The Miliband Doctrine? The three principles that will define Labour’s foreign policy


Ed Miliband

Ed Miliband will give a pretty thorough and thoughtful speech on foreign policy at Chatham House this morning. Foreign policy has often been the obvious missing piece of Labour’s policy jigsaw – not just during the election campaign, but over the past five years. The focus on “One Nation” often seemed like all other nations were given less thought and focus. So it’s good to see Miliband presenting out the early outlines of what we might call the “Miliband Doctrine” today.

Yet before the speech has even been made, the Tories have sought to misinterpret – no, not that’s not strong enough – they’ve chosen to outright lie and deceive about the contents of Miliband’s speech in order to accuse him of blaming Cameron for the deaths of drowning Libyan migrants. There are three key tenets to the Miliband Doctrine, so lets tackle the one that pertains to Libya first:

1. There’s a place for intervention, but only if it’s done right – and if post-war planning is adequate – I opposed the 2003 Iraq War – as did Ed Miliband – but it’s been clear from the off that the greatest failing made by the “coalition of the willing” wasn’t toppling Saddam (he was a dictator who cruelly oppressed his people) but the disastrous post-war period. That included dismantling most of the state and collapsing the army and the police force meaning that the whole country had to be rebuilt from the ground up. Meanwhile militias were built, sectarianism rose and we end up in the grotesque farce of ISIS driving hundreds of miles into Iraq. Ed Miliband has learned this lesson, which is why he’ll say:

“Legitimate interventions must be supported by international, regional and local players, carried out with a clearly defined strategy, as well as include a comprehensive transition and post conflict strategy. These are the vital lessons of our recent past and I will not forget them.”

That quote comes from a whole section on the failings of post-war planning and reconstruction in Iraq. But there’s also – understandably, as a recent example of UK military action (which Labour supported) a section on Libya, which takes a similar tone:

“In Libya, Labour supported military action to avoid the slaughter Qaddafi threatened in Benghazi.  But since the action, the failure of post conflict planning has become obvious. David Cameron was wrong to assume that Libya’s political culture and institutions could be left to evolve and transform on their own.

“What we have seen in Libya is that when tensions over power and resource began to emerge, they simply reinforced deep seated ideological and ethnic fault lines in the country, meaning the hopes of the revolutionary uprisings quickly began to unravel. The tragedy is that this could have been anticipated.  It should have been avoided. And Britain could have played its part in ensuring the international community stood by the people of Libya in practice rather than standing behind the unfounded hopes of potential progress only in principle.”

Three things spring to mind reading that. One – there’s no sense in the Labour Party having learned the lessons of Iraq, only to ignore them when the Tories make the same mistakes because it might be inconvenient to point them out. And two – anyone who claims that paragraph is an attack on David Cameron (who is unnamed) or lays blame at his door for the deaths of Libyan migrants is clearly delusional or deluding you. And thirdly, does anyone – do the Tories – dispute that post-war planning in Libya (which was so bad a situation arose where the US Ambassador was murdered in his own consulate) could and should have been done better? I doubt any rational person considers Libya (or Iraq) an example of post-war success.

Of course when Miliband talks about intervention, people are going to talk about Syria. I think that the West should have (and still should) intervened in Syria. But lets remember what Miliband was proposing – a brief delay on airstrikes in order to establish the facts (learning a lesson on hasty political-timetable-driven action from the past) – which Cameron rejected. I would have backed bombing Assad. But the net consequence may have been to boost a (then less well known) ISIS – so Miliband’s warning about proper information and planning counts when it comes to Syria too.

2. Restoring the primacy of multi-lateral institutions  – Miliband will talk extensively about working more closely with NATO and European partners today. At a time when a newly assertive and aggressive Putin is annexing sections of nations on Europe’s fringes, and running proxy wars with dummy armies elsewhere, the need for multi-lateral action and strong alliances is as great as it has been since the end of the Cold War. So Miliband will say:

“NATO is, and must remain, the foundation of our defence and security partnership. We will work tirelessly to ensure its greater effectiveness because Western unity and resolve are essential, as we have seen in the face of Russian aggression in the Ukraine. NATO needs to send the signals of deterrence required to prevent the line of confrontation being moved further west.”

He then goes on to make an actual attack on the Tories over defence that is far harder than anything the Tories have dreamed up by misinterpreting Miliband’s words. There’s little misinterpreting this:

“I am not going to sacrifice the defence and security of our country on an ideological commitment to a significantly smaller state”

As for Europe (some have joked that staying in Europe is Labour’s main and at times only foreign policy constant) Miliband says that he wants to not just remain in Europe, but for Britain to lead and reform it too. There’s a clear point being made here. Under Blair – and even Thatcher – there was a sense that Britain’s voice mattered around the table in Europe. Today that can’t seriously be the case. And on the international stage we’re diminished by that fact – or as Miliband puts it “David Cameron has presided over the biggest loss of influence for our country in a generation”.

3. Human rights, climate change and tackling inequality. An “ethical foreign policy”? – Miliband will talk about foreign policy goals that have largely been absent from the debate today. In particular, he’ll talk about the need to tackle climate change. As his biggest moment in the last government was the Copenhagen climate change summit, you’d expect as much. But he’ll also allude to a change of direction on tackling international inequality and pushing for stronger human rights. The question is – how far is Miliband willing to go on the latter? Only a few months ago David Cameron went to Saudi Arabia to fawn over a deceased theocratic dictator who flogs bloggers, stones people to death and chops off hands and heads. Would Ed Miliband do likewise? Would he be willing to put human rights ahead of realpolitik in these kind of situations? That will be the acid test of which way Miliband’s foreign policy would go. And although I’m hopeful that Miliband would put human rights first every time, it’s still not yet possible to say for certain which way a he would jump when the time comes.

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