'In treading this delicate middle ground, Lammy’s proposed doctrine fails to divine a practical course forward for British foreign policy.' (OLIVER MARSDEN/Middle East Images/AFP via Getty Images)

April 22, 2024   7 mins

There is a fundamental problem with David Lammy’s concept of Progressive Realism, the mooted foreign policy doctrine according to which our coming Labour government will manage Britain’s most dangerous strategic environment since the Second World War. Reading through its mixed litany of practical suggestions, fragile hopes and groundless assertions, that which is progressive is not realistic, while that which is solidly Realist casts doubt on progressive assumptions. This tension is perhaps unavoidable: as the essay, overseen by the writer Ben Judah and channelling the balanced Realism of E.H. Carr, observes: “Progressive policy without realism is empty idealism. Realism without a sense of progress can become cynical and tactical.” Yet in treading this delicate middle ground, Lammy’s proposed doctrine fails to divine a practical course forward for British foreign policy.

The fundamental challenges facing Britain were written in the last century. To secure victory in the Second World War, Britain obtained, after much desperate pleading, an alliance with the United States swiftly shown to be indistinguishable from subordination. From an equal partner in 1942, Britain found itself, to the shock and regret of its leadership, forced to divest itself of its own empire while absorbing itself into that of Washington’s. Now that America’s empire is itself undergoing its phase of terminal decline, bogged down across the globe in conflicts waged against its client states by its Eurasian rivals, Britain finds itself exposed and vulnerable. As our own imperial clients learned last century, as an overstretched and under-armed Britain fell back under the weight of its own challengers, it is a hard state of affairs to be a threatened outpost of someone else’s empire. In the world at war in which we live, the vultures are already tearing at the carcass. 

Lammy’s essay is commendably frank about this historic shift in global power, more so than the Conservative Party has publicly allowed itself to be. “The global order is messy and multipolar,” it notes, as “the rise of China — which now has the world’s largest economy by purchasing power parity — has ended the era of US hegemony”. When Labour was last in power, “American dominance was so striking that some people saw the spread of the liberal democratic model as inevitable”, but now we see that “the broad consensus that economic globalisation would inevitably breed liberal democratic values proved false. Instead, democracies have become more economically dependent on authoritarian states.”

If progressive assumptions have proved illusory, we wonder, of what value is progressivism in shaping British foreign policy? If democracies are outcompeted by autocracies, are there any lessons to be drawn? Lammy sidesteps these questions, yet it is a measure of how rapidly the world order has already changed that such analysis, which just five years ago would have been written off as doom-laden post-liberal prognosticating, is now the guiding principle of the next government’s strategic worldview. But if the diagnosis is faultless, the suggested prescription is inadequate.

“Lammy’s proposed doctrine fails to divine a practical course forward for British foreign policy.”

As Europeans, committed to a confrontation against Russia on our home continent which is not going well, we ought to take the essay’s analysis of the war in Ukraine as the primary example. While managing the outcome of the Ukraine war is the greatest immediate challenge the incoming foreign secretary will face, we are given only Johnsonian boilerplate. “The British government must leave the Kremlin with no doubt that it will support Kyiv for as long as it takes to achieve victory,” it notes. “Once Ukraine has prevailed, the United Kingdom should play a leading role in securing Ukraine’s place in Nato.” These are fine words, indistinguishable from current British strategy, which unfortunately for us and for Ukraine do not match the increasingly the increasingly likely outcome of the war. As Ukraine buckles beneath a Russian army larger and more powerful than at the beginning of the war, buttressed by a Russian economy outcompeting the Western states which had hoped to sanction it towards collapse, a frank assessment of the conflict would observe that the current approach is failing. Instead of cashing in the profits of an increasingly unlikely victory, the question facing Britain is surely how to manage the looming danger of a Ukrainian defeat, in a situation where America’s capacity and desire to defend Europe are are increasingly in question. 

Indeed, “Americans increasingly need convincing that Europeans do enough to protect their own continent’s security,” the essay breezily notes. They are correct to: European rhetorical hawkishness has not been matched by action worthy of the Russian challenge, leaving Ukraine — much like us — dependent for its survival on America’s goodwill. Yet an impartial observer would have deduced from following the course of the Ukraine war that America’s goodwill, like the iron-clad support its politicians initially promised, has a short expiry date. All the historicising myth-making seen in recent months about Russia’s almost mystical capacity to absorb pain and suffering in pursuit of victory is downstream of the basic observation that America no longer possesses the political focus or industrial capacity to steer a major conflict towards victory for longer than two years. Even America’s most sacred client, Israel, now finds itself, for the first time, a dividing line in America’s political faction war. Lammy laments that “democracy is on the back foot” while avoiding the obvious conclusion that America’s turbulent democracy is itself the greatest strategic risk for its allies. No US ally can now reasonably expect that, at its time of greatest trial, American military support will not be subsumed into Washington’s domestic conflict, their survival a weapon cynically wielded by one faction against the other in their struggle for power. 

