The world according to Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn talks about changing the world. But would his Britain just end up protesting from the sidelines?
May 16, 2018
What would Corbyn's foreign policy mean in practice? Photo: Prospect composite 

The Morning Star has never been an influential newspaper. During the Cold War the far-left journal was bolstered by a bulk order from the Soviet Union, though now its daily circulation is no more than 10,000. Its columnists rail against American imperialism, wars in the Middle East and poverty in the global south. And up until he ran to be Labour leader in 2015, one of those columnists was Jeremy Corbyn. 

For his critics those columns are a goldmine of material. Corbyn had called for Nato to be abolished, blamed the west for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and denounced the way the United States tackled terrorism—points of controversy that have often dominated his leadership. But the Morning Star columns went wider, too. He wrote about the stand-off in western Sahara, the crisis in the Great Lakes and atrocities in Sri Lanka; he highlighted the case of an arrested Ethiopian opposition leader, abject working conditions in Qatar and the plight of Kurds in Turkey. 

Foreign policy is Corbyn’s passion. While the ins and outs of NHS reform don’t tend to interest him, a conversation about healthcare in Latin America can last for hours. He’s been to more countries than he hasn’t, meeting a kaleidoscope of activists and trades unionists—Corbyn is not the type to hobnob with the ambassador or pop in to see the foreign minister. All of which has helped to form a worldview which focuses on human rights, and tends to ignore conventional wisdom. 

Like most of Corbyn’s views, he has held these for all his political life. What’s surprising is the ease with which his once-fringe policy positions are becoming accepted within a Labour Party that still does not, for the most part speak—or think—in his anti-western, pro-developing-world rhetoric. A party that less than a decade ago believed in intervening to prevent a humanitarian disaster now objects to the use of force in almost all circumstances. A party that just a few years ago was staunchly pro-European and, at least at the top, a wide-eyed believer in the so-called “special relationship,” is now coolly keeping its distance from both the European Union and the US. A party that was a strong backer of Nato is now openly sceptical of the western military alliance and seems keen to find common ground with Vladimir Putin. 

Labour has always been divided by foreign policy—the argument about whether it should be a “peace party” is as old as the party itself. Its first leader, Keir Hardie, opposed Britain’s involvement in the First World War, but others disagreed and the anti-war Ramsay MacDonald soon had to make way for the more belligerent Arthur Henderson. Two decades later, foreign policy cost another Labour leader his job—George Lansbury’s pacifism was rejected by the party, leading to the elevation of Clement Attlee. In the 1940s and 1950s, and then again in the 1980s, the great divide was over nuclear weapons. Then, in the 1990s, the argument was over interventionism—between the so-called “realist” approach of Jack Cunningham and the first sparks of Robin Cook’s ethical foreign policy. 

What’s surprising about the party’s current debate over foreign policy is that there is actually very little debate: Corbyn has won. There are still a few dozen backbench MPs whose instinct is to oppose their party leader on many foreign policy questions. Yet after the sacking of Hilary Benn, a few months after his dramatic frontbench speech rejecting Corbyn’s opposition to extending the bombing of Islamic State into Syria, the party’s foreign affairs voices all now back the leader’s positions. Nia Griffith, his shadow defence secretary, occasionally sounds more assertive on Russia, but otherwise keeps her disagreements private. Meanwhile Emily Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary, faithfully follows the Corbyn line. 

Of course, this remarkably smooth transformation to Corbynite conclusions reflects the utter failure of what came before. The idea of liberal interventionism was destroyed by Iraq, a disastrous war of choice that was—among the other shifting reasons—supposed to have been waged on humanitarian grounds, Tony Blair’s “moral case.” Labour’s involvement with the American neo-conservatives and their “war on terror” has scarred a party that has never been easy with the idea of using force. 

Is it any wonder that a leader who opposed not only Iraq but also the perceived failures in Afghanistan and Libya, a man who promises to end British involvement in Middle East wars, has been able to so convincingly win the foreign policy argument? Now that Corbyn has done that, can he win the bigger argument in the country? And if he makes it all the way to No 10, what will that mean for Britain—and the world?

