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Britannia surfs the waves - towards a socialist foreign policy for the UK

What would a Corbynite foreign policy really look like?

Carl Rowlands
9 September 2015
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There can be no retreat. Having already had a long and distinguished past as a critic of NATO, US foreign policy and the intricately structured madness of nuclear weapons, there would be nothing more incongruent for Jeremy Corbyn, if, having become leader of a revitalised Labour Party, he were to suddenly shift, to, as Owen Jones has suggested, 'playing a constructive role within the Alliance.' Any attempt at such triangulation may represent political suicide.

This doesn't necessarily mean that Corbyn will be able to entirely prevent early steps to replace Trident, or engineer a quick exit from NATO. Whilst preventing arms sales to certain states can be done quickly by a government in office, any attempt to diversify the defence industry would take some years to implement, and still longer to fully bear fruit.

In terms of alliances and partnerships, lessons learnt between 1997 and 2010 will dominate. Leaving aside the difficulties and ethical complexities of the military campaign in Kosovo, Robin Cook was to quickly learn when trying to implement an 'ethical foreign policy' that the dynamics of the trans-Atlantic 'special relationship' have a deadening grip upon the UK's scope to determine an independent and cohesive foreign policy. As James Meek has pointed out, the more the UK shadowed the US through different expeditions in Afghanistan, Iraq and then Afghanistan again, the more the UK was exposed as lacking human, material and intellectual resources. The moral failure, and eventual military failure, of the 2003 Iraq War may well eventually be seen as a watershed moment in British foreign policy - equivalent to Suez in 1956. The initial demand for a socialist foreign policy is to work out a new operating model in response to the UK's changed - and in many ways reduced - circumstances.

A Corbyn-led Labour government will therefore decisively mark the end of the US-UK special relationship as it has been constituted since 1945. It is unlikely that co-operation in the fields of defence will survive to anything like the same extent. Ties would, in all likelihood, loosen quite quickly - arguably, the US-UK relationship is already waning. A Corbyn premiership would probably snuff out the remaining glowing embers. The question of the UK having a constructive role in NATO might become redundant, and the question reformulated to understanding just how critical the UK will be towards US foreign policy, and in which ways.

This, on the one hand, might not appear to be a problem, but it poses a number of challenges. It carries a risk that the steady progress of defence diversification will be derailed by suddenly losing access to some of the leading technological developments. The arms industry, as stained by blood as it is, does act as a force for innovation in the fields of robotics, systems and electronics.
Ultimately, under a left government, the UK will quickly need to immediately re-orientate, forging deeper alliances in order to maintain research capacity and the ability to attain economies of scale. Whilst closer links could be made with the Latin American states, and economic ties could be deepened, there is only one realistic potential partnership on a peer-to-peer basis. This would be a deep, and increasingly weighty, programme of military, technological and strategic consolidation with France.

This could extend to placing a reduced version of the nuclear deterrent (should it be, for example, an unavoidable legacy, or having been preserved by plebescite) under joint control, further specialising the defence forces to account for dual strengths and weaknesses and sharing access to such military facilities that exist globally. The advantages of a military fusion - going beyond an alliance - would present themselves in terms of pure pragmatism. Both France and the UK have a history of grand adventurism since the Second World War. Rather than encouraging this, as a political alliance, the various assets of France and the UK would be jointly secured, and a more nuanced foreign policy, determined both independently and in response to US military strength, would have the chance to emerge. The approach would allow defence co-operation in advance of, and in conjunction with, planned diversification.
Perhaps most importantly, it should aim to place two countries with two competing arms industries in a situation where they can be subjected to a common regulatory approach. With the arms industries of UK and France deeply involved in equipping nefarious regimes, the rest of the world might breathe a sigh of relief, were both the defence industries of UK and France to be finally brought under control.

All this would be hugely challenging. But the main potential reward for a new Labour government would be to demonstrate that a UK foreign policy, defined independently of the US, would not lead to isolation. Having achieved this, and maintained a degree of usable military capacity (even if increasingly geared towards logistics and aid), the exact substance of a socialist UK foreign policy for the twenty-first century could then be determined.

This would place the UK's role in the United Nations as central to developing initiatives aimed at combating global warming, poverty and many different types of pollution, especially including marine pollution. This would be a foreign policy that would replace the rhetoric of a 'global race' with the rhetoric of a 'global village.' A new emphasis can be placed on the UK as a mature, post-imperial global specialist, with centres of learning and knowledge which encompass science, environment, technology and deep understanding of different cultures and countries. With the emergence of a 'new wave' of socialism, there is every chance that British cities will become even more attractive places to conduct study and research.

A new economic policy focused upon expansion of skills and the development of renewable technology can connect to a foreign policy based upon a mixture of 'soft power' and co-operation, making connections both on the level of the nation state and as cities and regions. Connections between the US and UK should not necessarily depend on Washington or London; they can also be based on Cardiff and Portland. The UK can be a force to make trade fairer. It can argue for environmental causes, and it can back up its arguments with investments. It can push for international recognition of the real costs of untrammelled global capitalism and begin arguing for alternatives. A 'Corbyn wave' Labour government can advocate global postcapitalism.

The most urgent question probably concerns the European Union. The arguments already advocated by Jeremy Corbyn for a social Europe - a European Union with very distinct minimums of social provision and workers' rights - might provoke a variety of responses. It represents a huge change from New Labour's 'underhanded Europeanism' - whereas publicly Labour ministers aspired to advocate Europe, whilst privately blocking European attempts to regulate the financial sector or introduce more employment regulation. It's very unclear whether any allies would exist within the EU for a radical model of a Social Europe, and whether the institutions of the EU could support this without fundamental treaty changes. A socialist foreign policy would need to pursue different, dynamic forms of internationalism. If an institutional road-block occurs, it would need to be able to either militate support within the institution or attempt to surmount the responsibility of an institution. Such a dynamic may ultimately result in the UK leaving the EU; but it may also result in the creation of new forms of European co-operation.

Perhaps most excitingly, the UK has a chance to place itself within a new internationalist political movement in the same way that a certain other movement managed at the end of the 1970s. Thatcherism shaped the 1980s and 1990s. The ultimate goal of a socialist foreign policy must surely be to ensure that an alternative ideology emerges at an international level, an ideology which invokes a deep transformation from the increasing sense of impending dystopia. As with the beginning of the Thatcher revolution, it would need to be enabled through a degree of initial pragmatism, and it would need to demonstrate that it has history on its side... at a point when a number of military superpowers are increasingly baring their fangs.

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