The logical conclusion, then, would be to hedge against dependence on a distracted, declining, internally divided patron. Yet Lammy’s essay, no doubt driven as much by a desire to distinguish itself from Corbyn’s sixth-form Third Worldism as by the Atlantic Council worldview with which it is imbued, strenuously avoids such an obvious deduction. If only his commitment to Nato was shared by America’s likely next president, it would be permissible to gloss over such a glaring risk, but it is not. Yet even still, the essay observes that in our new multipolar world, it is the self-interested middle powers, “striking bargains and setting their own agendas” that are faring best: : “to maximize their autonomy, they strike deals with all the great powers,” winning concessions from the rival empires competing to court them. Could Britain, the archetypal middle power, follow such an evidently successful path? The very idea, evidently taboo, is not even broached. Transactional self-interest, even if it is successful, is not a good look.

Instead, Lammy declares that British foreign policy “will always be founded on the country’s relations with the United States and Europe”, as the “two powers are the rocks on which the United Kingdom builds its security”. Yet he also observes, in passing, that when “the United States, and the EU built competing green industrial policies to claim the industries of the future, the British government failed to follow suit”.

If the EU and the US are competing to build industrial bases, surely their interests at times diverge? The EU’s approach to a world of strategic competition is already more hard-nosed and realistic, but Lammy’s essay doesn’t address this; nor does it resolve the idea that Britain may have national interests distinct from either. Indeed, the very idea that Britain may have its own national interests, distinct from increasing the sum of global happiness, or that the aim of British foreign policy ought to be to advance them, is never explicitly made. Even still, the essay makes the good and sensible suggestion that “the United Kingdom should also double down on its close relationships with France, Germany, Ireland, and Poland”, essentially adopting the harder-edged Realism of Sumantra Maitra’s concept of “mini-ententes” as the basis for a post-Nato order. Buried within the business-as-usual liberal idealism of the Lammy Doctrine lie glimmers of pure Realism, left hanging frustratingly in the air.

Instead, Labour’s proposed foreign policy is not measurably distinct from that of the Conservative Party’s: it offers more of the same, promising only to pursue it more effectively. Knocking the “confused ambiguity” of the Conservative Party’s approach to the rising hegemon, it instead “simultaneously challenges, competes against, and cooperates with China as appropriate” — as pure an example of Johnsonian Cakeism as can be imagined.

In a world of superpower rivalry, where China is hoarding coal in advance of wartime sanctions and Russia weaponises fossil fuels to maximise its wealth and influence, we would perhaps expect well-meaning Net Zero aspirations to be temporarily delayed, but instead they are doubled down on. “Climate diplomacy is at the centre of progressive realism,” Lammy asserts, “and a Labour government would make advancing the fight against greenhouse gases central to our agenda. We would, for example, focus on reducing the emissions of our partners by seeking to establish a clean power alliance — in effect, a reverse OPEC — of states committed to leading the way on decarbonising power systems.” A noble aspiration, no doubt, but while rising powers like India gratefully gorge themselves on cheap Russian oil, it is perhaps not a realistic outcome. The idea that British influence in the world derives from its climate leadership is simply fanciful: the Global South has turned to China and Russia because China grants poorer countries the infrastructure to develop, and Russia the military tools to crush their troublesome minorities: hard Realism would observe that the progressive moralising Lammy offers is a drag on Britain’s soft power, rather than a means to expand it.

Yet a strong national security case for Britain’s energy independence can and should be made — an approach which perhaps uses the profits from Britain’s natural oil, gas and coal wealth to fund a rapid roll-out of nuclear power. Such ideas, however, are anathema to Labour, vowing to decarbonise by 2030 and promising that “our approach to climate change would not simply be focused on domestic development”. But why should it not be? Again, the driving force of the Lammy Doctrine is the assertion that “the country should adopt a progressive belief in its capacity to champion multilateral causes, build institutions, defend democracy, stand up for the rule of law, combat poverty, and fight climate change”.

Though shorn of its expeditionary crusading zeal, this is merely Blairite liberal internationalism from a new position of relative weakness, the British state as a well-meaning NGO. As a strategic blueprint for Britain’s national security in an insecure world, Lammy’s Progressive Realism proves more progressive than Realist. It is a work of anodyne political messaging rather than hard-nosed strategic thinking: published in Foreign Affairs, it is presumably aimed at reassuring Washington that the incoming Labour administration won’t go rogue, and certainly has no national interests of its own to pursue. Washington planners can rest assured that, even if no longer Head Boy material, Britain remains a dependable Prefect: in this, the essay succeeds in its purpose.

Judah is a perceptive writer, and his frank appreciation of the world order coming into being is to be welcomed. Yet while the essay correctly lambasts the Conservatives for their “nostalgia and denial about the United Kingdom’s place in the world”, it ultimately falls at the same hurdle. Within the narrow parameters progressive Atlanticism permits, the prescriptions given are sensible and good — but the world that built those conceptual guardrails is already fading away, and soon a Labour government will face the harder world already dawning. The big issues of the 2000s and 2010s already seem an evanescent dream, rapidly being rolled up by hard reality. The first problem Britain faces is that we are governed by people who do not understand what is coming towards them. The second, perhaps worse, problem is that their replacements will have been shaped by it. To survive, progressives will be better placed making their peace with reality than trying, yet again, to shape Realism towards progressive ends.  

Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.