Brave talk

Rifling through old copies of the Morning Star is helpful up to a point, but Corbyn has also given three major foreign policy speeches since he became leader. One was a planned set-piece at Chatham House, another was a response to last year’s Manchester Arena bombing which killed 22 people. In that speech, during the heat of the election campaign, Corbyn argued that one of the reasons there were attacks on British soil was our foreign policy. Many people, including those in the intelligence services, had suggested as much, but for a front-rank politician to do so—and at such a raw moment—was a big, brave and calculated political risk. 

The third speech, though, has been ignored. Scheduled for a Friday in December last year, Corbyn’s thunder was stolen by Theresa May hot-footing it to Brussels to finally sign the agreement on the first phase of Brexit talks. When Corbyn took to the stage at the UN in Geneva a few hours later, the news channels were still fixated on Brexit and the following day the speech didn’t even register in the newspapers. Which is a shame because it provided the clearest explanation yet of the Corbyn doctrine. 

Along with a few standard leftist nods (both Salvador Allende and Thomas Sankara get a heroic mention), Corbyn outlined the four “greatest and interconnected threats facing our common humanity”—climate change, migration, “unilateral” military action and what he describes as “the growing concentration of unaccountable wealth and power in the hands of a tiny corporate elite.” 

His proposals on climate change were mainstream—Labour will back the Paris accord—but in the other three areas, Corbyn suggested profound changes in the way Britain operates in the world. On migration, he pointed out that half the world’s refugees are hosted in some of its poorest countries. “It is time,” he said, “for the world’s richer countries to step up,” suggesting Britain should take more refugees. On conflict, he called for Britain to play “an important role” in UN peacekeeping, and also backed reform of the Security Council, which should be “more representative.” This may sound mild, but could mean the UK offer the UN more of its troops to serve as blue helmets while also giving up its veto. 

The final area—the global economy—is perhaps the most interesting. After the usual litany of complaints about the “bankrupt order” where corporates “rig the system,” he called for a “legally binding treaty to regulate transnational corporations under international human rights law.” Crucially, he added, this must apply to “all of the activities of their subsidiaries and suppliers.” 

This—if it actually happens—would be transformative. A clothing brand would be responsible for what happens in a Bangladeshi textiles factory, or a mobile phone maker for how the coltan in its handsets was mined. Equally bold are the proposals on tax havens in Britain’s overseas territories, which include a public register of all “owners, directors, major shareholders and beneficial owners.” In other words, if you put money in the Caymans, we’ll know who you are. 

Add this to his commitment to end arms sales to countries such as Saudi Arabia and a likely review of UK relations with Israel and you start to see a roadmap towards real change. Corbyn’s detractors might worry it is a change towards something akin to a non-aligned international socialism. But Emily Thornberry—who came up through the mainstream of the party—seems to believe that it all follows a thoroughly Labour tradition of ethics, international law and human rights.

Bombs away

When Thornberry first stood for parliament in Islington South and Finsbury in 2005, the Liberal Democrats believed they could win the seat. It was the election after the Iraq War and this pocket of north London seemed ripe for Charles Kennedy’s anti-war party. Thornberry won by just 484 votes, creeping over the line, she says, thanks to the support of Robin Cook who campaigned alongside her. “I was always asked if I was a Blairite or a Brownite,” she tells me, “but I’m a ‘Cookie.’ I always agreed with him.” 

A true story, and one that helps the broader tale Thornberry wants to tell about Labour foreign policy now. In her mind, the line from Cook and his ethical foreign policy runs directly to herself and her ambition, as she described it at the party conference last year, to “put Labour values at the heart of the world order.” 

Earlier this year, to mark the 15th anniversary of the million-strong march against the Iraq War, Thornberry cited Cook’s opposition and suggested she was following in his footsteps. This is the part of Cook’s “ethical foreign policy” that Thornberry prefers to associate herself with. She is less comfortable discussing the other major foreign policy act he is remembered for: the Nato campaign in Kosovo. 

