Labour and NATO

It does seem that Britain takes for granted its membership of NATO. A few weeks ago, in one of his last acts as prime minister, David Cameron was quite gung-ho; and Owen Smith has attempted to exploit what he hopes is Jeremy Corbyn’s vulnerability on the issue. Of course, Cameron was hoping to big up his own role as a statesman who can shape debates on what they like to call a global stage, and one should expect nothing else of a Conservative leader. However, it might be a good idea for Labour politicians to be rather more thoughtful; and it has been evident that, the more they try to articulate a progressive foreign policy, the more evasive they become when they can no longer avoid mentioning NATO: what is the purpose of the alliance if, as they keep telling us, the world has changed? In what follows here I give two brief examples of how leading Labour figures have tied themselves in knots – former leader Ed Miliband, anticipating success at the last general election; and former foreign secretary Robin Cook, perhaps inadvertently tracking the failure of a so-called ethical foreign policy after 1997. One conclusion becomes unavoidable – as with Trident, the more Corbyn challenges conventional thinking, the more a serious discussion becomes possible.

Ahead of the 2015 general election, Miliband outlined the foreign policy he proposed for the next Labour government, insisting on the continued importance of NATO, even though he acknowledged that ‘[t]he threats we face now are not generally the old threat from single states’. He went on to list three such threats, or challenges: those from terrorism, mass migration, and climate change, all issues that undoubtedly require international co-operation. Unfortunately, Miliband’s argument lacked conviction as he insisted on co-operation while refusing to even consider what this might mean in relation to NATO. Miliband spoke of ‘reshap[ing] our great country’s relationship with our allies and partners’, but failed to specifically address Britain’s relationship with the US or the latter’s domination of NATO and ‘the West’ generally (for my discussion of the ‘special relationship in action recently, see here). Looking ahead, given his inability to say anything different, one might expect that a Smith leadership – in government or in opposition – would be similarly compromised.

NATO remains a problem because of the refusal of politicians to confront its continued existence. There are few, like Corbyn, who have been prepared to ask the obvious question. Following the Warsaw summit in July it was obvious that ‘Europe’ was far from united on how to face the so-called challenge of Russian aggression. On this occasion, Cameron attempted to make Europe – or Western Europe, or some kind of European alliance – synonymous with NATO; and it should be clear to anyone not in denial that, following the end of the Cold War, NATO and the EU have worked in concert in expanding into Eastern Europe.[1] Rather than easy anti-Russia rhetoric, there should be a more careful consideration of Europe’s relationship with the US when the latter, post-1989, has been encouraged, under successive presidents, to see itself as the only game in town.

It is, then, worth revisiting the idea of an ethical foreign policy as introduced by Robin Cook when he became foreign secretary in 1997. At that time Cook described what he called a Mission Statement, and the first of his four stated goals, perhaps predictably, confirmed Labour’s ongoing commitment to NATO: whatever British foreign policy was going to be, there was little likelihood of any challenge to US hegemony. The subsequent bombing of Kosovo, justified as an act of humanitarian intervention, no more than confirmed US leadership of NATO, and it is difficult to pretend that action ever had any other purpose.[2] This example is pertinent to the present discussion because Cook is, perhaps, best remembered now for his opposition to the invasion of Iraq in 2003: in his speech in Parliament, resigning from the government – he had been Leader of the House since 2001 – Cook noted that the Iraq invasion didn’t have the support of NATO (or the EU or the UN Security Council). He brought up Kosovo to argue that legal justification on the basis of humanitarian need followed from a consensus among the different organisations he named. However, rather than contrasting Iraq and Kosovo as examples of British foreign policy getting it wrong after getting it right, Cook would have done better to highlight their similarities and observe that, on each occasion, it was a desire on the part of the US to assert hegemonic control that determined action. On each occasion, Britain’s only consideration was whether or not to fall into line. The challenge for a future Labour government, then, will be to find a way to avoid ongoing subservience to US global ambitions.

This post was first published on heavymetalpolitics.com (17/9/16).

[1] Frank Schimmelfennig, The EU, NATO and the Integration of Europe: Rules and Rhetoric, 2003; Luis Simon, Geopolitical Change, Grand Strategy and European Security: The EU‑NATO Conundrum, 2014.

[2] Tariq Ali ed, Masters of the Universe?: NATO’s Balkan Crusade, 2000.

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