How Labour can build a new foreign policy consensus for the UK
Updated: Dec 3, 2020
by Anna-Joy Rickard
Originally published on LabourList on 25 Sept 2020
We know well the challenges facing those building a strategy for Britain’s engagement with the rest of the globe. The world is more complex, less democratic and less secure than it once was. We face Brexit at home, US-China tensions abroad, inequality affecting every part of the globe, well-overdue climate change action and, as the United Nations holds its 75th general assembly this week, the striking weakening of global institutions.
Ahead of the launch of the Labour Foreign Policy Group last week, Guardian diplomatic editor Patrick Wintour tweeted: “The quality of UK debate on foreign policy beyond elite think tanks stops just short of abysmal. So regardless of party politics, the launch today of a new Labour Foreign Policy Group might lift horizons beyond SW1A 0AA”. The gauntlet has been thrown down.
Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy emphasised at our launch event that there has been a lack of real foreign policy since William Hague, with only a lens of trade and growth used since. And so the question of that evening’s event, in conversation with former foreign affairs minister for Sweden Margot Wallstrom, of ‘What is progressive foreign policy in action?’ could not have been more relevant.
There are, of course, no easy answers. But the event helped draw out two things. A dual invitation stands before Labour: an invitation to reimagine, and an invitation to foster hope. On reimagining, Monday’s conversation gave us plenty to chew over. Firstly, what if workers in Bolton weren’t pitted against workers in Bangladesh? What if the bridge between local and international was less about competition, and more about workers across the world seeing global solutions make a difference to local problems and local lives? What if we started talking about human flourishing and not only profit?
Secondly, what if there were more women in positions of power, who would be able to show the kind of leadership we’ve seen during Covid-19? What if there were more women shaping foreign policy and more female negotiators and mediators? Because who participates in foreign policy matters. What if we built more solidarity with others around the world, particularly women, in the midst of bringing change to their countries?
Thirdly, in a world that has never felt more unstable, what if security led you to a broader view that includes but is not restricted to defence? What if you considered common security to include climate change, opportunities for young people, low pay and insecure employment? These are all critical issues that fuel insecurity and conflict.
Finally, what if Britain took inspiration from Sweden and found a new way of framing foreign policy that was fresh and bold and led other countries to follow? This is something Sweden did with its feminist foreign policy, which led Canada, Mexico and others also to focus on gender equality and women’s rights in their international work.
There would be significant difficulties in trying to replicate the Swedish experience – namely that they benefited from a consensus at home on foreign policy, whereas the post-Brexit UK is far from united on that subject. But there are lessons to be learnt, too. Sweden achieved nuance in its position as friendly but critical members of the European Union and United Nations, and invested in diplomacy as well as defence, bringing embassies behind its vision as key implementers.
Reimagining is crucial, but so is hope. As Lisa Nandy rightly pointed out, we have never had to restart in this way. Our greatest challenge, on both the right and the left, is defeatism. The right claims that we can only survive by sheltering behind the US or China, but defending British interests means building global alliances that work towards the common good. On the left, especially for Remainers, a sense of despair has crept in that somehow if we are outside of the EU then we are not internationalists. Yet, as Nandy says, we are and we continue to be. Britain must be able to stand up for values and speak from a place of strategic independence, taking the role – as Labour MP Stephen Kinnock is fond of saying – of an alliance-maker, not an alliance-breaker.
There is a rallying call: we may not be in power but we are not powerless. Governments around the world want to engage with us, even as an opposition party. There is a coalition of the willing, and it doesn’t need to wait until we are in government. There is hard work to be done, hard debate (“you can disagree without being disagreeable”, as Ruth Bader Ginsburg said) and real frameworks and policies that need to be created almost from scratch. But as Baroness Jan Royall summarised, these conversations give us “immense hope for our influence in the world” and “we are going to help our country change course”.
The Labour Foreign Policy Group invites you to join.