Open Labour’s Regressive Foreign Policy for a Time that’s Gone.

A digested read of the new Open Labour Pamphlet A Progressive Foreign Policy for New Times (1) might take the form of Jonathan Powell’s summary of the Blair government’s advice to its incoming Washington Ambassador; “We want you to get up the arse of the White House and stay there”. (2)

It is unfortunate for the authors that two events this week have conspired to undermine their attempt to rehabilitate Labour support for a US led global order and re-sanctify the notion of Western humanitarian intervention in support of “our values”.

  1. The International Criminal Court found that British soldiers in Iraq abused hundreds of unarmed Iraqi detainees between 2003 and 2009, reporting“evidence of a pattern of war crimes carried out across a number of years by soldiers from several British regiments. Some detainees were raped or subjected to sexual violence. Others were beaten so badly they died from their injuries. The Iraqi individuals, many of them civilians, were unarmed and in British custody at the time”.(3) They have not proceeded with a prosecution because they cannot be sure whether the British state colluded in a cover up – though their revelations about the kind of “investigation” carried out by the RMP makes this pretty obvious. This underlines what actually happens when the “West” intervenes. It also underlines the point that British troops are capable of abuse just as much as US or Australian troops are (4) . It should also be a cautionary tale for Labour, because all this happened under a Labour government. The current Overseas Operations Bill is based on making prosecutions for war crimes against British soldiers even harder to bring to court and would not have been drawn up if the government did not envisage more operations in which more abuses are bound to happen. Labour was right to vote against this Bill in the end, but wrong to abstain on the first reading for fear of not looking “patriotic”.
  2. The current “rules-based order” has allowed the world’s wealthiest countries to buy up enough doses of vaccine to vac​cinate their population nearly three times over, while countries in the developing world stand with empty hands in the queue. At the same time, China has pledged that, once the Sinopharm vaccine is licensed, it will prioritise distributing it to exactly those developing countries – leading to commentators on the West getting sniffy about “dumping” and trading vaccines for influence – as though China should play the commercial game and put patents and purchasing power above lives. This rather neatly poses a different way to look at “human rights.”

There is no human right more important than the right to live. The different approaches to the Coronavirus crisis taken in China and the “West” are instructive in this respect. The Chinese took a Zero COVID approach and eliminated the virus – which has allowed their economy to begin to recover. In the West, the attempt to “balance” the needs of health with the needs of “the economy” (i.e. the needs of the people who own the economy, not those forced to live and work in it) has led to a health and economic disaster which we are still in the midst of. The human rights of front-line workers and the most vulnerable sections of society have been in a constant battle with pressure from business to keep their sectors open come what may. As a result, there have now been more than three times as many deaths in the USA as there have been cases in China – and the per capita death rate in the UK is even worse than that. People in China are aghast at just how badly the “West” has handled this and look upon our experience with something like horror. The authors of the pamphlet might like to consider why China has done so much better than the West has, and which government has put the human right of their population to live at the top of their list.


Open Labour argues that the world is in a new situation but don’t fully investigate what that is, nor propose any way of looking at it other than a revived Cold war framework that would lead us to disaster if implemented. The brute fact is that – for the first time since 1870 – the USA is not the world’s largest economy (in PPP terms). And the impact of the COVID crisis – with China recovering quickly and the USA still mishandling it – makes this more so. The IMF projects that 60% of growth in the next year will be in China. There is, tragically, a broad consensus in the US that they need to reassert their position rather than co-operate, though there are increasing voices of sanity being raised against it. (5) This is frightening because they can’t leave this to peaceful economic development. It is peaceful economic development that is allowing China to pull ahead. Hence the trade war began by Trump and the attempt to wall off sections of the global economy from Chinese technology, wherever China has a lead in it, like 5G. Given the overwhelming US military spend, the temptation to indulge in brinkmanship around China’s borders is constant. The Chinese have a different perspective; which is that if there is co-operation between different states and systems to deal with COVID, climate and poverty, the result can be “win, win” for everyone – and will at least avoid World War Three. 

