Future generations may well mark 2017 as the year that the foreign policy landscape irrevocably changed. This month’s vote on article 50 will launch the UK into at least two years’ worth of negotiation about the principles and practicalities, which underpin our engagement with the world.
At the same time Donald Trump’s election as president has precipitated a huge change in the direction of US foreign policy. The rise of nationalistic and right-wing populist parties in Europe coincides with a growing Russian and Chinese assertiveness. Beijing in particular is positioning itself in a diametrically opposed position to Trump’s more isolationist stance.
More specifically we are seeing the erosion of what some may term the global liberal order. The US, in partnership with Britain and the EU, for the most part safe-guarded a progressive liberal system.
However, the first weeks of president Trump’s time in office have already demonstrated that this leadership may be in the balance. Policies such as the so-called Muslim travel ban, as well as threats to funding for crucial climate change initiatives and important safeguards for women and minorities, highlight the administration’s seeming indifference to alienating its international allies.
At the same time, the British government’s insistence on a “hard Brexit” means that in its unerring hunt for trade deals at the expense of a range of other considerations, Theresa May is increasingly tying Britain’s future prosperity to a more isolationist and regressive US.
Although the trends we are witnessing are not new, they have been accelerated by the growing connectedness between foreign and domestic affairs. Indeed, globalisation means that domestic issues are increasingly shaped by forces beyond our national boundaries. Climate change, terrorism, the stability of financial systems and cyber security amongst others are all issues which have profound effects on domestic policy making, yet are virtually unmanageable unless they are also subject to international cooperation and solutions.
The increasing interconnectedness and interdependence of the world has long been recognised but it is only more recently that its impact on domestic politics has come into such sharp focus.
Moreover, the rise of nationalistic populism in much of the Western world has aggravated divisions between so-called elite globalists and patriots. Not only does this divide citizens within countries, undermining social solidarity, it also leads to greater divisions between traditionally allied nations and reduces our willingness to co-operate nation-to-nation.
These changes in the foreign policy landscape are both a challenge and an opportunity for Labour as we seek to articulate a vision of our place in the world. They mean that the party’s foreign policy strategy must, more than ever, be closely linked to its new progressive vision for Britain. As the vote on triggering article 50 recently showed, this will be no easy undertaking.
Labour is an internationalist party with strong roots in communities in the UK. If any party should be equipped to tell the story of the opportunities we can harness through greater co-operation in a globalised world, it should be us.
Instead, the Conservatives have stolen the mantel of “Global Britain, looking outward into the world.” However the Global Britain the Conservatives envision is a far cry from the progressive one the Labour Party can build. Where the Conservatives would turn Britain into an offshore tax haven if necessary and subsume our values in pursuit of a trade deal, Labour would seek to put the principles of social justice, equality, human rights and conflict prevention at the heart of their foreign policy.
What is important is that Labour must understand that you can only explain some of the difficult domestic policy choices we face by setting them in a global context. Understanding the dynamics of globalisation and its impacts can no longer be domain only for elite. It is a reality.
It is crucial that the party develops its own narrative on what the country is in the world in order to explain who the Labour Party is in Britain. Only this will combat populism by offering a confident vision of how Britain can thrive in a globalised world while avoiding the retreat into little England.
We believe this vision should seek to be coherent, feminist, patriotic and encourage co-operation with European neighbours.
Coherent in the sense that such a vision must encompass all elements of foreign policy i.e diplomacy, trade, defence, development, and press not only for policy coherence but establish the cross-government mechanisms to implement, oversee and monitor policy. Strategies for international development, foreign policy, exports and defence must be mutually supporting and crucially, post-Brexit, our trade objectives must be underpinned by and support our human rights objectives.
Feminist in that the pursuit of women’s rights should form an integral part of our policies. Standing shoulder to shoulder with the Swedish government it should view issues such as gender equality as a means to achieve its foreign policy goals rather than just an end in itself.
Patriotic in that globalism and patriotism do not have to be opposing ideologies. The Labour party should be leading on developing the idea of progressive patriotism which reconciles the inevitability of globalisation, a global outlook, with pride in being British. Tories have won this space, it’s often a challenging one for liberals.
Collaborative, particularly with its European neighbours. It is no secret that all over Europe the centre-left is facing an electoral and identity crisis. This should spur greater collaboration between sister parties to renew the progressive project. Not only should we seek opportunities to learn from each other’s experiences of campaigning, messaging and engagement with a view to building an inspiring vision for the future, but we should seeking to strengthen multilateral co-operation not only on issues of mutual concern but on a values basis.
In a time when it seems all of the rules seem to have gone out of the window, it is easy to turn inward. We have been heartened by the Labour Party’s commitment to renewing their approach to foreign policy. It is now time to find the right words with which to engage the British public on the issues beyond our borders which have a very profound impact on our lives at home.