Whatever happened to foreign policy?

Quite a lot of foreign policy happened this week; but for the sound of silence from the British left you might have been forgiven for thinking that the world outside the British Isles had ceased to exist. The natural posture of opposition parties is parochial: but the natural position of a party with at least a 50-50 chance of being in government in two years’ time has to be better than that.

As is so often the case, Labour’s problems go back to Iraq.

I grew up in a political household. Not Labour political: international development political. No Kit-Kats or McNuggets political, Terrence Higgins Trust and Fairtrade chocolate bars political. It was one that rattled tins instead of knocking on doors, but it was a political household nonetheless.

So it would be disingenuous to say that the war in Iraq ‘made me political’, but it was the first event about which I formed an opinion of my own, the first time I really understood what Martin Luther King meant when he spoke of ‘the fierce urgency of now’.

It had the reverse effect upon the Labour party. Iraq was both high watermark and high noon for Labour’s internationalist tendency. The same understanding – that socialism doesn’t end at Dover – that led to interventions in Sierra Leone and Kosovo, the creation of the Department for International Development and the dropping of the debt reached what was – depending on your perspective – either its zenith or its Waterloo.

The problem was, after the traumas of Iraq – a badly split party, the losses in the election that followed – the Labour party took one lesson from Iraq, regardless of what side people came down on, and that lesson was that never again would the party venture into foreign lands.

Never again would the party look to the world elsewhere. The biggest idea to emerge from the left since the crash is still blue Labour: which is about exporting poverty to somewhere we won’t have to look at it. This approach kept the party together, but, almost a decade on, it’s clear that this is not, and never will be, a direction to anywhere.

This is where David Cameron poses a great danger to Labour: because he makes the easy parts of politics look difficult, he makes the difficult parts of politics look easy. Kidney stones have been passed at greater speed than the prime minister delivering a make-or-break speech on the European Union, but don’t forget: Labour will likely return to the government with the eurozone still in turmoil, and French boots still on the ground in Mali.

The question of Labour’s approach becomes ever more urgent. Those who don’t learn from the past might be doomed to repeat it, but remembrance is not the same as paralysis. Don’t forget that foreign policy is more than just fisheries and invasions: Labour has quietly accepted the Tory direction of travel as far as international development is concerned.

But while it’s an easy applause line to cut aid to ‘rich’ countries like India and China, it’s a decision with consequences for women without education, for religious minorities, for writers and broadcasters.

What approach should Labour take? Labour needs to disinter its fundamental values. We’re for sexual equality everywhere: we’re for education for everyone. In a time of limited money, what we can most effectively change – not the GDP of the country in question – should inform our policy decisions. The Labour party’s best foreign policy is one that anchors its battles against poverty and inequality in a global, not just a local context. The Labour party’s best foreign policy has to be anchored in north Africa, in Europe, in Brazil, in India and in China. The Labour party’s best foreign policy needs to move on. Labour needed to learn the lessons of Iraq, for sure, but if you keep resitting the same exam, are you really learning?

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Stephen Bush writes a weekly column for Progress, the Tuesday review, and tweets @stephenkb

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Photo: Clive Darr

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Comments: 3...

  1. On January 22, 2013 at 11:00 am Anonymous responded with... #

    I’m starting to think Labour’s foreign policy should be based on supporting more free trade agreements.

  2. On January 22, 2013 at 1:48 pm Anonymous responded with... #

    Labour’s foreign policy appears to be “delegate it all to the FCO and the EU”.

  3. On January 22, 2013 at 3:36 pm Adam Tyndall responded with... #

    Last paragraph with thanks to Jed Bartlett and the cast and writers of The West Wing.

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