This is rather important because the second brute fact is that the ecological conditions for human survival are beginning to collapse. Keynes famously remarked that “in the long run we are all dead”, but the long run is getting shorter and shorter every day. The Insurance firm Swiss Re has produced a list of countries in order of ecological vulnerability – with Australia, South Africa and India high on the list -and we can already see places that are becoming less habitable from drought, flood and forest fire. And this will intensify without global co-operation to stop it. The projection for New York – for example – is that the expected shift in weather patterns and sea level rise would subject it to Hurricane Sandy level disasters once every four years by the end of the Century – which would make living there unviable. So, this is not a time to be picking fights but seeking common ground to save our civilisation. The US recommitting itself to the Paris Agreement is welcome. Its stated aim of doing so in a “threat to national security” framework not so much. The problem for the US is that its entire social and economic order is no longer a viable future for itself, let alone an aspiration for humanity. The “US way of life” would require five planets to sustain it of generalised. It therefore either has to change, or take drastic action to stop other countries trying to emulate it. Either way, that means a crisis. The Open Labour pamphlet rests on several shaky foundations which are proclaimed but not unduly investigated or corroborated with anything so vulgar as facts.
  1. Imperialism does not exist and what we have is a “rules bound international order”.

Despite the authors fairly desperate attempt not to see the wood for the trees, the USA on its own spends half of all global military expenditure and maintains 800 overseas military bases in 70 countries. The UK – as its keenest auxiliary – still maintains 145 sites in no less than 42. (6) The “aggressive” Chinese have 3. Patterns of exploitation do not require direct government, as with traditional territorial empires, but a continual threat of intervention and proxy war underpins the normal “rules bound” process whereby the world’s most impoverished countries are plundered by the wealthiest. Nuclear blackmail is also helpful. The “Washington consensus” has held the developing world in a pattern of continuous underdevelopment – so that three quarters of the people who have been lifted out of extreme poverty in the last two generations have been Chinese; because China has awkwardly insisted on doing things its own – rather more successful -way. 
Actual interventions, wars and coups, are simply the tip of the iceberg however. US Embassies in particular have a Vice Regal quality about them and act as a focus for projecting US power and influence on a continuous basis. Even relatively wealthy allies like the UK are subject to this – something made physically apparent during Trump’s visits, during which London’s airspace was buzzed by Osprey helicopters. Everyone in the Labour Party should be aware that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described the run up to last year’s election as Labour being forced to “run the gauntlet” and that the US would intervene if Jeremy Corbyn managed to do so successfully and win the election. (7)


But the wars and coups are continuous too. The Pax Americana has never been peaceful. The Open labour pamphlet says that they have no intention of overlooking ” the ugly means and ends of past and present American economic or military power”, but then proceed to do exactly that; because it is the only time it is mentioned. So, for the record, and lest we forget, here’s a list of some of the more egregious US interventions just in Asia and Latin America.


Korea*. (1950-53). Every City in the peninsula bombed flat. Upwards of 2 million dead. Iran*. (1953)Nationalist government overthrown to prevent Oil nationalisation. Shah installed.Vietnam. (1955-75) More mass bombing and severe ground fighting leading to another 2 million dead. 
Indonesia(1965-6) Massacre of Communist opposition, 500,000 dead.Guatemala. (1954) Moderate Socialist government overthrown at the behest of the United Fruit company. Further coups in Latin America includeDominican Republic(1961)Brazil(1964)Bolivia(1971)ChileandUruguay(1973)Argentina(1976) support for brutal death squads and terrorists inEl SalvadorandNicaraguain the eighties, continuous attempts to overthrowCubafrom 1959 onwards and continuous support for death squads inColumbia, attempts to overthrow Venezuelasince 1999,Honduras(2009) the “lawfare” coup inBrazilin 2015-6 and last year’s coup inBolivia(now happily reversed) which bears a striking resemblance to the sort of campaign President Trump has now brought home to roost in trying to overturn the results of the US Presidential election. 


And so on and so on. 


