It seems in particularly poor taste that on Holocaust Memorial Day of all days, Theresa May chose to announce that the UK will no longer be a nation that persecuted and oppressed peoples can rely on to protect them in their times of need.
It was not a blanket non-intervention policy proposed by the Prime Minister. Rather, it was an endorsement of, and shift towards, President Trump’s foreign policy approach of protecting the national interest. It told the world that, if your problems don’t directly affect us, then we’re not interested. This approach effectively gives a green light to dictators the world over to strengthen oppressive and tyrannical regimes.
It removes the legitimate threat of action that might deter tyrannical acts. It tells borderless terrorist groups such as Daesh that there are places where they can prosper. It removes the hope that oppressed people might one day be able to choose how they are governed, and be free to express dissatisfaction without fear of reprisal. But more broadly, it hints at a step towards a UK less engaged with the world.
The rhetoric used displayed a belittling of the importance of the link between international diplomacy and trade, and the capacity that international trade has for building peaceful prosperity where there was previously oppression. Trade has been the incentive for previously undemocratic nations to embrace liberal values and provide basic human rights for their citizens since WW2.
Conversely, trade tariff increases, the likes of which Trump campaigned on, lead to dire international relations, as the 1930s showed. Countries who trade with each other under mutually beneficial conditions are more likely to have strong diplomatic partnerships. An example is the peace and prosperity that has spread through the European Union since the end of the Second World War, a continent that had spent the preceding centuries either at war or on the brink of wars. Leaving the EU doesn’t necessarily mean that the UK will close itself off to the world.
That will be determined by the type of Brexit deal we get and the trade deals we can negotiate outside of the EU. But Theresa May has made a poor start if she means for the UK to have a positive relationship with our closest geographical neighbours and biggest trading partners.
Of course, the alternative to nationalist foreign policy is not one of gung-ho interventionism, but one that recognises that we live in a global economy and therefore a global society. We have never been more interconnected with the rest of the world, and despite the challenges that it has brought, globalisation, and through it internationalism, has spread liberal and democratic values to the far reaches of the world.
The Prime Minister’s speech in Philadelphia to US Republicans however, demonstrates that she doesn’t appreciate that spreading democracy, trade, and, by extension, peace and prosperity across the developing world does directly affect and benefit us here in the UK.
Military intervention should be a last resort in all instances. All diplomatic solutions must be exhausted before a military option is considered. And whilst we must acknowledge and learn from mistakes in foreign policy throughout recent and more distant history, we must remember that non-intervention is a course of action that also has consequences.
Parliament’s decision not to intervene in Syria in 2014 created a vacuum that was filled by the Russian bombing of Syrian civilians. The argument against intervention at the time had merit, but ultimately, in the same way that the 2003 decision to invade Iraq resulted in the subsequent destabilisation of the country and civil war, so the decision not to intervene in Syria must be viewed as a contributing factor to the consequent devastation, displacement of civilians, and refugee crisis.
Internationalism might not be fashionable at the moment. Nationalist parties and candidates are surging in popularity across the world. But the Labour Party, as socialists and social democrats, should be the champions of human rights for everyone. That means within our borders and outside them. We mustn’t allow our recent experiences of intervention deter us from taking moral courses of action to come to the aid of those who need assistance. And while military intervention is the last resort, Labour Party values should mean that we don’t abandon those in need when the going gets tough.
However, May’s description of intervention only when it is in our interest to do so reflects a narrow and naïve analysis of a global world with global threats. Only a fully engaged UK based on internationalist principles can properly address these threats in collaboration with our partners in both the West and the developing world. If we are to lead the world together with the US, it must be with the interests of all the world’s people at heart, not just our own.