3 July 2024

Labour isn’t taking foreign policy seriously


If Labour wins this Thursday, the implications for the UK’s foreign policy and security could be profound. The following week, Keir Starmer will fly to the Nato summit in Washington DC, marking his first significant moment on the world stage as the UK’s Prime Minister.

Despite this, election debates on the UK’s foreign policy and security under a Starmer government have lacked substance. 

David Lammy, the likely new UK Foreign Secretary, has outlined a concept that he calls ‘progressive realism’ that will profoundly shape this country’s foreign and security policy for at least the next five years. 

Lammy’s approach combines typical progressive causes, such as a commitment to net zero, deeper integration with supranational institutions and prioritising development for the Global South, with a harder-headed ‘realist’ view of the UK’s national interests. 

It is tough to reconcile the two. Progressives seek to idealistically transform the world and bend the arc of history in a moral direction. On the other hand, realists are more prudent with the view that moral missions can often be dangerous and over-extend an already stretched UK. 

In applying his progressive realism, Lammy will operate in a very different international system from the last Labour government. More importantly, European security and the EU, which he has campaigned so hard to rejoin, now look very different indeed, with Russia’s war in Ukraine altering the balance of power in Europe in several ways.

First, the EU’s security and defence cooperation remains fragmented. For all the talk on shared interests, its powerful states, like France and Germany, will act as their national interests dictate, which slows down EU responses to international crises. For example, Germany, heavily reliant on Russian energy, dragged its feet on sanctions on Putin’s regime.

Second, the war in Ukraine has shifted the centre of European strategic gravity further eastwards. Poland is fast becoming the preeminent European land power, with hundreds of new and highly effective tanks and other military kit.

Third, compounding the EU’s weakness is the disastrous double whammy of Germany’s demographic decline and net zero gamble. Germany, the natural hegemon of the EU, remains slow and lumbering, and where Germany goes, the EU also goes. It remains a ‘realist’ fact that any advanced industrialised economy requires energy. With the cut-off of Russian energy to Germany, its renewables simply cannot meet German industry’s demands. Germany’s ludicrous net zero situation now sees it reopening its super-dirty lignite coal mines to keep the lights on. 

However, the changing nature of American foreign policy is most important to the UK. Following last week’s presidential debates, it looks increasingly likely that Donald Trump will be the next American president. This means that Americans will wish to see a much more significant investment by Europeans in their security and Nato. One thing is obvious – Trump hates the feeling that America is getting a bad deal. Historically, prosperous European democracies have outsourced their security to American taxpayers through Nato. This will change, and Europe will likely enter a more American-lite security order. 

This presents opportunities for the UK. The EU is sclerotic, and the rise of populism across the continent means deeper cooperation will become even harder. As the UK’s fast response to the Ukraine crisis showed, we remain one of Europe’s leading military powers and enjoy close relationships with the emergent axis of East European and Scandinavian powers along Russia’s flank. We should further capitalise on this post-Brexit nimbleness and lean into these security relationships, as they boost our diplomacy and leverage in other areas, including trade. 

Beyond the progressive rhetoric, the UK’s national interests remain the pacification of any peer competitor that might emerge in European geopolitics, the containment of interstate threats, and the strategic necessity of maintaining the Nato relationship. As Dr Radomir Tylecote and Alexander Baker have argued in CapX, any development of the EU as a defence actor poses a risk to Nato’s primacy in Euro-Atlantic defence. 

In what will likely be a new progressive realist foreign and defence policy, there is a genuine danger that a new government will double-down on much of the progressive moralism now doing significant damage across Europe, and just as the EU becomes even more cumbersome. One hopes Mr Lammy takes his realism more seriously and dials back on the progressive causes in a new world of great power competition. 

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Professor Doug Stokes is Senior Adviser at the Legatum Institute and Professor of International Security and Strategy at the University of Exeter.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.