The authors of the pamphlet cherry pick interventions that can be presented in a relatively positive light, but do not look at the whole story, let alone draw out any pattern from these continuous waves of invasion, coup, proxy wars, subversion, terrorism by the “one indispensable power”, nor draw an overall balance sheet of the chaos and misery caused by it, all too often with the UK ruling class tagging along in the hope of sharing a small part of the spoils.


The authors of the pamphlet might like to wonder how they would explain to the Argentine students murdered by the state in the mid-seventies – shot in the back of the head in lay-bys near Buenos Aires, or tied up and dumped out of helicopters in the middle of the River Plate – how their human rights were being enhanced by these coups; or to the Columbian trade unionists machetied by paramilitaries in the last two decades which “Western values” were being enhanced by their deaths. Or the prisoners in Abu Ghraib. Or the villagers in El Salvador massacred by the Atlacatl battalion. Or all the other people in Latin America tortured through the decades by graduates of the “School of the Americas” in Georgia. To be fair, they acknowledge that “values” are sometimes supplemented by “interests”, but don’t explore these because they are “complex”. Applying Ockham’s razor, that the simplest, clearest explanation is usually the most accurate one, it is hard to look at this this record and be able to make any kind of case that these interventions were – and are – motivated by anything other than naked self-interest on the part of the USA’s ruling class and any claims to be carrying them out in defence of democracy or human rights have been a fig leaf at best.


There is a tradition on the “left” in the West that seeks solace in that fig leaf. That if they believe in it hard enough, they can still their consciences about what they know is actually going on. This pamphlet is firmly in that tradition.

Something the authors note in passing, with a mix of regret and bewilderment, is that interventions in the last quarter of a century are no longer always successful in establishing stable pro American governments or regimes. They cite the shambles in Libya and the entrenched polarisation in Kossovo. They do not trouble themselves to wonder why that is and gloss over some of the biggest failures, like Iraq and Afghanistan.

The USA went into Iraq believing that it could show “full spectrum dominance” on the cheap. Half a million deaths later they retain a barely tolerated toe hold in a fragmented country that now looks more towards Iran, while in Afghanistan they are negotiating a withdrawal that doesn’t look too much like total defeat with the Taliban. 

The failure of the attempted coup in Venezuela in 2002 consolidated Chavismo and successive waves of destabilisation since have all been defeated.

Last year’s coup in Bolivia has been overturned.

Everywhere there is a mass base for a different way forward, the US finds it hard to cope with it on the ground – because they are unable to afford the cost in ground troops nor sustain the casualties. Use of proxies – or outsourcing to mercenaries like Blackwater – supported by air power can only go so far – and often leads to continuous chaos. This does not mean that they won’t do it, nor that they won’t use then abandon proxies as it suits them. The example of the Kurds in Syria is quite an obvious one. The authors regret the failure to intervene in Syria in 2014, being critical of Ed Miliband’s decision to whip Labour against it; without reflecting that such an intervention would have been on the same side as ISIS. 

Nor does it mean that countries that survive attempted coups get away without being ruthlessly punished. Sixty years of sanctions on Cuba are the longest, while the current sanctions on Venezuela – which include medical items – are responsible for 40,000 deaths and a terrible squeeze on its economy. The authors of this pamphlet line up behind the sanctions with the US – in the interests of “human rights” of course. This makes as much sense as Emily Thornberry’s speech at Labour Party conference in 2019 in which she listed a series of “strong men inspired by Trump” and included Nicolas Maduro – glossing over the ongoing attempts by Trump to overthrow him.


The bottom line here is that even if you are politically hostile to China, or any other country that stands up to the US on whatever basis; the USA has no moral high ground, no transcendent values, it has not, does not and will not intervene on behalf of universal human rights, and every sin it accuses others of are ones it has committed itself on a far grander scale. See blog on this site –Is the USA shouting in the mirror at its own reflection?

Joe Biden’s foreign policy is to clear the decks for a global confrontation with China (8). If this gets to the stage of a shooting war, we are at the end of human civilisation. If it hobbles the international co-operation we need to hold back climate breakdown, we are at the end of human civilisation. None of us has an interest in this. No one should be lining the Labour Party up to be cheerleaders for it.