A majority-Albanian province in Serbia, Kosovo had been granted autonomy in 1974. As the Yugoslav federation broke up, those rights were stripped by President Slobodan Milosevi´c and ethnic tensions escalated throughout the 1990s. In 1998, that tension turned into conflict—Milosevi´c’s forces launched a crackdown, driving Kosovo’s Albanians from their homes. When peace talks failed, Nato launched air-strikes against Yugoslavia. Two months of bombardment, mainly on Belgrade, forced Milosevi´c to withdraw his troops from Kosovo. 

A few weeks into the military campaign, Cook described the scene in Kosovo in terms deliberately reminiscent of Nazi Germany: “We have again borne witness to forced movements by train, to thousands hungry and squalid in makeshift camps, to pathetic masses shorn of their homes and their papers for no reason other than ethnic identity. Had we done nothing in response, we would have been complicit in that evil.” 

Few on the left today want to remember this aspect of Cook’s ethical foreign policy. As David Clark, Cook’s longtime adviser, puts it: “Unless you are prepared to use military force to protect human rights you haven’t really understood the full meaning of Robin Cook’s foreign policy legacy.” 

Corbyn, of course, opposed the intervention in Kosovo. Not just because he believed the west had no right to get involved, but also because he doubted that ethnic cleansing was taking place. He branded Nato’s actions “illegal,” saw “economic interests” as lying behind them, and claimed the “brutalisation of the people of Yugoslavia… will unite them behind Milosevi´c.” 

But what about Thornberry, who wasn’t an MP back then. Did she support the military intervention in Kosovo? There is a pause, before a one-word answer: “Yes.” When asked why, she doesn’t talk about the mass graves. Instead, she says she supported it because “there was international consensus behind it and I thought that there wasn’t any other way.” It’s a strangely legalistic answer, devoid of emotion.

My enemy’s enemy

It is one thing to give speeches of high principle, and act as an opposition critiquing a government’s actions (or inactions). At some stage, though, those words about international law and human rights crash into the reality of a messy man-made catastrophe—like a civil war started by a dictator that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, a proxy war that has drawn in a dozen nations, plus countless militias and violent extremists. In respect of Syria, Corbyn and Thornberry are—entirely unlike Cook in Kosovo—determined not to take sides. 

But even studied neutrality implies its own moral judgments. “There is an argument that if [President Bashar al-Assad] had been as overwhelmingly unpopular as the rebels told the west at the outset then he wouldn’t be there,” Thornberry tells me. “I think there has been a depth and a breadth of support for Assad that has been underestimated.” 

Not once in our discussion on Syria is she critical of the Assad regime. Even when we discuss the regime’s chemical weapons attack in Ghouta in 2013 which killed hundreds of civilians, many of them children—an attack that the then UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described as a “war crime”—she does not talk about the regime’s responsibility; rather it just “broke our hearts.” 

Assad may not get special blame, but others do. Foreign forces, she says, need to leave. That includes Britain, which is currently taking part in air-strikes against IS. “They’re not fighting for the sake of the Syrian people. Any of them.” She lists the countries involved. “UAE, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iran, Turkey, America, Britain—have I missed anyone?” She has. “Russians!” she adds, quickly. 

Syria, she says, needs a “political solution.” That’s a phrase she deploys six times in two minutes. On what that political solution might be, she is less clear. There must be peace talks, she says—talks that Assad will join “because the Russians will get him there” (they haven’t managed to so far). There are two stalled peace talks at present—one backed by the Russians in Sochi, the other by the west in Geneva. Thornberry believes the UK should join the Russian process. “I think we should be working with whatever works, for the sake of the Syrian kids. None of this is revolutionary.” 

No, none of it is. John Kerry spent much of his four years as US Secretary of State fruitlessly travelling the world, negotiating with Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, arm-twisting opposition groups and pressuring Assad’s allies. The UK foreign office had teams of people in Istanbul and Cairo, corralling the disparate opposition forces into some sort of unified, representative body. 

