by Lee Butcher
Kirsty McNeill and Andrew Small’s contribution to Progress Online on “the interventionist dilemma” reopens an important but neglected debate within the party. The pre-eminence of the ‘interventionists’ (as they term it) within the Blair and Brown governments were key to how the last government acted out in the world, and the consequences that had for those on the receiving end and for the party’s popularity at home.
The silence on this matter of the party since returning to opposition has seen discussions about the future, or otherwise, of interventionism within the party largely neglected. This is partly due to the convention of opposition parties sticking close by the government on such matters, and partly to avoid reopening the barely healed wounds of Iraq. Such a debate ought to be had before returning government. On this I would agree with McNeill and Small, there however is where my agreement with their analysis ends.
There is an assumption that runs throughout their article that British intervention overseas is not just desirable, but is of critical value to ourselves and to the rest of the world. They make a rather curious assertion that because of American withdrawal from foreign commitments a future Labour government will need to immediately budget for doing so ourselves. Though they do not explicitly say so, one would ask if this would be done on a unilateral basis. This view would seem to be contradicted by an example they cite, Libya, which was done with close co-operation with France. The evidence would strongly suggest that if it is not the Americans we accompany into such pursuits it is our European partners. To believe that the United Kingdom can aspire to going it alone does not take into account the size and strength of our armed forces and what they are capable of achieving. This has been made plainly clear by the Strategic Defence and Security Review.
If McNeill and Small get their way and Prime Minister Miliband instructs Chancellor Balls to budget for increased military spending while critical spending at home is being squeezed, they will quickly find they lack the support of their Labour colleagues in Parliament and vast swathes of the electorate. For all the recent support for the military, spending on wars abroad remains unpopular when schools and hospitals are falling to pieces.
The problems with McNeill’s and Small’s view are not just at home. A foreign policy of values, led principally by military intervention, is inherently problematic. The first is to question how often we have seen such a policy enacted. Often there have been far more motivating factors (in the government’s view) for interventions elsewhere; the Balkans to avoid a state of chaos and insecurity on Europe’s south eastern borders , Afghanistan to remove America’s attackers and Iraq to install democracy in the Middle East – the latter cases in order for Britain to remain close to a critical ally. Rwanda itself is a case in point; a place of marginal importance to British or American interests and the superpower recently stung by a debacle in Somalia ensured nothing happened. Humanitarianism alone has rarely been a motivating factor for our government.
Secondly if we choose to enforce values we have to ask what sort of values are we exporting? In Iraq exchanging tyranny for chaos and sectarian conflict hardly seems worth the sacrifice of Iraqi, British and American lives. If the answer is democracy, we have to ask what kind of democracy? The problems of translating the American or Westminster systems of governance to parts of the world with societies that differ greatly to our own are evidenced across the world. Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East are cases in point where the competitive ‘winner takes all’ democracy has exacerbated, rather than calmed, tensions and conflicts.
Throughout the assumption is made that we know best, that we are uniquely placed to adjudicate on behalf of foreigners’ unfortunate enough not to be us. A neo-Chamberlainite tendency of this form of arrogance still flows strongly through the veins of Britain’s foreign policy makers. It is here where the danger emerges. Wherever we have intervened the destructive process of regime change has been achieved easily, but the creative processes of rebuilding shattered societies have foundered. We knew too little about Iraq, Afghanistan, even Sierra Leone and the Balkans and politicians were largely uninterested in knowing the complexities of the societies they were seeking to change. We were firmly convinced by our own intrinsic superiority which rendered such knowledge obsolete. Worst of all, we rarely asked the people we were supposedly liberating what it was they wanted, and where we did we often ignored any answers which contradicted our own pre-conceived opinions.
McNeill and Small are correct to say that some form of interventionism is needed, but their response of relying on the military is mistaken. A Britain engaged with the world needs to establish credibility by understanding well the places we are concerned about and of establishing connections with those we wish to support. The value and impact of so-called ‘soft power’ has been forgotten in the rush to militarism under the last Labour government.
In all the places that we chose to invade Britain largely ignored them until these decisions were being taken. Due to long term negligence short-term decisions were taken which were based on weak foundations. That mistake should not be repeated and a Labour Prime Minister would be well advised to begin the process of establishing long term “soft” engagements in an intelligent and thoughtful way with those societies and communities which we are concerned about.
Britain, as a second rate military power, needs to establish itself in a new role. That is either the smaller friend of a superpower or a player in an alliance of nations. That alliance can focus on military solutions, or it can look for alternatives. Britain should lead the way in convincing our friends in Europe and elsewhere to prioritise human rights and to encourage speaking out in support of them. This must be done consistently; invading one country for human rights violations while ignoring violations in places like Israel and China greatly undermines our credibility. Moving away from militarism and toward a consistent approach in speaking out against all violators, while seeking change by ‘soft power’ in conjunction with likeminded allies, is one compelling alternative role a future Labour PM should investigate.
Above all caution should guide us in seeking to enforce our values on societies which are not our own. We must not assume that what is good for us is good everyone, as the saying goes, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
Lee Butcher works for a Labour MP and is a postgraduate history student at Birkbeck, University of London. This article reflects his own views