April 18, 2024 - 11:00am

In an essay published yesterday for Foreign Affairs, Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy set out his foreign policy doctrine. Vowing to combine the best of Ernest Bevin’s Fifties Nato-building realism and Robin Cook’s turn-of-the-century idealism, Lammy described this vision as one of “progressive realism”.

Lammy identifies some of the false assumptions of the past, and the key challenges ahead. He notes that economic globalisation did not bring about the promised wave of liberal democracy, instead increasing our dependence on authoritarian states, and that reducing America’s security burden in Europe is key to retaining US support. Yet progressive realism promises to embed new false assumptions into our thinking.

In arguing that “governments do not have to choose between values and interests”, Lammy continues to cling to the utopian thinking that has dominated British foreign policy for the last few decades, turning strategies such as “Global Britain” into empty sloganeering. Even the most powerful countries in the international order have found it hard, but essential, to stomach that trade-off.

At the heart of the doctrine’s weakness is its failure to provide any kind of roadmap for how Labour will respond to the many foreign policy dilemmas it will face in government. There will have to be trade-offs, particularly with ambitious domestic goals such as economic growth or Net Zero the predominant focus at a time of economic and resource scarcity.

When there are simultaneous demands for Labour to both usher in a green revolution with Chinese-produced solar panels and avoid complicity in the human rights abuse of Uyghurs who make them, which will come out on top? When the UK attempts to shut Russia off from global trade, and defend global democracy, how will it bring on board Narendra Modi’s increasingly ethnonationalist India, widely accused of democratic backsliding? If Donald Trump is elected US president later this year, it is entirely possible that he will continue his attacks on multilateralism, global institutions, and attempts to combat climate change. How would a Labour government retain American support in Europe as we struggle to overcome political, economic, and temporal obstacles to re-arming?

The multiple liberal norms progressive realism champions are all worthy and desirable. Yet, unranked, we are left none the wiser as to how Britain will respond when forced to pick between them. The unstructured fusion of idealism and realism has run into problems before. A 2008 analysis of Obama’s “progressive realist” approach warned astutely that the risk was paralysis and deadlock, well before his foreign policy became known for the inaction that Lammy now explicitly criticises.  On many issues of substance such as China or Ukraine, his approach differs little from existing Government strategy.

Lammy argues that the Conservative desire for a Global Britain is rooted in nostalgia for a long-distant past. Yet his own progressive realism stems from a similarly romantic but unachievable desire for a revival of successful global multilateralism, whose last rites have been read. As Nathalie Tocci has convincingly argued, hope of a multilateral revival under President Biden has not materialised, and global institutions have found themselves paralysed in an increasingly multipolar world.  Re-engagement now for its own sake risks leaving Britain an isolated bag-carrier for the obligations that will follow.

As external foreign policy dilemmas occur, they will set off Labour’s own internal crises, as the party tries to mediate the interests-values tension which it has yet to ameliorate. Labour has a long record of party-rupturing disputes over foreign policy. In stark contrast with Sir Keir Starmer’s stage-managed, minimalistic approach to his platform for government, Lammy is building an ideological trap for his party here.

Ollie Ryan Tucker writes on national security and intelligence at Neither Confirm Nor Deny.