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Foreign policy: developing a progressive alternative

Emma Reynolds


The Tories’ reduction of our interests to promoting UK plc, and emphasis on purely bilateral relations, underestimates Britain’s role and standing in a multipolar world. 


The Labour Party has always been part of an international movement. Our irreducible core of internationalism should frame the way we apply our values of solidarity, social justice, and responsibility to protect. Our recent experience in government – in particular the decision to go to war in Iraq – demonstrates the danger of the public perceiving Labour as abandoning its values.

If we want to offer a credible opposition and alternative to the Coalition, we must reconnect with our idealist traditions while being practical and realistic about how these values can be applied in today’s changing world.


The background: how the past can inform the future

Any debate about what the Labour Party’s approach to foreign policy should be in opposition must take into account its recent mixed record in government. Although the previous administration enjoyed some notable early successes – such as in Kosovo and Sierra Leone – discussion of the party’s time in office is still dominated by the decision to go to war in Iraq.

This article does not aim to contribute to the ongoing debate about the Iraq war, though it is interesting to note that the criticism most commonly levelled against our actions in Iraq are rarely applied to our altogether more successful interventions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone, neither of which were based on a UN mandate (see Chalmers, 2009). Nevertheless, the spectre of the Iraq war continues to loom large and there is no getting away from the fact that, rightly or wrongly, the decision to remove Saddam Hussein by force has profoundly affected Britain’s credibility on the world stage. It must therefore form the starting point for any discussion about how we are to go forward.

Hussein’s refusal to cooperate with the UN weapons inspectors led many to suspect and believe that he was developing weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The existence of WMD became the focal point of the government’s justification for going to war. Alongside this, however, sat an equally deep-seated suspicion in the country, and within parts of the international community, that the government’s decision to go to war was principally based on Tony Blair’s desire to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States.

That perception has proved hard to shake – at home, no less than abroad. Although Blair’s appetite for George W. Bush’s self-declared ‘war on terror’ won him plaudits in the States and record levels of popularity for a foreign leader, it was disastrous for his popularity in much of the rest of the world and impacted negatively upon Britain’s relations with our other important international allies. Blair came to be seen as divisive player on the world stage: somebody who had given up on Labour’s core internationalist values in order to strengthen his own special relationship with the world’s over-mighty superpower.

For those of us on the left it was, no doubt, deeply unsettling to see a progressive, centre-left British government bending over backwards to oblige a hawkish neo-conservative American administration. But more importantly than that, the whole approach fell woefully short of the ‘ethical foreign policy’ which Labour had formulated in opposition in the run-up to the 1997 general election and proclaimed during its early years in office (Cook, 1997).

Perhaps it was inevitable that the latter was always going to prove more popular in opposition than in government, where events readily throw even idealists as determined as Woodrow Wilson off course, and dreams of international harmony are necessarily soon tempered by realism about what can practically be achieved. What this illustrates has long been known: that eye-catching and attractive strap-lines are easier to promulgate in opposition than they are to carry out in practice. Labour’s ‘ethical foreign policy’ quickly became an albatross around the new administration’s neck: something that the media could beat them with whenever there was a whiff of anything less than heroic.

How then are we go forward in this important area? While it is probably true that the negative impact of Iraq diminished as time passed and relevant cabinet positions were filled by those less tainted by the original decision, a problem of trust clearly remains – both with respect to our electorate and our allies abroad. Addressing this ‘catastrophic loss of trust’, as Ed Miliband recently expressed it, must be at the centre of Labour’s programme of renewal in foreign affairs. Furthermore, questions about international peace and security have never been more vital and pressing.


Brave new world

Not only does our approach in opposition have to prove credible for the next few years, being based upon principle but also capable of practical application, but it must also be capable of standing the test of a future period in government. This means taking full account of the key changes which have shaped the international landscape in recent years. As the Labour Party prepares for winning back power, the world we hope to help govern is changing in deep and important ways. Three seismic shifts mark the modern age.

First, the nexus of interrelated challenges and threats which we collectively face are unprecedented: the global financial crisis, trade imbalances, food and water security and climate change, record levels of global unemployment and increasing numbers of young people in the world population, mass migration and nuclear proliferation. This combustible combination threatens a perfect storm (see Evans and Steven, 2009). Each of these challenges imports a sense of insecurity and unfairness, most keenly felt by those least able to bear it, namely the world’s poorest. The ever-increasing interrelatedness of the world’s economies, trade and communications is often more of a threat to those who do not have the means – in terms of resources but also of power – to take advantage of the opportunities presented by globalisation, and instead often bear the brunt of its risks, such as the relocation of jobs or the effects of climate change. Globalisation therefore inevitably appears as a hostile force – not something to be celebrated as a source of wealth creation or a potential force for good in the world – but as something alien and threatening, taking away life’s bare necessities.