2.This order is challenged by aggressive “authoritarian” states, principally China.
“They obviously want war. Look how close they have put their country to our military bases”. (9)

The states the authors identify are – whatever their political structures or economic formation – all under siege from the US. Not the other way round. There are huge US bases all the way round China and lots of them. There are no Chinese bases anywhere near the USA. In fact, at the moment, there are only three Chinese overseas base anywhere. 


NATO is pushing up to the frontiers of Russia. Imagine how jumpy a UK government would be if the old Cold War had gone the other way and the Warsaw Pact had expanded to France and Belgium and ran regular military exercises there. 


And Iran is also surrounded by US bases, the US backs its regional rival Saudi Arabia, and maintains severe sanctions against it. 


The US regularly sends fleets to the South China Sea. And the UK joins in with an aircraft carrier for US aircraft. The Chinese do not send fleets to the English Channel or aircraft carriers to cruise past Long Island. Nor do they intend to.


The Left in the West has to deal with the fact that there are a number of significant states in the world, like China, Vietnam, Cuba which consider themselves to be Socialist. This does not mean that they are classless societies, nor that capitalism and the market do not exist within them, but that the capitalist classes do not control the state and therefore do not control the domestic economy. That’s the way they see it themselves. That is what underpins the rapid growth of all of these countries in recent years. All these states emerged from revolutions or prolonged wars of national liberation led by Communist Parties – or movements like the July 26 Movement in Cuba which became one – which went beyond the limits laid down for them by the Soviet Union.


The Left in the West – i.e. the most developed capitalist countries – is primarily made up of Social Democratic Parties – and even the far Left in these countries are heavily influenced by this and partly defined against any connection with any development from the Communist tradition. This tends to make the Left in the most powerful capitalist countries oppositions within the dominance of their own state, and the overarching dominance of the US above it. This is enthusiastically championed by the right but questioned and challenged by sections of the left. This is a legacy of the last Cold War, but can be drawn back to the initial schism between the Second and Third Internationals over the First World War and the Russian Revolution. To some extent there has been discussion with and support for the Cubans and Venezuelans. The Chinese, often the opposite. 


The point here is that whatever the Western Left thinks about it – there is a Communist Party in China with 90 million members (that’s ten million more people that live in Germany and ten million more than voted for Joe Biden. just to get a sense of the scale of it) all of whom see their country as a Socialist country. There is also a huge Left active online in China, not all of whom are in the CCP but pretty much all of which supports it. The least we can do is to have the respect to engage in a discussion with them and to attempt to prevent our own ruling class from uniting with the US to foist a New Cold War on them and the world.(10) 


The CCP did not impose austerity on the people of this country, or the USA. They did not impose a hostile environment on ethnic minorities. They are not responsible for the spread of food banks, nor the mass redundancies that have taken place during the pandemic. They are not forcing schools to stay open even as the virus rips through them. They are not imposing a wage freeze or outsourcing track and trace to SERCO. They are not cutting overseas aid. The Tories are doing that on behalf of the class they represent and their increased military spending is a threat to the rest of the world. The enemy is at home, not in China.

  1. https://openlabour.org/a-progressive-foreign-policy-for-new-times/
  2.  https://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/nov/13/biography.politicalbook
  3. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-55247033#:~:text=The%20International%20Criminal%20Court%20says,soldiers%20between%202003%20and%202009.
  4. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-australia-54996581
  5. https://www.invent-the-future.org/2020/11/professors-zhang-weiwei-and-jeffrey-sachs-call-for-multilateralism-and-an-end-to-the-new-cold-war/
  6. https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-11-24-revealed-the-uk-militarys-overseas-base-network-involves-145-sites-in-42-countries/
  7. https://www.jewishvoiceforlabour.org.uk/article/trump-administrations-threat-to-sabotage-corbyn/
  8. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-01-23/why-america-must-lead-again
  9. https://www.globalresearch.ca/proof-that-russia-and-iran-want-war-look-how-close-they-put-their-countries-to-our-military-bases/5439167
  10. http://www.nocoldwar.org/.

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