For political reasons, support for British militarism has been seen by successive Labour leaderships as a key test of seriousness and virility.
It’s a shame that the content of Ed Miliband’s recent speech to the international affairs think tank Chatham House was overshadowed by another of the tedious, manufactured rows that have characterised this election campaign. Nowhere are the actions of government more a matter of life and death than in the realm of foreign policy, a subject which has been almost entirely peripheral in the run up to polling day. There’s a reasonable possibility of Labour returning to power this week, and some scrutiny needs to be applied to how that power would be used overseas. The fact that those at the sharp end of British foreign policy don’t have a say or a vote in our election only increases the responsibility on us to push the issue up the agenda in final days before the polling stations open.
Miliband’s speech played all the right liberal mood music, on human rights, multilateralism and so on, but the recital was scattered with several missed beats and jarring notes exposing the fact that, behind the melodious rhetoric, the UK’s long-standing emphasis on military power will continue largely unabated. Doubtless Miliband and his advisers’ sincerely believe that he was laying out the principles of an enlightened foreign policy. But if he does enter Downing Street sometime in May, he appears set to carry forward Britain’s established historical tradition of making the world a more dangerous place.
One of the more striking aspects of the speech was Miliband’s choice to attack the Tories from the right on the issue of ‘defence’ spending, holding up with pride the fact that Britain has the world’s fifth biggest military budget and vowing to protect that status from the danger of Tory cuts. It is worth being clear about what this really means. British politicians are always able to think up noble-sounding excuses for military action, but these high levels of spending are about maintaining the capacity to project power abroad, not to defend the public at home. This is a hangover from the days of empire, when the British state acquired a ‘global role’ which it has clung on to by its fingernails over the last half century of gradual decline. The malign effects of Whitehall’s power projection abroad are by now well known, from the imperial period up to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq more recently. Playing the same role into the future will inevitably have similar effects.
Take the current crisis in Ukraine, where Miliband’s speech echoed the familiar macho talk of armed deterrence, but had nothing to say about the careful diplomacy that is needed to talk down Putin’s thuggish regime, as a sharply diminished Russia lashes out in its near abroad. There are no excuses for Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, but there are explanations that leave less room for liberal Western conceit. One can reject the language of ‘legitimate spheres of influence’ whilst also acknowledging that part of the reason for the Kremlin’s behaviour lies in NATO and the EU pushing themselves right up to Russia’s doorstep since the end of the Cold War, the consequences of which were entirely predictable. Miliband was full of praise for NATO, portraying it as a purely defensive, ‘security’ minded force, as though East and West had not both played their part in aggressively stoking a dangerous rivalry from the end of World War II up to the present day. If he gains office, he will need to spend less time playing the hard man, and more time thinking productively about how Ukraine could be relieved of its current status as a square on the geopolitical chessboard.
Another example of this problematic approach is the ongoing intervention against ISIS in Iraq. Miliband has made much of his insistence in 2013 of strict conditions on any strikes against the Assad regime over its use of chemical weapons, an intervention which was subsequently called off (more due to the Cameron government’s incompetence, and the White House’s reticence, than any role that Miliband played). But the government motion supported by Labour in the House of Commons last year authorising intervention against ISIS in Iraq made no mention of a new political settlement in that country, much less making support for the Baghdad government conditional on substantive moves toward national reconciliation, which was the very least that should have been expected. The rise of ISIS has fundamentally socio-economic and political causes, and the risk was always clear that military action taken in the absence of meaningful efforts to address those issues would exacerbate the very conditions that allowed ISIS to make its huge advances into Iraq in the first place. Indeed, there are signs now that the intervention Miliband supported is having increasingly damaging and counterproductive effects, pushing the day when Iraq will finally know peace even further into the future.
More generally, with regard to the widespread state of turmoil in the Middle East, Miliband’s remarks were limited to military and ‘security’ responses, and talk of dealing with regional allies. There was no critical engagement with Britain’s extensive culpability in creating the conditions that led to current disasters: the consistent, bipartisan support for tyrants of various descriptions, and the devastating impact of their neoliberal economic reforms. Indeed, one of the main reasons the Arab uprisings took such a disastrous turn was the violent counter-revolutionary backlash from key British allies, such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt.
Blair's long shadow
Perhaps worst of all was the lack of any discussion of what is currently happening in Yemen, where a Saudi led armed intervention involving UK-supplied fighter-bombers is inflaming domestic conflict and creating a humanitarian catastrophe, while Britain lends diplomatic support to the Saudi regime and technical support to its air force. Hundreds have died over the course of this intervention, as civilian targets have been struck repeatedly forcing more than 150,000 people to flee their homes. It is particularly galling that Miliband spoke briefly of the need to maintain proper arms export controls, whereas he should have been demanding that export licences for Saudi Arabia be suspended immediately, given the way UK-manufactured kit is currently being used. His shame in failing to talk seriously about Yemen is not diminished by the fact that it is shared by the rest of the political class, who have shown blithe indifference to the suffering in that country throughout the election campaign.
For political reasons, support for British militarism has been seen by successive Labour leaderships as a key test of seriousness and virility. But this political positioning has real world consequences, beyond the fortunes of the party. A shallow focus on ‘security’ responses will do nothing to deal with today’s crises from Eastern Europe to the Middle East. Indeed, it is likely to make them far worse. Nor is a faith in the benign nature of British state violence overseas likely to lead to the safer, better world that progressive people in this country hope for. Whether Labour win or lose the election, far more critical pressure needs to be brought to bear on the party’s approach to foreign policy, which has only improved to a relatively small extent since the darkest days of Tony Blair.