Second, the shift from a unipolar world – with the US as the sole superpower – towards one dominated by a range of players including the emerging economies of China, India, Russia and Brazil. The global economic crisis which hit the Western economies particularly hard has accelerated this ongoing power shift – with China and India experiencing high levels of economic growth while economies like our own were in recession. However, this more fragmented and multipolar world order has not resulted in more multilateralism, as some states with newfound power tend to act unilaterally.

Finally, and linked to the last, there is the tremendous opportunity afforded by Barack Obama’s Presidency. Notwithstanding the gradual shift to a more nuanced global politics outlined above, the US continues to take the lead in resolving the world’s major conflicts, including those in Afghanistan and the Middle East. Rarely has an American administration been so willing to cooperate and to engage constructively in the world’s most volatile areas. From the very start of his presidency, Barack Obama has made clear his intention to fundamentally redefine and reshape America’s vexed relationship with the Muslim world, and his eagerness to build alliances with the vast majority of moderate Muslims to fight an extremism which serves Islamic communities abroad as poorly as it serves our own in the West is manifest. His administration provides the world with a chance to succeed in many areas that we were denied during the Bush administration. A British government which fails to seize on the opportunities Obama’s administration now offers will do a disservice to us all.


Three failed approaches

What should Labour’s approach be in this brave new world? In formulating a new approach to foreign policy, it is perhaps instructive to consider the failures of the schools of thought which have dominated the debate till now.

Three main foreign policy approaches stand out and each has proved in different ways to be inadequate or ineffective:

  1. ‘neo-conservative interventionism’: the unilateral imposition of ‘progressive Western values’ on the world through the use of force;
  2. ‘hand-wringing multi-lateralism’: it is always wrong to intervene when wholesale agreement cannot be reached;
  3. ‘conservative realism’: foreign policy is to be determined exclusively by reference to a narrow conception of the national interest.

Each school of thought gets something fundamentally wrong, but a critique will also highlight that each contains germs of truth that should not be ignored. We need to avoid the pitfalls of these approaches whilst recognising that some of their guiding principles remain relevant.

Consider, first, the neo-conservative view. Certainly, intervention is not always wrong: the removal of brutal regimes in Kosovo and Sierra Leone surely demonstrates that. But there are deeper lessons here. Early military successes in Afghanistan undoubtedly blinded the US and the UK to the kind of investment that long term success demands. It is also clear that the Iraq war distracted the US, the UK and others from securing further victories there. Some analysts suggest that we have come back to the Afghan war too late, and that after nine years there we have only really stepped up to the plate in the last year.

Western values of democracy and gender equality, though laudable, are not easily secured. Civilian casualties and corruption at the heart of Karzai’s government have served to exacerbate the situation. There is some evidence that Afghans are turning to the Taleban not for ideological or doctrinal reasons but for far more simple and pressing reasons of economic security. In some parts of the country, the clerics and the warlords promise to deliver what the Allied forces and the Afghan Government have failed to give them: law and order, safety, the prospect of work, access to healthcare and other basic services.

The moral is clear: although it is sometimes right to intervene, nations need to pick their battles carefully and channel significant resources into them to have any hope of success. Not because one wants laurels of victory upon which to rest but rather because real victory demands an investment in terms of resources, and, tragically, lives, that no nation can readily afford to spare – where the cost of disappointed expectations is sometimes higher than the cost of not raising expectations to begin with.

Second, at the other end of the foreign policy spectrum is hand-wringing multilateralism. This position – which is traditionally taken by the hard left of our party – gives insufficient weight to our responsibility to protect. There is a serious danger of failing to intervene and, as in the case of Rwanda, standing by to let genocide unfold before our eyes. Multilateralism is important but within the framework of an unreformed United Nations, should our hands be tied by the unilateral use of a veto? Our decision to intervene to prevent ethnic cleansing in Kosovo was the right course of action – even though we faced opposition from one of the permanent members of the Security Council, Russia.

Finally, conservative realism traditionally defines the national interest in very narrow terms, and this is where it falls short. To maintain that people care only about what happens on our doorstep does a great disservice to the public whose real concerns rightly reach beyond our borders. As has been seen in the campaigns to stop the debt and the reaction to disasters such as the Tsunami, the British public have a natural sense of compassion which David Hume underlined over two centuries ago.

Such are the problems with the traditional ways of thinking but there are relevant guiding principles which we should not neglect. One lesson is that the interventionist use of force is sometimes justified. A degree of realism should be applied to every foreign policy decision and we should recognise that any democratic government which fails to persuade its electorate that their interests are central to its approach will be short-lived. In a multipolar world, multilateralism must be our objective, but being unable to reach agreement must not make the international community impotent and redundant.


The new Conservative realism

The new Conservative-led Coalition government’s approach falls squarely in the last school of thought: conservative realism.

