombing of Syria. And he has been a relentless critic of Nato.
But Corbyn is being undermined by his own party’s policy which, at a time when the establishment view of security is manifestly failing and widely unpopular, is giving the Tories a free ride.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Corbynism has been built on breaking with triangulation, yet triangulation is alive and well in defence policy.
Labour badly needs to adopt Corbyn’s view of war and peace and dump the carbon copy of Tory policies which have served working people so poorly.
In the most dangerous moment of the election campaign Jeremy Corbyn did just this.
After the terror attack in Manchester, and against much internal advice, Corbyn connected the bombing with the war on terror. It stopped a Tory line of attack in its tracks and it was widely approved of by electors…because they knew it was true.
Many millions also know that the UK’s wider foreign policy is a mess. Labour needs to catch up with where they, and the Labour leader, already are.