Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Hard truths about traditional diplomacy

Britain risks casting itself adrift in the face of a gathering international storm of change fuelled by globalisation and technological revolution. Former foreign secretary David Miliband made clear this new truth just a matter of weeks ago, and today the American president reminds us our influence can be so much greater when magnified through through the European Union.  Yet foreign policy debate in the United Kingdom – whether about Europe, offshore tax havens, or overseas aid – remains trapped in anachronistic assumptions about the international system and the UK’s place in it. It is time we opened our eyes to the dangerous, and far-reaching changes under way around us, and accept some hard truths about the growing limits on traditional diplomacy. The good news is that by doing so we can think more ambitiously about new opportunities that are emerging for the UK and make a radical and lasting contribution to international governance in a world that is desperate for leadership.

When the cold war ended it was with telling hubris that Francis Fukuyama declared ‘the end of history’ yet it did mark the end of a political and economic continuity rooted in the early 20th century – stale and neocolonial though it was in many respects – in which the UK had an acknowledged place near the top. However, the removal of the shackles imposed on much of the world by the strategic imperatives of the cold war unleashed a global wave of economic growth, political transformation and, at least as importantly, cultural and technological innovation which is still playing out.

Today, people from Kaliningrad to Lusaka are enveloped in a rising sea of social media, streaming, virtual currencies, the dark web, the internet of things, and the companies and the interests that ride upon this sea – commercial, ideological, religious, cultural – with power sometimes exceeding that of nation states (or in dubious alliance with them), gathering together cross-cutting communities of interest; building and destroying identities and narratives at phenomenal speed.

At the same time, dozens of non-‘western’ countries formerly constrained as mere bystanders (and occasionally arenas) of superpower competition have attained economic prosperity and influence inconceivable 20 years ago. These countries, increasingly in the hands of those for whom the cold war, let alone colonialism, featured only as a half remembered history class at school, are simply not interested in the archaic system of global governance as represented by the Permanent 5 and their veto on the United Nations security council. This new world now sees interests as varied as Brazil, Facebook, the Gates Foundation, Islamic State, Mitsubishi, News International, the SVR, Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, the World Economic Forum, the Catholic church and Anonymous all interacting, influencing and pursuing their interests via a host of platforms and strategies in a nonstop whirlwind of contracts, meetings, alliances, lobbying, briefings 24 hour news and sometimes force. In such a world – whether it is Russian trolls for Trump, Isis spectaculars or Google’s tax arrangements the traditional interventions of government officialdom risk appearing blundering or irrelevant.

Amid all of this the power of the UK to protect and promote a fair-rule based world remains significant, if anchored tenuously on our membership of the EU. But whether on the left or the right, a large proportion of our political establishment remain locked in an old-fashioned view of the world which credits traditional foreign policy tools with far greater power than they actually have to ‘impose’ a UK position internationally. This is not to say we cannot be ambitious. In fact, the UK, for a number of reasons, is well placed to exert smart power far more effectively than many others. But to do so we need to think strategically, and more imaginatively, about what is achievable and how.

Old truths remain. The primary duty of any state is to protect its citizens. Yet the thickening web of interactions brought about by globalisation mean our safety has never been so directly linked to the need to reform and revive our dying global governance and security architecture. This is a huge challenge; the entrenched interests are deep and the distractions numerous. Yet every day that passes without democratic reform of the UN and associated global institutions takes us closer to the nightmare Game of Thrones, medievalism-with-nukes world that encircling demagogues – from Donald Trump to President Putin – would like to return us. By taking an enabling leadership role, the UK has a final opportunity, while the crumbling global architecture that supports our claim to leadership still stands, to shape a new system that could last for another 100 years.

With this strategic goal as our focus, Britain needs to be smart, ambitious and radical with the tools we select for influencing globally. A discussion of what these might be would consume an entire article but they are founded on building a more honest national consensus about international affairs and the UK’s global role, and an understanding that our culture, our values, our politics and our economic prospects are deeply entwined. By coordinating all of our hard, soft and smart assets as a country we still have the power to project compelling global influence. We should then be building new alliances and relationships around the world, including through trade, to support our aim of global reform, and in doing so supporting our prosperity. And the tools we employ must not be government to government, or elite to elite, but reach into communities and homes so as to catalyse a global popular debate around how we wish to organise our affairs – yes as nations – but also as human beings. This is not abstract – it is essential for our survival on an increasingly crowded and polluted world – but it is deeply cultural as well as political, and the UK in particular has rich traditions in exploring these issues.

Such a path and series of reforms may sound ambitious. But with a clear-eyed understanding of the opportunities that globalisation and technological change that wrought for us they are achievable. More than that, for a Labour party grounded in internationalism and patriotism, as well as modernity, such a strategy is essential if we are to reclaim our moral leadership and sense of greater purpose – grounded in optimism and ambition for a truly better world, and a stronger Britain in it.


Tom Cargill is a member of Camberwell and Peckham CLP and a former policy researcher on international affairs


Photo: Steve Cadman

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Tom Cargill

is a member of Camberwell and Peckham CLP and former policy researcher on international affairs

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