Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

‘Strong men’ – a new world disorder

The latest breed of ‘strong men’ leaders are circumventing international rules. We cannot allow this to become the new normal, argues Mary Creagh

‘There was a time when politicians were amazing and anything seemed possible.’ Southwark council leader Peter John‘s words at Tessa Jowell’s memorial service got a hollow laugh from those present, evoking, as they did, the heady days of a three-term Labour government.

We were busy: tackling child poverty, passing the world’s first Climate Change Act, and preparing for an Olympic games that would show the very best of British talent and present a welcoming, open, inclusive face to the world. Fast forward to 2018 and events that were scarcely imaginable 10 years ago have come to pass: Donald Trump in the White House, Vladimir Putin stronger than ever in the Kremlin, Britain set to leave the European Union, racism and nationalism on the rise across Europe. The demagogues, populists and extremists on the far left and far right seem intent on dismantling the rules-based international order.

How should a progressive party seek to respond? First, we must be clear-eyed about the forces at work around us. There is no doubt that Russia is actively seeking to undermine the international liberal order to prop up its own position and distract from its domestic problems of rampant corruption, growing poverty and inequality. Russia cannot compete economically with the west – its $31.3tn gross domestic product is smaller than the state of New York – instead it seeks to project state power through other means. If the west is weak, Russia is a more attractive partner for countries looking to forge alliances. Russia wants a return to a world of great powers, where deals are done by men in smoke filled rooms with a handshake. This is a model which also appeals to Trump as we saw with his ‘summit’ with North Korea.

Having become bogged down in a proxy war in Syria, Putin has realised that tweets are cheaper than tanks. This has led to a scaling up of his cyber weapons to divide and destabilise Nato members

Russia’s domination of the social media space through Twitter and Facebook has been revealed to have been one of the major forces at work in the Brexit vote. Thanks to the investigative journalism of the Guardian’s Carole Cadwalladr, and whistleblowers from the ‘Leave’ campaign, we can see that Russian money and bot farms were behind some of the fake accounts used to push a pro-Brexit narrative in the referendum campaign and on the day itself. Why does Putin support Brexit? Because his a strategic objective is to break up the EU, break up Nato and neutralise the United States.
The cold war had rules. In this new hybrid war era, rules and norms are broken. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the downing of flight MH17 by Russian-backed forces in Ukraine with the loss of 284 lives, the indiscriminate bombardment of Syrian civilians with chemical weapons aided by Russian forces – all speak of a dangerous new world order. One where chemical weapons are used with impunity, civilians are seen as legitimate targets and where the invasion of a sovereign nation, and the deaths of 9,000 Ukrainians, happens with little more than a raised eyebrow in European capitals and in Washington DC.

Having become bogged down in a proxy war in Syria, Putin has realised that tweets are cheaper than tanks. This has led to a scaling up of his cyber weapons to divide and destabilise Nato members. And so the hybrid war begins. These worrying attacks target political institutions (for example the Democratic national committee hack and leaks of Hillary Clinton’s emails) and media organisations.

Russia’s propaganda now dominates the cybersphere, targeting individuals with disinformation and propaganda campaigns. The aim of the operations are clear – to use sophisticated, military grade psychological weapons to play on and inflame pre-existing tensions in a country, for example Catalonian separatism in Spain, the arrival of refugees in Germany or the role of the EU in the United Kingdom.

Trump and Putin: two strong men
President Trump and President Putin at the latest summit between the two leaders

Second, all those in progressive politics should not think that we are immune. Russia has meddled with elections and referendums in Britain, Germany, Spain, Montenegro and the US, as well as referenda in former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia. They seek to inflate the extremes at both ends, to the detriment of a more centrist discourse. This cyber warfare targets precisely the institutions that make western democracies strong: political parties, open elections, free speech, an independent judiciary and a free press. If people start to lose their trust in these institutions, then the foundations of our democracies is at risk. Our own party is not immune from those divisions, with keyboard warriors forgetting the norms of civilised discourse.

The Salisbury chemical weapon attack opened up a new and dangerous front. This was an act of state sponsored terrorism carried out on British soil with chemical weapons. The international response to the Salisbury nerve agent poisoning of the Skripals, saw the biggest ever, coordinated expulsion of Russian envoys by our allies and will have given Putin pause for thought. The subsequent death of Dawn Sturgess sent shockwaves around the world. The revelations that the suspects in the Salisbury poisoning were members of Russian military intelligence, and their actions almost certainly approved at state level, will have heightened anxiety in western European capitals.

In America, Putin’s pick for the presidency, Trump, is ripping up agreements which have shaped the international order. In October, the occupant of the Oval Office announced that America will withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty. Signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, the treaty helped to end the cold war. Trump’s decision to withdraw is a major setback for nuclear arms control.

As well as reneging on agreements to promote peace, Trump is disrupting the global economic rules-based order. In January of this year, the US started a trade war with China, putting tariffs on solar panels and washing machines. Since then, the US has raised tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of Chinese goods. Beijing has hit back with tariffs on materials such as aluminium and products such as aeroplanes. This tit-for-tat will not resurrect jobs in long-dead American industries – it risks harming not just the Chinese and US economies, but sparking a new global trade war.

The US’ neighbours have not been immune from this temperamental president. The rebirth of the 24-year-old North America Free Trade Area as the ‘America first’ US-Mexico-Canada Agreement has not protected Mexico and Canada from new tariffs on their steel and aluminium exports. Trump seems keen to use trade as a weapon, a tactic that unnerves global investors and which ultimately could cost jobs.

The president’s mercurial approach to trading partners should send alarm bells ringing across Whitehall where the UK government is embarked upon the largest act of economic self-harm perpetuated by any western government since the second world war. There is no deal with the EU that is as good as the one we have now, inside the largest trading block in the world, yet outside the Schengen and Euro zones. There will be no £350m a week for the National Health Service. Analysis by the Centre for European Reform estimates that the referendum vote has cost the UK economy 2.5 per cent of GDP in lost growth. That is £26bn – or £500m a week. Before Brexit has happened. There is a growing recruitment crisis in the NHS as Europeans, fed up with casual racism, or uncertain of their future in the UK, head home. The Brexit that was promised, simply cannot be delivered. It is the duty of those of us in the Labour party to say this repeatedly ad nauseam and to protect our country from a disastrous ‘no-deal’ Brexit, which is the true English nationalists’ endgame.

Finally, as Russia seeks to turn communities against each other online, people will come together at fairs, festivals and feasts to celebrate the world’s food with their neighbours and their children’s friends. New communities and interest groups will find each other online, and in the physical world. And as the Brexit woes continue, people will discover their Irish, and Polish and German grandparents and seek to protect their European identity.

Read next: Pride and paranoia – the Putin influence

The rules-based international order is under attack, no doubt about it. But every negative action must be met by an equal and opposite positive organising reaction. The world is getting better, even though at times, we may not feel that it is. The rules-based international order was hard fought for. It was hard won and now it must be hard defended. Labour’s values of internationalism, tolerance, love of the environment and solidarity are necessary now more than ever. We have much more in common than those who seek to divide us, as self-proclaimed ‘boat-dweller’ and cyclist Jo Cox memorably said. Now, more than ever, both inside the Labour party and outside, is a time to live by those words.


Mary Creagh is member of parliament for Wakefield. She tweets at @MaryCreaghMP


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Mary Creagh MP

is shadow secretary of state for international development

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