The problem hasn’t been a lack of belief in diplomacy, a lack of effort—the problem has been those who won’t join the process. Put simply, the Assad regime, now it has the upper hand militarily, gains nothing from negotiating. Without pressure from its mighty Russian ally, the regime will refuse to compromise. Russian support has bolstered Assad throughout the conflict. It has vetoed 11 separate resolutions at the Security Council and seen off countless others. One would imagine that a politician determined to find a “political solution” would be outraged at Russia’s refusal to condemn the use of chemical weapons (vetoed on 10th April 2018), call for a ceasefire in Aleppo (vetoed on 5th December 2016) or allow humanitarian access to besieged cities (vetoed on 8th October 2016). 

Thornberry is not. “People will always block resolutions,” she says with a wave of the hand. “If you look at the number of resolutions America has blocked, I mean that’s the way of politics.” 

Indeed, there are moments when Thornberry echoes the Russian government’s conclusions about Syria. In the aftermath of the recent chemical weapons attack in Douma, Russia and Syria blocked attempts by international inspectors to reach the site. The Russian foreign ministry claimed—falsely—there was no blocking, only botched paperwork, and on Question Time Thornberry echoed this line. (The next day, her comments led the headlines on the Kremlin-backed propaganda outfit, RT.) 

Nor is Syria the only topic where Thornberry and Moscow converge. A longstanding Russian complaint is that Nato should never have expanded to include Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, which took the alliance to Russia’s border. But having been invaded and occupied by Russia for 50 years, these states were understandably keen to join a protective alliance following independence. Thornberry declines to support their membership, framing the question from Russia’s point of view. Was it wrong for Nato to expand? “There is a feeling in Russia that they don’t like the current status quo.” And? “Putin is taking advantage of that by his bellicose language and his behaviour.” Yes, but should the Baltics be members of Nato? Thornberry refuses to say, and declines to back Nato’s dispatching of troops, 800 of them British, to protect the Baltic states from any future Russian attack. There are, she says, “more pressing current issues,” citing cyber attacks on Estonia. 

It is tempting to dismiss Corbyn as being in Russia’s pocket—but it’s inaccurate. Unlike the rabble-rousing former Labour MP George Galloway, who applauded Russia’s intervention in Syria, Corbyn would never outright support its military action. Nor is it correct to claim his views reflect a vague ideological sympathy for the Soviet Union—the politics of Putin’s Russia are the polar opposite of Soviet Communism. The journalist Mary Dejevsky, who identifies with his position on Russia, explains: “We’re in a post-cold war period but the west has continued to treat Russia as the old Soviet Union and Russia bridles at that. It then treats us like that back. Corbyn has a sense that if you treated Russia in what I would call a more realistic way, as a country that has its own interests, then you might see a different face of Russia.” 

The problem with this argument is that, as in the case of the Baltics, it suggests a hierarchy of sovereignty—Russia’s interests should take precedence over those of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. That fits very strangely with his stress on the over-riding importance of the UN as a community of nations. 

But Corbyn came of age in the Vietnam era—a period where, for many on the left, America was the greatest threat to world peace. His real lodestar is not the global legal order: he was doggedly opposed to the fully-UN backed Gulf War in 1990, which reversed Iraq’s annexation of Kuwait. It is opposition to western imperialism, particularly American; this appears to blind him to Russian imperialism in eastern Europe. “His good intentions and often justifiable anger at western behaviour leads him to some very bad conclusions,” says Clark. 

Thornberry’s evolution is more curious. She may still describe herself as a Cookie, but today—when it comes to the crunch—she’s a Corbynite. It is possible to square her past support for both Kosovo and Libya with her current attitude towards Syria as a response to the gradual, post-9/11 discrediting of interventionism. But that wouldn’t explain her new indulgence of Russia. Perhaps it is merely loyalty to Corbyn; perhaps it is positioning ahead of a future leadership election.

