Skip navigation.

New thinking on centre-left foreign policy

Faizal Farook

Progressive Foreign Policy
Edited by David Held and David Mepham
ippr/Polity, 2007

Global Politics After 9/11: The Democratiya Interviews
Edited by Alan Johnson
Democratiya/Foreign Policy Centre, 2008


When Nick Cohen told us what he thought was wrong with mainstream liberal thought in What’s Left? (Fourth Estate, 2007), a range of voices from across the political spectrum spoke up in vociferous agreement. The ensuing debate made it clear that the invasion of Iraq, despite its disastrous progress, was, far from an indictment of the right, instead a hammer blow that shattered the left.

Faced with a questionable, unilateral, pre-emptive military action, many found themselves locked into simplistic solipsism casting Americaand Britainas the bad guys, and therefore viewing their enemies’ enemies as its heroes. Thus charges Global Politics After 9/11: the left abandoned those it should have been supporting (democrats, trade unionists and human rights activists) and supported those it should have been opposing (reactionary fundamentalists, terror groups and totalitarian Islamists). The message of the essays in both Global Politics After 9/11 and Progressive Foreign Policy is clear: the left must recommit itself to the global promotion of human rights and democracy as universal liberal values.

Both books put forward strong but nuanced arguments to establish their starting point of a rejection of political relativism and the advocacy of universal liberal principles. David Mepham’s essay in Progressive Foreign Policy warns progressives against being disorientated by George Bush’s universalistic rhetoric. He chides cultural relativists who see democracy and human rights as neo-colonialism, and established thinkers who have argued that the concepts of rights are inapplicable to non-western societies. Such a position, he argues, rests on a view of cultural tradition as static and unchallengeable, ignores the role of non-westerners in shaping rights dialogue and overlooks the fluidity, diversity and multiplicity within all societies, especially in a global era.

As told to Democratiya, the core of American conservative Jean Bethke Elshtain’s thesis on ‘just war’ echoes this idea, resting on the principle of ‘equal regard’: by considering all humans as of equal value we have a moral duty to consider whether we need to intervene. Elshtain outlines a pragmatic basis for deciding whether it is practical to intervene after considering whether there is a moral basis for doing so. Her warnings, however, against impatience, naive idealism and a reluctance to incur military casualties suggest that ‘just war’ may not be a viable strategy in a risk-averse, post modern cultural climate.

Whilst the focus of the Democratiya interviews is largely the ethics of military intervention, Progressive Foreign Policy takes a wider view of ethical intervention, arguing that any UK-based foreign policy must be grounded in a holistic security policy that embraces ‘soft power’ as well as ‘hard power’; instabilities and threats must be tackled using multidimensional policy responses not just force. Whilst Kevin Watkins and Nick Mabey advocate the role of development and environmental sustainability, Mary Kaldor takes this in a more interesting direction. She highlights the emergence of a global civil society unbounded by territorial borders, which she sees as the ‘bottom-up’ basis for governance by consent and examines how governments can bring together and promote public interest groups abroad.

Where both collections begin to diverge is over the question of whether any interventionist approach should be unilateral or multilateral. Progressive Foreign Policy argues strongly that British and American policy should be embedded firmly in multilateralism. Charles Grant argues for a strengthened EU Common Foreign and Security Policy, even suggesting the revival of the foreign policy provisions of the ill-fated EU constitutional treaty. Taking a wider approach, Ngaire Woods sees the crucial factor as reform of international economic institutions arguing that their lack of representative legitimacy also impedes their effectiveness.

David Held contends that multilateralism is in trouble and the failing global agenda set by the Washington Security doctrine and Washington Consensus needs to be countered by a strengthened UN Security Council and the creation of a parallel Social and Economic Security Council and World Environmental Organisation. Such an approach is anathema to the engaging neo-conservative Joshua Muravchik, interviewed by Democratiya, who whilst embracing the UN as a forum for discussion, dismisses it as a platform for action, arguing instead that international law will need to be enforced by an internationalist US, the only remaining superpower.

Following through on its argument for international solidarity, Global Politics after 9/11 features interviews from leading progressive thinkers in the Middle East: Ladan Boroumand, Saad Eddin Ibrahim and Kanan Mayika. All three view the role of the US in the Middle East as positive and progressive, even though their opinions of the Iraqi intervention differ, explaining that the Arab street is largely pro-Western. They make compelling arguments against conflating Islamist movements with the will of the people, though Ibrahim also makes a compelling argument for the co-option of Islamists into democratic frameworks where possible. What is clear from their analysis, however, is the enduring power of ideas and ideology in mobilisation, which serves as a powerful reminder to the British left in a period where it seems undecided on what it stands for, both domestically and internationally.

As one would expect of the calibre of contributors (many featured in both), both collections offer valuable contributions to recalibrating the left’s international perspective. For those looking for a detailed academic exposition of a holistic progressive approach, Progressive Foreign Policy presents a thorough, comprehensive and well thought out argument. On the other hand, the Democratiya interviews adopt more of a ‘salon’ approach, and thus is by far the most provocative and engaging of the two collections. Whilst its range is narrower than the ippr volume, its focus on the moral and ethical dimensions of foreign affairs makes it accessible and eminently readable, as well as containing a range of arguments and counter-arguments from across the political and geographical spectrum. Readers looking for a good ideological dust-up, one sorely missing from the current domestic political debate, will find plenty to invigorate and infuriate in Democratiya’s excellent collection.