Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Foreign policy dilemmas for progressives

When the Labour party last took office in 1997, our foreign policy was heavily shaped in reaction to the moral and strategic failings of our Tory predecessors. In place of a cynical determination that ‘there is no such thing as the international community’, which left hundreds of thousands to be massacred in Bosnia and Rwanda, came humanitarian interventions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone. In place of handbags and ‘empty chairs’ in European Union negotiations came a prime minister committed to putting Britain in the driving seat of a social Europe.  And in place of decisions that saw hundreds of millions of pounds of a plummeting aid budget linked to arms sales came a tripling of aid, debt cancellation and a development department devoted exclusively to poverty reduction with a seat at the cabinet table. While the war in Iraq would prove deeply divisive, the determination of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to turn the UK from a post-colonial nation in managed decline into a progressive powerhouse brought about many signature foreign policy achievements, and revived Britain’s economic, diplomatic and military capacity to influence the direction of global affairs.

But as we survey Labour’s future foreign policy choices from the vantage point of opposition once again, the record of our 13 years will provide only a limited source of guidance: the global picture of 2015 will be as different to the world of Robin Cook’s ethical foreign policy in 1997 as the 1997 environment was to 1974. Indeed, with the dramatic changes that have been under way in virtually every region of the world since we left office three years ago this month, even 2010 now feels like another age.

The eurozone crisis has transformed the entire political and economic order of the European Union. The Arab Spring has convulsed the Middle East, toppling three autocratic governments and engulfing Syria in a murderous civil war. China’s assertive stance in maritime disputes with Japan has changed the prospects of conflict between the world’s second and third largest economies from highly unlikely to worryingly possible.  The development landscape has been transformed by an influx of new actors whose financing pays little regard to the conditionality of western donors.   The United States has undergone significant defence budget cuts, announced a strategic ‘pivot’ to Asia, and wound down its major land wars, while simultaneously expanding its drone and special forces activities from south-west Asia to the Horn of Africa.

It won’t be enough, therefore, to simply ‘pick up where we left off’ and throw five years of Conservative policy into reverse. Instead, we will need to think through what a progressive foreign policy means in a world where the distribution of power, the most pressing issues on the agenda and the very way wars are waged is no longer the same.

In the coming 12 months we will lay out the biggest progressive foreign policy dilemmas facing the next Labour government, from China policy to the ‘special relationship’. Should we continue reforming the international institutions to give greater voice to rising powers, even if it means strengthening the hand of autocracies to protect their friends? Should we support the emerging forces in the Middle East that promise to be the new anchors of democratic politics in the region yet also threaten liberal interests and values? Should we embrace the new remote-control warfare that makes military action easier, and can reduce civilian casualties, yet divorces us from ground realities and makes killing rather than capturing terrorists the default choice?

This article series is not intended simply to identify the most important dividing lines between Labour and our opponents, nor even the most important strategic choices facing No 10, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Development and the Ministry of Defence. Instead, we will focus explicitly on those areas where the conflicts between different progressive objectives are most acute and the trade-offs facing future Labour ministers are most painful.

The reasons for that are twofold. First, the risk of ‘departmental capture’ is highest for our ministers working on international briefs. Every MP has local businesses, schools, hospitals and police stations as well as plenty of constituents who will be turning up in surgeries to share their views on local services. Our cabinet members with international portfolios do not face the same forceful electoral feedback loop and will often be entering departments with stronger internal vested interests. The temptation to become, for example, the MoD’s voice in the cabinet instead of the people’s voice in the MoD is both strong and understandable: it will always hurt a Labour government more to have a public fight with the military top brass than with the NUT. So we intend these articles to help Labour navigate some tough choices by clarifying the questions on which our progressive first principles come into conflict with one another – to shape our understanding of these questions politically alongside the cables, intelligence briefings and lobbying from other capitals which will illuminate them technically.

Second, it is Labour’s members who have to do the tough sell to their neighbours when it comes to foreign policy. The ‘masochism strategy’ of the 2005 general election campaign caught our cabinet up on what any CLP secretary had known for years – whatever the merits of the case, Iraq felt like doorstep poison. We should never again be in a position where so many of our activists disown the foreign policy decisions of a Labour cabinet. In laying out the competing progressive priorities our leadership will be considering, we hope to equip our members to understand and engage with (if not always enthusiastically endorse) the finely balanced judgments our ministers and parliamentarians are going to have to make.

Attack lines from international campaign groups and policy advice from research institutes and thinktanks will not be in short supply come 2015. What will be is input from those who are both tribally Labour  and yet determined to see Labour  out of its comfort zone to meet the next wave of foreign policy challenges. That is the tough political terrain where Labour’s progressives will always be found and the modernising spirit in which these articles have been conceived.

Questions to discuss:

•    In what ways has the world changed even since 2010? What dilemmas are likely to face an incoming Labour government, and what other issues may be just over the horizon?

•    What makes a foreign policy distinctively Labour?

•    How can Labour ministers with an international brief avoid ‘departmental capture’? Is the greater involvement of Labour members in these debates part of the solution?


