Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The legitimacy dilemma

Barack Obama’s hesitation, Vladimir Putin’s cunning and David Cameron’s parliamentary mismanagement combined to spare Labour from having to make a definitive choice about how the UK should respond to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons.  Yet given the convulsions in the region and the current state of geopolitics, the dilemmas that Syria posed will almost certainly recur in various forms in the decade ahead. One of most acute is the problem of legitimacy in foreign policy. Questions over whether international consensus, mutually agreed rules, public consent or moral principles provide the fundamental justification for action are, of course, longstanding. But the shifting configuration of global power makes them even harder to resolve in 2013 than they were in 2003.

Given the poisonous fallout of Tony Blair’s eventual defiance of the UN over the Iraq war it is easy to forget just how hardwired the goal of making multilateralism work was to New Labour’s operating system for government, from the hyperactivity surrounding the Gleneagles G8 and the London G20 summits to the hard yards put in on global processes such as the Copenhagen climate negotiations. Balancing the desire to protect and strengthen global institutions such as the United Nations with the need to form ‘coalitions of the willing’ when important progressive imperatives – such as stopping ethnic cleansing in Kosovo – came into conflict with P5 realpolitik was an ongoing challenge. But Labour ministers also faced a more systemic one: managing the transition from western hegemony to multipolarity. The critique of the institutions of global governance was first advanced by idealists who felt those organisations operated a system of ‘rigged rules and double standards’ against the developing countries and needed reform in order to give them a greater voice. It was the argument of the pragmatists that proved decisive, though, who believed that any institution which failed to accommodate the status, demands and contributions of the newly rising powers couldn’t continue to be effective or relevant.

The global financial crisis put this power transition on steroids. Labour spent much of its time in government when the United States was at the apogee of its power, and when the fiercest foreign policy debates were largely conducted transatlantically. By the time of Labour’s last days in office, though, US ambitions – and budgets – were already being pared back, and the likes of China were demonstrating a newfound assertiveness. Yet neither the scaling-down of the US global role nor the balancing of western power by the BRICS and other southern groupings has had the progressive consequences many on the left had hoped for. As Ed Miliband knows well from his time as secretary of state for energy and climate change, the failures of major multilateral processes such as the Copenhagen climate negotiations and the World Trade Organisation’s Doha development round were attributable in large part to the inflexible stances of rising powers, who proved even less willing to overcome vested interests at home than Europe and the United States. Likewise, the axis of inaction running between Beijing and Moscow is far more solid in defending client states and national sovereignty through its joint vetoes at the UN security council than it was only a few years ago. The prospect of UNSC approval for even limited multilateral efforts to prevent crimes against humanity is now vanishingly small. In most institutions the diffusion of global power has led not to more inclusive and legitimate decision-making processes, but to deadlock.

As a result, for states that still want to get things done, small groupings of like-minded nations have become an unhappy necessity. In the absence of progress at the WTO, bilateral and plurilateral trade negotiations such as the TTIP and TPP have become the norm. Without agreement on the way forward in the Middle East, mechanisms such as Friends of Syria have taken the driving seat.

This has not posed much of a problem for a Conservative party that is more comfortable with the bilateralism of another age than the complex multilateral trade-offs that face a modern European nation. But for a future progressive government it means a miserable set of choices: inaction, acquiescence to the new reality, or a more complex approach to weighing legitimacy. The first option – closest to Labour’s current position – holds that in the absence of a UN security council mandate, a firm international consensus, and public enthusiasm, the UK government should not involve itself in enforcing any international norms. Unfortunately in current circumstances this sets the bar so high that it means that there would be no meaningful ‘red lines’ which Labour is willing to defend.

The second option accepts that concerts of activist powers must get used to upholding important basic ethical principles despite the absence of international or domestic consent. While clearly necessary in limited circumstances, its elevation to course of first resort was among the factors that so fatally undermined US foreign policy during the Bush administration, and is echoed in some of David Cameron’s positioning today. For Labour, the attachment to multilateral process was always a matter of effectiveness as well as legitimacy – it is hard to persist with difficult courses of action in foreign policy without a solid base of international support.

The third option – a Goldilocks-like middle way between inaction and illegitimacy – involves a messy set of compromises and charges of inconsistency. What level of consensus should make a Labour prime minister feel a course of action is legitimate enough? Is agreement among liberal-minded countries sufficient, even if it means regularly going against Russian and Chinese objections and undermining the role of the UN security council? How important is it to achieve a bare minimum of consensus in the EU and in Nato? Is there an effective way of credibly demonstrating regional consent when so many regional institutions and regional powers lack legitimacy themselves? Should we give greater weight than we do at present to the views of the democratic rising powers like India and Brazil? And how should we feel when action is urged, as it was in Syria, by a Democratic White House and a Socialist Élysée, actors that are, in David Aaronovitch’s words ‘not just Britain’s allies, but Labour’s natural friends’?

None of these questions have a straightforward answer that can provide a flowchart for decision-making, but they are inescapable for a country that remains empowered in all the major regional and global institutions, with a seat around the table in the UNSC, EU, Nato, International Monetary Fund and World Bank. When it comes to securing fundamental humanitarian and global security norms, we will always operate under conditions of uncertainty and remain at risk of making the wrong call. But the UK’s unique sweep of seats in the architecture of global governance means attempts to outsource all risks to other players – notably France and an increasingly reluctant US – is neither responsible nor politically sustainable. How Labour plans to make this difficult set of trade-offs is the most urgent unanswered foreign policy question facing Ed Miliband on his way to Downing Street, and it cannot be based solely on what we wish we would done differently in the lead-up to the war in Iraq in 2003.


Questions to discuss:

1) Should Labour look to Europe, rising democracies, the BRICS, regional bodies or the United Nations for legitimacy? How important is a country’s own domestic human rights or democracy record in determining whether it is a legitimate arbiter of international action?

2) Are there any ‘red lines’ it would be legitimate for a Labour government to police without the consent of the UN security council or in the face of strong domestic opposition?

3) How should a progressive weigh the risks associated with acting under conditions of uncertainty and the risks associated with inaction?


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. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of GMF. He tweets @ajwsmall


Photo: United Nations

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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

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