The new Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has introduced a concept of ‘enlightened national interest’, which he is at pains to emphasise ‘cannot be narrowly or selfishly defined’ and remains values-based (Hague, 2010). But the new government’s unapologetic focus on Britain’s commercial interest is both narrow and selfish, and the values invoked are confined to the promotion of political freedom.

The Prime Minister’s recent delegation to India, and his statement that our leading diplomats should be economic as well as political Ambassadors, have been welcomed by business leaders. Appointing the former Permanent Secretary of the Business, Innovation and Skills to the same post in the Foreign Office sent another clear signal that British foreign policy is to be dominated by a pursuit of our commercial interests (Parker, 2010).

Of course, it is important to promote UK plc abroad, but this is a tactic, not a strategy. The purpose of foreign policy must go far beyond this objective. Our duty to our fellow human beings must not be restricted to inspiring others to act like us and pursuing our own business interests abroad.

Even if we were to accept that our values should be reduced to the Conservative mantra of economic liberalism and political freedom, it remains to be seen how the Coalition will deal with the trade-offs between these values. Will the government grant arms export licences to further British companies’ interests and turn a blind eye to human rights issues (Clark, 2010; Asthana et al, 2010)? Will the government use foreign aid to encourage private education and healthcare in developing countries as has been recently suggested by the International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell (Helm and Stewart, 2009)?

In the same speech, Hague stated that ‘although the world has become more multilateral … it has also become more bilateral’ (Hague, 2010). He appears to envisage a role for Britain as an individual dealmaker on the global stage. This appeals to the eurosceptic wing of his party and chimes in with his own anti-European instincts. But it overlooks the multiplier effect that being a member of the European Union has upon our international standing. In a multipolar world, our EU membership become more, not less, important (Wilder, 2009). Where we agree with our partners, cooperation strengthens, rather than diminishes, the pursuit of our national interest. For somebody who prides himself on being a hard-headed realist, Hague shows a surprising lack of understanding of the reality of power politics. His instincts and approach also run contrary to the position of the Liberal Democrats, the most pro-European political party in the UK, and Hague’s Coalition partner. These tensions will surely begin to surface when faced with either unexpected events or negotiations on the European budget.

Whereas Hague dresses up a narrow conception of our national interest and values in a rhetoric which seems to promise a more enlightened approach, Labour needs to positively espouse and seek to champion a broader set of values in its thinking.


A distinctive Labour foreign policy

So what are the values that underpin a progressive, centre-left foreign policy and how should we define our approach in opposition?

The Labour Party has an idealist tradition which we would do well not to neglect. We want to change the world, not just accept it as it is. The Tories promised in their general election manifesto that ‘a Conservative government’s approach to foreign affairs will be based on policy that is hard-headed and practical, dealing with the world as it is and not as we wish it were’ (Conservative Party, 2010). We should reject this characterisation of the UK as a passive onlooker. Instead we see the UK as a significant actor on the world stage.

We must also reject the false dichotomy between idealism and realism. Good intentions matter, but we know that they do not feed the starving or free the persecuted. For that we need good outcomes. A progressive foreign policy is therefore driven by an idealistic desire to change the world, but is practical about the steps needed to get there and tempered by realistic expectations about what is possible in the short term.

To take the most extreme cases, we must assert our moral duty to protect civilian populations at the mercy of oppressive regimes or internecine conflict. The extent to which we can achieve our goals obviously depends on the willingness of our international partners and the practicalities of the situation. We have a responsibility to promote social justice within and beyond our borders, protecting the poorest here and abroad from insecurities and threats. Our responsibility to protect gave us the moral authority to act in Kosovo and Sierra Leone.

Equally we must embrace solidarity with our fellow human beings which involves a willingness to offer help to those afflicted by natural disaster such as an earthquake, flooding or famine. Here the practicalities of offering help are usually less problematic but our commitment is nonetheless clear.

In government, Labour’s values of solidarity and a quest for international social justice drove our policy beyond humanitarian aid into the pursuit of the most active international development policy this country has ever seen. We won the argument because our policy was firmly rooted in our values and our action was part of a wider social movement (see Lownsbrough, 2009) – so much so that the new Conservative Prime Minister has ring-fenced the Department for International Development’s budget.

However, we must be clear that although the Conservatives have committed to the same budget, their different priorities are becoming apparent. They have already been criticised for targeting development spending in the areas of Afghanistan affected by the military conflict at the expense of other poor areas (Save The Children, 2010). Moreover, the International Development Secretary’s absence from the delegation to India is noteworthy (Mishura, 2010) and there is a reluctance now on the part of the government to give aid to emerging economies. In India – where some of the poorest people in the world live in vast numbers – this is clearly a dereliction of duty. Andrew Mitchell also seems keen to promote private education and healthcare in Africa with our aid budget (Helm and Stewart, 2009). Their policies are distinct from our approach in government and our policy in opposition should reflect this.

