Beyond the Anthem: What Corbyn means for Labour’s Foreign Policy

Corbyn speaking at a pro-Palestine rally in 2009.

Corbyn speaking at a pro-Palestine rally in 2009.

Since the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the position of UK Labour leader, countless pundits have given their view – almost invariably pessimistic – on his leadership. In terms of Middle East foreign policy, Corbyn’s ideas are refreshing (if not strictly as radical as some have claimed), and, if he is able to stick to his principles in the face of less-than-pliant committees of Labour MPs, they represent an opportunity to reconsider British foreign policy.

Jeremy Corbyn and ‘radically different’ foreign policy

Corbyn seeks to prioritise principles over pragmatism. These principles could best be described as international humanitarianism.

There are three easily identifiable areas where he holds strong convictions: intervention in Syria, the arms trade, and the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Corbyn is staunchly against any armed intervention in Syria. Citing the examples of Iraq (2003), Afghanistan (2001) and Libya (2011) he has argued that Western intervention has repeatedly been ill-thought through and has not benefited either the target country or Britain. In particular, he cites Libya’s decline from the Arab Spring to ‘civil war’ and ‘overflowing arms’ in the wider region following Western arms dealing with rebels. Corbyn believes that bombing in Syria would ‘create more mayhem’ and the West would necessarily be dealing with ‘unclear alliances’. Corbyn’s policy for defeating ISIS, by contrast, is to try to isolate the group economically by putting pressure on their international sponsors. As he succinctly put it, ‘you can’t bomb your way to peace’.

By a similar token, Corbyn has repeatedly called for Britain to restrict its arms trade. For over a decade, he has called for a boycott on arms trading to Israel, and he cites the use of imported weapons against Palestinians both in the Intifada (2000) and the most recent conflict (2014). He has similarly questioned the morality of lucrative arms contracts being made with Saudi Arabia – a staunch ally of the West – whose human rights record is problematic. It seems clear that Corbyn would seek to curb this arms trade – reported to be worth approximately $12 billion in 2013 – or at the very least restrict sales to more repressive governments.

Corbyn has been most loudly criticised for his views on the Israel-Palestine issue. Having shared a stage with members of Hamas and Hezbollah (both considered terrorist organisations by the UK Government), he has been accused of anti-Semitism and of being too sympathetic to terrorists. He has been much more radical than previous Labour and Conservative leaders (Gordon Brown in particular stressed an emotional tie to Israel on his historic visit) in his recognition of the Palestinian right to statehood. If Corbyn were able to unify his party, Labour might put far more pressure on Israel than any government in recent memory.

The Shadow Foreign Secretary and an Alternative Approach

This is, however, a big ‘if’. Quite aside from pro-Israel Labour supporters, Corbyn faces a divided party consisting of the more traditional ‘left’ and more recent ‘Blairites’. Foreign policy is not made by the leader alone; Corbyn will need the MPs on his side to create a foreign policy which the whole party can support. Hilary Benn, the shadow foreign secretary, should be seen as an appointment meant to unify MPs and the party faithful. Combining old-Left credentials from his family name with New Labour foreign policy tendencies, Benn was previously tipped as a Deputy Leader of the Labour Party and performed well at Prime Ministers Questions earlier this year. He represents the pragmatist curb to Corbyn’s idealism.

Benn’s views differ from Corbyn on some key issues – he is more unequivocally pro-Europe than Corbyn – and is in favour of keeping a nuclear deterrent. With reference to the Middle East, though, Benn and Corbyn seem able to present a somewhat united front.

On the question of intervention, Benn  is less certain in his opposition than Corbyn. Nevertheless, he argues that lessons must be learned from Iraq, and that any intervention in Syria must be based on a solid legal base. This emphasis on a legal base also suggests that, like Corbyn, Benn would support action mandated by the UN but would be reluctant to act independently from it. Indeed, he stresses that Britain should develop a ‘broad approach’ in dealing with ISIS. This stress on a more holistic foreign policy is entirely in line with Corbyn’s own strategy of ‘incremental’ steps to deal with the challenges facing the UK and the region.

Benn has been asking difficult questions about the arms trade for almost as long as Corbyn. While there will of course be opposition from arms groups,  both men seem determined to make the processes determining who contracts are sold to more transparent.

On the issue of Israel-Palestine, Benn has been more silent. In the interests of keeping the party together, it seems that Labour’s foreign policy team will choose to focus on armed intervention in Syria, the arms trade, and the related refugee crisis, rather than take on the difficult Israel-Palestine question.

Principled and Pragmatic Foreign Policy

Labour is engaged in a time of discussion and debate. Fine-tuned foreign policy will not come quickly, and besides, the party is more concerned with the twin issues of Europe and migration at present. Regardless, it seems that the shadow foreign office team – including vocal shadow minister for the Middle East Gareth Thomas – will seek to create a more ideologically charged foreign policy. If they are able to work together effectively, Corbyn and Benn could put forward an intriguing foreign policy alternative to the Conservatives which would move decisively away from the Atlanticism and neo-liberalism of the New Labour and Conservative years.

Corbyn has called for a principled foreign policy – a foreign policy based on recognisable ideals (in this case, human rights). The challenge is going to be convincing MPs, lobby groups and the rest of the UK that these principles are worth fighting for, and that Corbyn’s approach is the best way to fight for them while also keeping Britain safe.

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