Kirsty McNeill is a former Downing Street adviser and a consultant advising international progressive organisations on strategy. She tweets @KirstyJMcNeill. Andrew Small is a transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.  He tweets @ajwsmall


Photo: Clive Darra

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Kirsty McNeill and Andrew Small

Kirsty McNeill is a former Downing Street adviser and a consultant advising international progressive organisations on strategy. She tweets @KirstyJMcNeill. Andrew Small is a transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. He tweets @ajwsmall


  • “whatever the merits of the case (for attacking Iraq in March 2003”! ?

    So McNeill and Small have discovered Saddam Hussein’s ‘weapons of mass destruction’, have they? Those who opposed AngloAmerican aggression against Iraq from as long ago as GW Bush’s appalling ‘great turkey shoot; of the Iraqi army as it attempted to retreat from Kuwait – that miserable apartheid-style British colonial puppet – not to mention the trick whereby US ambassador April Glaspie told Saddam Hussein in terms that the US had no interest and no preference as to Iraq and its policy of reuniting the ’19th governorate’, not to mention General McCaffrey’s 24th armoured Division burial alive of hundreds if not thousands of Iraqi conscripts ,have engaged with and understood British colonial/imperial posturing well enough. Not to mention the systematic war against the Iraqi people, conducted under the slogan of ‘peaceful’ sanctions. Grovelling support for GW Bush’s revenge attack on Afghanistan in 2001 probably borrowed a good deal of its ‘humanitarian’/’feminist’/’nation-building’ cloak from British ‘progressivism’. Typical of the half-crazed Blairite desire for world domination that such people think the “British imperialists can ‘build nations’ regardless of the subjects whose nation is to be built regardless of their participation, consent or even knowledge – except for a few Quislings. About time the Labour party forgot its imperial ambitions, west as well as east of Suez (to quote Harold Wilson’s wise phrase). No more ‘white man’s burden’ – more harm than good resulted.

  • @f189336f88887ab36a609c5c24e600ab:disqus – I couldn’t agree more!!! NO MORE WHITE MAN’S BURDEN. Do the Bliarite’s not have any shame?

  • Why do we have this assumption of not only Labour implying progressive but also not-Labour meaning not-progressive? Perhaps the title of the article should be toned down a little to reflect its content’s disappointingly specific focus, or the article be changed to reflect some awareness of progressive politics instead of just Labour.

  • The Foreign Office has largely been a disaster abroad – on the Middle East since the Balfour Declaration, from India during and since Independence; the absurdity of East & West Pakistan; on Tibet where without a Statement in the House we suddenly agreed it was Chinese; on Africa where as we are finding out as with the Mau Mau court case that we have not behaved well. I could go on.

    A solution to Tibet would have been the equivalent to the Vatican State for the two temples in Lhasa; for the Middle East a two state solution is just like a repeat of East and West Pakistan. It cannot work if Israel lies between Gaza and the West Bank.

    We only have a global lead in soft power – BBC WorldService, British Council, the Open University and Education, and our great museums and galleries. So we need to have a specific minister responsible for this area.

    We could privatise 20% of the British Council’s English Centres and merge them with the OU and BBC WorldService to create the number one centre for English per se.

    We will be marginalised in Europe; we should never have gone to war in Iraq or Afghanistan.

    We need to ponder what is the Foreign Office for!

  • Yeah its confusing when you a have tory saying we shouldn’t go to war with Iran. The guy who chairs the MP select committee giving the valid point that Israel started the arms race in the Middle East. Then you have the new Blarities and charities such as Henry Jackson Society on the same tv panel suggesting war is a viable option. Crazy times we live in

  • ” We should never again be in a position where so many of our activists disown the foreign policy decisions of a Labour cabinet.”

    There are two ways to sort this: don’t repeat disastrous foreign policy decisions or get rid of the activists.

    I suspect your preferred choice will be to get rid of the activists.

  • Appalling article, lacking in moral substance. Iraq undermined liberal internationalism by aligning it with neoCon’s faulty interpretation of US interests. This article doesn’t reflect the real world.. No wonder people are turning off politics and we face a Tory-UKIP coalition in 2015!

  • Russia is no longer a totalitarian state, though its restrictions on foreign-funded “civil’society’ wreckers is only slightly less severe than the USA’s restrictions of the same sort. Anglo-Russian friendship no longer implies a support for totalitarianism, but only for the peaceful side in the new Cold war – in which the UK and USA have now acquired France as a colluder in their aggressive imperialism. Chirac was completely vindicated by the disastrous failure of the Anglo-American swindling aggression against Iraq; alas, it is clear that French socialists, like British Blairites, are more aggressively imperialistic than conservatives and Gaullists. It is by accident that Cameron is a true Blairite in his cynical and reckless swindling and destruction of what little social coherence remains in Libya and Syria (not to mention Mali and Chad….) .
    I propose a refounding of an AngloRussian Friendship Society, to unite peaceloving UK and Russian citizens to restrain the aggressive ambitions of the NATO powers.

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