Artículo Foreign Policy, 18.09.2019 Azeem Ibrahim, profesor e investigador (Strategic Studies Institute- U.S. Army War College) y director (Center for Global Policy)
The radical Labour leader is anti-Western, not pro-justice
Britain’s politics are in chaos—and an election may not fix things. Not only is the U.K. government’s entire bandwidth being consumed by Brexit, but polls show the U.K. electorate is split between four different parties, with the Brexit Party joining the traditional division of the Conservatives, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats, while a fifth, the Scottish National Party, dominates in Scotland.
Unfortunately, the parliamentary system is ill equipped for this degree of plurality. A party that wins only a fraction of the vote may still have the most member of parliament, either on its own or in coalition.
This means that there is a real possibility of the Labour Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, forming the next government. And that would be grim news for the United States—and for the U.K’s foreign policy.
Corbyn and his followers, if elected, would seek to present their foreign policy as fundamentally decent and ethical. It would also be framed as a much-needed correction to the errors of past U.K. governments (both Labour and Conservative) and U.S. administrations (both Democratic and Republican). It would be presented as peaceful, a rejection of overly close ties with the Saudis, and an increased willingness to challenge Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians. Advocates would call it an updated version of the “ethical foreign policy” promoted by the Labour Foreign Secretary Robin Cook from 1997 to 2001.
Such a foreign policy would be admirable, if contentious. But the reality would be different—as Corbyn’s own history shows, the Labour leader has no problem with authoritarian regimes that oppress both their own population and those in countries where they are active, so long as they are led by authoritarians he deems anti-imperialist.
His valid criticisms of Saudi Arabia are not matched by any criticism of Iran or the actions of its proxy forces in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. In terms of Venezuela, he supported the Nicolás Maduro regime with no regard for the over 3 million people who have fled the country since 2014 or the repeated claims of torture by the regime’s police force. In Syria, again he has backed the Bashar al-Assad regime with no concern for the 12 million Syrians who either are internally displaced or have fled the country.
Equally, Corbyn, his supporters, and his officials have readily repeated arguments from pro-Kremlin news outlets such as Sputnik and RT. This includes providing support for Russia’s claims about its actions in Georgia, Crimea, and eastern Ukraine as well as in Syria. When Russian agents were accused of using nerve agent to poison a former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter in the U.K., his advisors repeated all the claims made on RT about possible British involvement in the attack. When presented with evidence, Corbyn demanded it be shared with the Kremlin, and when the firm evidence of Russian involvement was presented, many of his supporters continued to repeat the arguments made by RT on behalf of Moscow.
In Corbyn’s worldview, if you are the victim of a regime or movement he supports, then you have no right to his sympathy. The claims of regimes such as Russia and Iran are treated seriously, while any claim by a Western power he deems imperialist, especially the United States, is treated with deep skepticism. In effect, this is not an ethical reworking of British foreign policy—it is a stark exercise of Cold War politics, just with a different set of friends and enemies.
Corbyn’s understanding of both international relations and international economics was formed within the British far-left in the 1970s and 1980s. Key advisors were members of the pro-Soviet wing of the old Communist Party of Great Britain. The key issue in their model of international relations is whether actors are imperialist or anti-imperialist—meaning, in practice, Western or anti-Western. The latter is right, and the former is wrong. The anti-imperialist club includes movements such as Hamas and states such as Assad’s Syria and Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia. In economic terms, Corbyn prefers that the U.K. detach itself to some degree from the wider global economy so he can enact his desired economic policy. These two strands come together in his opposition to the multinational bodies that form part of the postwar settlement, including the European Union and NATO.
The implications for close British cooperation with the United States are substantial. Depending on who is the U.S. president after the 2020 election, there may be some areas where there is a shared worldview. U.S. President Donald Trump seems to share Corbyn’s suspicions about the bodies that make up the international system, and he would have some sympathy toward some rapprochement with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. But he would be very unlikely to be understanding of an allegiance shift from the Saudis to Iran, or open to support for Maduro in Venezuela. If the next U.S. president comes from the left of the Democratic Party, then there might also be some agreement about criticism of the foreign-policy choices of past regimes. But an American leader with a background in the Obama or Clinton administration is unlikely to find much in common with Corbyn’s approach.
However, there is a more fundamental issue that would cut across party lines and any appraisal of past choices. Quite simply, Corbyn cannot be trusted with sensitive intelligence material, especially where Russia is concerned. After the nerve attack targeting the Skripals on British soil, he was briefed on confidential terms as to what the U.K. knew and the evidence that pointed to Moscow. His initial response was to disregard this, and, more seriously, ask whether the sample had been shared with the Russians.
As leader of the opposition, he could call for such a reckless move but could do little to ensure it happened. As prime minister, he could. And, as noted above, a number of his closest advisors have long shared roots in the British Communist Party and now are quite open in their admiration of Putin’s regime.
More broadly, how far Corbyn could reshape U.K. foreign policy is debatable. Some of his positions—such as greater skepticism toward the Saudis—have wider appeal and would be relatively easy to carry through. Other aspects of his approach to foreign policy, such as the identification with Iran or the Assad regime, lack support even in the rest of the parliamentary Labour Party, never mind in the whole of the House of Commons.
This matters, as the U.K. prime minister is far more circumscribed in their foreign-policy actions than a U.S. president. Actually enacting major shifts, such as the U.K. withdrawing from NATO, would need a parliamentary majority, and Corbyn probably would not have this. As previously noted, the most likely outcome of the next U.K. election is a minority government backed by a loose alliance of smaller parties. Even if an accident of the U.K. electoral system produced a majority Corbyn government, he would lack support among his own Labour MPs for some of his ideas.
But there’s still plenty of damage Corbyn could do. The rhetoric of a Corbyn administration would be different, and its stated positions on a range of issues would pose a challenge to long-standing alliances. Even if he and his allies couldn’t push their own agenda forward, they could slow or frustrate the actions of other states over issues such as sanctions against Russia and key members of the Putin regime.
Underlying this shift of attitude is the issue of how reliable the U.K. would be under a Prime Minister Corbyn.
We know from his response to the Skripals’ poisoning that his natural position is to question the veracity of the information provided from British sources, to give credence to Putin’s claims, and to demand that evidence in critical inquiries be shared with the Russians. The latter goes beyond simply being a shift in U.K. foreign policy—it brings into doubt the continuance of the close post-World War II intelligence networks. There can be no guarantee that information provided to the U.K. under the Five Eyes network would not be shared with Russia or Iran. If it is, then it is most likely that the sources and analytic approach will be compromised.
The only effective protection would be to downgrade the degree of intelligence-sharing with a Corbyn government. This would have a broad and lasting negative impact, because close cooperation is not just essential for dealing with hostile states—it also provides greater protection against nonstate actors such as Islamic State or al Qaeda. Also, once the current ties start to break down it is going to be very hard to rebuild them in the future, as they function both at the administrative and the personal level. More than any reorientation of U.K. foreign policy, this makes a future Corbyn-led government a threat to U.S. national security.