Labour’s foreign policy has always been guided by our values. Internationalism, social justice and universal rights have underpinned our greatest international achievements, from helping to establish NATO, to intervening to prevent ethnic cleansing in Kosovo or leading the world’s advanced economies to cancel third world debt.
Today, many of the values we stand for are under threat, and the next Labour government will face seismic challenges. With the prospect of a potentially destructive Tory Brexit on the one hand, and a more isolationist United States on the other, the twin pillars of post-war UK foreign policy look increasingly uncertain.
In the Middle East, parts of Africa and eastern Europe the growth in instability and conflict is outpacing the ability of Britain and our allies to deal with the consequences. From terrorism to the global refugee crisis, failure to resolve crises is giving birth to new threats, just as the harsher impacts of climate change are beginning to be felt. Global geopolitics is in a state of flux, and the impact of this upheaval is increasingly being felt at home. Perhaps more than at any time since the Cold War, foreign policy is at the heart of British political debate.
But the Tories have no answers to the challenges we face. They talk about creating a ‘Global Britain’, yet they have diminished the UK’s influence on the world stage and are tarnishing our reputation on human rights and climate change. They claim to be the party of defence, yet they have slashed and mis-spent the defence budget, leaving our Armed Forces diminished and poorly equipped. They say they are committed to helping the world’s poorest, yet they are shifting ever-more of the aid budget away from poverty reduction and undermining Britain’s reputation as a world leader in development. And they say they want Britain to be a truly open trading nation, yet they are risking trade with the EU – by far our largest trading partner – by threatening a hard Brexit. Under Theresa May, narrow party interest too often trumps the national interest.
These are the wrong priorities. The challenges we face require outward-looking, internationalist solutions. At this uncertain and volatile juncture, it is up to Labour to demonstrate that we have a better vision of what a truly ‘Global Britain’ looks like.
Last year the International Policy Commission looked specifically at Britain’s defence and security priorities. Following this, the National Policy Forum (NPF) has identified some key issues for further discussion and debate this year, which include future relations with Europe and the United States, international development and Britain’s role in conflict resolution and diplomacy. In addition to these topics, the Commission welcomes views and submissions on all aspects of Britain’s international relations.
Britain is leaving the EU, but there is huge uncertainty about whether a deal can be done within two years, and what the future relationship will look like. Labour has repeatedly emphasised that the Government must seek a trading relationship with the EU that is tariff-free, impediment-free and beneficial to all sectors of the economy. The protection of employment and consumer rights, environmental standards and close collaboration with the EU in key areas such as security, science and research should also be central to any deal.
Facing instability in the Eurozone, the refugee crisis and the rise of populist insurgent parties, the EU is dealing with common internal challenges which will influence the shape of the negotiations. But, like Britain, it also faces challenges further afield. Whether in responding to security challenges in the Middle East and North Africa, bringing sanctions and diplomacy to bear on Russia, or leading the fight against climate change, it is vital that Brexit leads to a new era of joint UK-EU cooperation and leadership.
Along with deep ties to Europe, the UK-US partnership has long served as the other key pillar of British foreign policy. With close cooperation on intelligence, diplomacy and counter-terrorism, and as the two biggest contributors to NATO, Britain and the US together play a pivotal role in global security. Close economic ties mean the US is now the largest individual export market for UK goods and services.
With the election of President Trump, and the UK’s decision to leave the EU, the future shape of the alliance is an issue for debate. The President’s views on issues including torture, refugees and NATO have put him at odds with British public opinion, while at the same time the UK’s decision to leave the EU will make it a less attractive destination for American investors.
Theresa May’s attempts to ingratiate herself with the new President in pursuit of a quick trade deal have prompted much criticism, and raised questions about the extent to which Britain should seek such close ties to a President that doesn’t appear to share British values. While the US is a key ally, the relationship has always been based on shared values, including respect for the rights of women and minorities and a strong commitment to democracy, freedom of the press and the rule of law.
Labour made the UK a world leader in global development, saving millions of lives whilst enhancing Britain’s security and influence on the world stage. It was a Labour government that created the Ministry for Overseas Development in 1964, and another Labour government that established the independent Department for International Development (DfID) in 1997 and passed the pioneering International Development Act in 2002. Our record in Government helped save lives, build schools and hospitals and improve the life chances of the world’s most vulnerable people. In 2005 it was the Labour government that led the way in ensuring the cancellation of multilateral debts for the world’s poorest countries.
The Tories’ approach is undermining this reputation, with growing signs that the commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of gross national income on overseas development assistance is under threat. Under the Tories, the aid budget is being chipped away at by stealth and is increasingly being used to promote trade, provide loans to companies and bolster the diminished budgets of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and Ministry of Defence (MoD).
Like all Government departments, DfID could perform better. But when managed properly it is a world leader in aid effectiveness and global development. Labour believes in a strong, innovative and well-resourced DfID that tackles global poverty and gets the best possible value for money. By doing this, and putting conflict resolution and human rights at the heart of our international agenda, we can restore Britain’s reputation.
The case for continued UK leadership is clear. Around ten per cent of the global population still live in extreme poverty. The need to fight famine and disease, and improve education, health, infrastructure and water supply in the world’s poorest countries remains acute. Climate change, population growth and resource insecurity are creating new stresses in the development and humanitarian system. The UN Sustainable Development Goals are an important step in recognising the scale of the challenge and setting clear objectives. The UK must now lead the way in delivering these and helping others to do the same.
Despite severe cuts to the diplomacy and defence budgets since 2010, Britain still has exceptional strengths and influence. The FCO possesses strong diplomatic assets, regional expertise and experience, and is situated in a truly global capital city. As a country at the heart of a number of important global networks – including the UN Security Council, the G7, the G20 and NATO – and possessing instruments of soft power ranging from a thriving entertainment sector to world-class higher education institutions, the UK may be leaving the EU but we still have a powerful voice and can exert influence in other ways.
At a time of rising nationalism and protectionism, the UK must draw on these unique strengths to be a champion of multilateralism, diplomacy and conflict resolution. We must learn the lessons of past military interventions, and consider under what circumstances intervention is justified and effective. And it is important that we honour our international treaty obligations on nuclear disarmament and work with others to do the same.