Our international development policy is altruistic, but it also must recognise that a world of poverty, political oppression, instability and corruption not only impinges on the human rights of those in developing countries but also creates problems on our own shores in terms of the number of refugees and migrants, as well as threats to our food, water and energy security.


Labour values in the brave new world

How does the application of our values recognise the realities of a more multipolar world which more interconnected and is faced with a complex nexus of challenges?

The Tories’ reduction of our interests to promoting UK plc, and emphasis on purely bilateral relations, underestimates Britain’s role and standing in a multipolar world. Our approach must recognise that bilateral relations, though important, will never replace the potential leverage of our membership of multilateral institutions – our permanent seat on the UN Security Council, our membership of the EU and the G20 and our central role in the Commonwealth. All of these and more provide us with a unique platform from which to punch above our weight internationally.

The threats and opportunities we are now presented by this brave new world – such as free trade, climate change and energy security – necessarily require more multilateral action. These are problems which cannot be solved bilaterally as the Tories would have us believe. Bilateral relations, though important, must be part of a more holistic strategy which uses our membership of international institutions – in particular the European Union – as a means to achieving our ends.

We must, however, recognise that in foreign policy terms the European Union is currently punching below its weight. This is partly due to the Eurozone crisis which has severely weakened the EU’s potential to act as a force for good. And it can also be explained by the difficulties of agreeing foreign policy objectives. Take Russia as a case in point: the approach of member states to this emerging economy are markedly different. This is underpinned by concerns around energy security, as well as historical relations, and for as long as this remains the case, reaching agreements which involve Russia will prove impossible.

In terms of the economic challenges we face, the EU should be the mechanism through which Europeans are able to shape the process of globalisation in line with their shared interests and values. But instead of being seen as the answer to public concerns about globalisation, the EU has come to be seen as part of the problem – as an agent of unthinking liberalisation and accelerating laissez faire globalisation (Wilder, 2009). To recover and develop the EU’s popularity and legitimacy, its member states must chart a future which empowers businesses and workers alike to fully exploit the opportunities presented by emerging economies and the growing demand for European exports.

In a multipolar world, ‘soft power’ becomes a more important foreign policy tool which is an investment for the long term. It is a form of influence which is assuming a more important role in the twenty-first century within a world which involves interconnected populations, not just governments. Some Conservative policies also threaten the effectiveness of these tools: the degradation of the image of Britain represented by the commercialisation of our diplomacy, the removal of some of our Embassies and cuts to the BBC World Service and the British Council – all spell a reduction in the effectiveness of our reputation and therefore our voice in world affairs.



Defining a progressive, centre-left foreign policy requires us to hold true to our values of internationalism, idealism, social justice and solidarity. This is distinct from the Tories’ almost exclusive focus on promoting the interests of UK plc, and their failure to recognise the importance of our role in multilateral institutions, and our role in them, in a world where there is a gradual, but definite, shift in power to the emerging economies. Bilateral relations, though important, must be a complement to multi-lateralism, not a substitute. The most important of these institutions is the European Union, which must be made more effective.

Labour’s policy in opposition should therefore focus on where our approach is distinct from the Conservatives – but must also set out a strategic vision with multilateralism and our values at its core.



Asthana, A, Helm, T. and Syal, R. (2010) ‘Britain scraps annual assessment of human rights abuses across the world’, The Observer 22.08.2010.

Chalmers, M. (2009) ‘The new politics of intervention’, Renewal 17 (1): 37-43.

Clark, D. (2010) ‘What will nice Nick say to the arms dealers?’, The Independent 16.07.2010.

Conservative Party (2010) The Conservative Manifesto 2010, London, Conservative Party.

Cook, R. (1997) ‘Speech on the government’s ethical foreign policy’, 12.05.1997.

Evans, A. and Steve, D. (2009) ‘Risks and resilience in the new global era’, Renewal 17 (1): 44-52.

Hague, W. (2010) ‘Britain’s foreign policy in a networked world’, speech, 1.07.2010.

Helm, T. and Stewart, H. (2009) ‘Charities slam Tory voucher plan for developing countries’, The Observer 5.07.2009.

Lownsbrough, H. (2009) ‘New Labour, foreign policy and NGOs’, Renewal 17 (2): 10-14.

Mishura, P. (2010) ‘It’s India’s poor who need British aid, not its military and business elites’, The Guardian 28.07.2010.

Parker, G. (2010) ‘PM wants Foreign Office to make export drive priority’, Financial Times 22.07.2010.

Save The Children (2010) ‘Government pouring of aid into conflict areas in Afghanistan threatens future security and lives of children’, press release, 20.07.2010.

Wilder, C. (2009) ‘Engaging Europe’, Renewal 17 (2): 5-11.