A backbench nation

As radical as Corbyn’s foreign policies sound, there is a problem: his rhetoric is not matched by detail. Those plans to regulate transnational corporations under international human rights law? That’s not something Britain can do alone—instead Corbyn says we will “actively support the efforts of the UN Human Rights Council” to introduce the law. The pledge on refugees? Actually, it’s less of a pledge, more of an aspiration? Thornberry cautiously suggests the focus needs to be on helping refugees “within the camps” and “ensuring that they can go home.” 

Preventing weapons sales to the likes of Saudi Arabia is more achievable—a Corbyn government could withhold the necessary export certificates. But would he be willing to go further and pass a law that banned the arming of dictatorships? Neither he, nor Thornberry nor Griffith have ever made that pledge, restricting themselves to fully implement the International Arms Trade Treaty, which leaves wriggle room. 

What about Labour’s insistence of placing the UN at the heart of foreign policy? To make it work better would require reform, and reform requires artful and sometimes distasteful alliance building of the sort for which Corbyn the purist protestor would have neither the appetite nor the guile. 

Then there is the question of how far—or not—Corbyn and Thornberry will go to defend human rights when they are being most degraded in practice. At some stage during a Corbyn premiership something terrible will happen somewhere in the world—and the PM and foreign secretary will have to decide what, if anything, the UK is going to do. There will be a manifest injustice in which large numbers of people are dying in a way which could be avoided by intervention—an intervention that a single country’s UN veto might thwart. 

When asked when it is right for Britain to use military force, Thornberry gives just two examples: when we are attacked or if one of our allies is attacked. Humanitarian interventions, it seems, are off the table. Cook would have found this troubling: he was instrumental in establishing the “responsibility to protect,” an international agreement which commits nations to “take collective action… to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” That collective action includes military intervention “should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations.” 

If Thornberry the Cookie was once a fan, she doesn’t sound like one today. “I think the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect is…” She pauses for five seconds. “Well, I don’t want to say it’s dead, because I want it to be alive.” But it’s on life support? “Yeah.” 

Libya, Thornberry says, helped to finish it off. Although she, unlike Corbyn, supported the western action there in 2011, she now says it “has been such a disaster. Responsibility to Protect is not [supposed to be] a cover for ‘those people are being treated badly let’s go and bomb, everything will be fine.’ It didn’t work—look at Libya now.” 

Some of this reflects the wider suspicion in a war-weary Britain: shifts in the mood about foreign policy are rarely confined to a single party. Indeed, a quarter of a century ago it was Douglas Hurd, the Conservative foreign secretary, who coined the phrase that finally made Britain’s peace with its post-imperial place: that Britain should “punch above its weight in the world.” 

It’s a curious phrase, one that simultaneously suggests Britain can play a major role in global affairs, while also understanding it isn’t actually a major power anymore. Nonetheless, it has come to sum up Britain’s attitude towards the rest of the world. With its permanent seat on the UN security council, EU and Nato membership, Britain used pooled sovereignty to acquire more power and responsibility than it could ever have enjoyed alone. By blundering out of the EU, Britain is already set to diminish that power. But it could do so again—this time deliberately—through a Corbyn premiership. For the first time, we would have a prime minister that believed Britain should not punch above its weight. 

As he condemned Nato’s bombing of Belgrade on the green benches in 1999, Corbyn called for all five permanent Security Council states to lose their veto. “It is ludicrous that a system has pertained since the end of the Second World War,” rigged in favour of “the five victor powers of that war.” In the intervening two decades he has not changed his view. 

In Corbyn’s view, we should accept we are a modestly-sized nation and act accordingly. Many people in a war-weary country may agree. But we should be crystal clear about what this would mean in the most extreme of circumstances, where all diplomacy has failed. If ethnic cleansing takes place, we will condemn it, but not intervene. If a dictator kills his own people, we will condemn it, but not intervene. If one nation invades another, we will condemn it, but not intervene. 

Jeremy Corbyn has spent his life as a protester, a backbench MP carefully registering his opposition. Corbyn’s Britain could play a similar role—finally punching at its own diminished weight, a backbench nation waving a “Not in our Name” banner and shaking its head in disapproval.