Atlanticist Labour Shadow Foreign Secretaries have the difficult job of squaring the circle between the reality of UK subordination to US global dominance – with everything that flows from that – with the desire of the Party membership to be – and to be seen to be – “ethical”. This is usually covered by rhetorical devices that touch nerves and mobilise emotions, while obscuring awkward realities. A classic of its kind was Emily Thornberry’s speech in 2019 in which she included Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro in a list of “Trump inspired strongmen” that the Party had to oppose, sliding over the awkward fact that, far from being one of Trump’s acolytes, Maduro was one of his targets, and Venezuela to object of ruthless US sanctions that were responsible for the deaths of over 40,000 people. Details, details…
With the banishment of that awkward internationalist Jeremy Corbyn and the reassertion of a new era of unapologetic Atlanticism from the front bench, David Lammy has gone further.
He did not reflect, in his foreign policy speech to Labour conference this year, that the role of “Britain in the World” has historically been rather like that of the policemen he mentions who used to stop and search him when he was “a skinny kid in NHS glasses on the streets of Tottenham“; and for very similar reasons. At one time as dominant world cop and enforcer, latterly as the new world cop’s most eager henchman.
His speech provides a cover for it to continue to do so.
His list of challenges faced by the world is odd, and in a strange order.
Conference, the world faces more challenges today than at any other time in my 22 years in parliament. The rise of China. Conflicts in Yemen, Syria, Ethiopia and South Sudan. A global food crisis. And a climate crisis.
“And a climate crisis”. The climate crisis is the framework in which everything else takes place – or doesn’t. It’s not an item on a list. Least of all the last item. And the central problem is that the world’s most powerful state is prioritising military interventionism over dealing with it. The USA is spending more than 20 times as much on its military as it is on dealing with climate change, claims to “global leadership” notwithstanding.
China, by contrast, is spending one and a half times as much on climate change as on its military.
Who is doing the right thing?
The UK already spends more on its military than every other country in the world apart from the USA, China and India. It spends more than Russia. Through NATO and AUKUS it is in direct alliance with countries that account for two thirds of total global military spending. But the Truss government wants to increase spending by 50% by 2030 and the Labour front bench is going along with this. This is not a polict that tends to peace.
Lammy’s “green dimension” is subordinate to Cold War imperatives and inwardly oriented. The UK should not be dependent of “fossil fuel dictators” he says. Which ones does he mean? Will imports be stopping from Saudi Arabia any time soon?
And “we will seek to work with allies and partners to create a new international law of ecocide to criminalise the wanton and widespread destruction of the environment.” There’s that presumption of leadership from the Global North again, Britain’s “allies and partners” in setting and policing the ecological rule book for everyone else.
And note the weasel words – “we will seek to…” This will be rather tricky for the Global North because most of the fossil fuel companies seeking to develop the 350 carbon Bombs (projects which each have a carbon footprint of over a billion tonnes of CO2) that will bust us well beyond 1.5C on their own are companies that are based here; and so are most of the banks that finance them.
The news has just come through this week that major US Banks are threatening to withdraw from Mark Carney’s Climate alliance, because “they fear being sued over the alliance’s stringent decarbonisation commitments” and you can make your own judgement on whether the “law of ecocide” would target them or not, even if the UN made climate action its “fourth pillar”.
This also applies to the specific crisis that Lammy uses to frame his speech. The USA has for years explained to the Global South how hard it is to squeeze out a few billion dollars to help get to the 2020 target of $100 billion a year agreed at Copenhagen ten years earlier which has still not been met and that, with a bit of luck and a following wind (and a bit of redefinition of private sector loans) they might be good enough to get up to the target by 2024. Maybe. If the Global South is good. And nothing else comes along that is more urgent.
By contrast, they have magicked up $53 billion to fuel the Ukraine war in 6 months. Just like that. Easy. Whatever your view of the rights and wrongs of the war in Ukraine, and more on this later, it’s shocking how both the quantity and the speed are so dramatically different and provide such a clear demonstration of US priorities. Perhaps the way that a lot of this aid will go in orders for munitions and ammunition from US arms manufacturers may have something to do with that, but most of it reflects the war drive the USA is carrying out to try to shore up its economic decline relative to China.
In this framing, its odd that Lammy poses “the rise of China” as a challenge “for the world”. It is certainly a challenge for the US world order, Pax Americana, New American Century, Unipolar US domination; call it what you like. But that’s not the same as a challenge “for the world”.
For most of the world, benefitting from Chinese investment and trade, it looks more like an opportunity; and this is explicitly embraced by the Left in the Global South, Latin America particularly; where they are very clear about who runs the “Empire” and who has carried out coup after coup to install “dictatorships” across the continent.
It is peculiarly bizarre when considering that UK overseas aid is lauded for raising 3 million people a year out of poverty. This is not a figure I have seen anywhere else and have not been able to find online. It would be odd if true, because the impact of the COVID pandemic everywhere in the Global South outside China has been to throw back development and increase poverty. It would, of course, be a good thing if true, but pales into insignificance compared to China’s record as a developing country of raising 850 million people out of poverty in 40 years (21 million a year); seven times the rate. This was described in a Labour Foreign Policy Group document, generally rather hostile to China, as “perhaps the single most significant contribution to human wellbeing in world history”. But let’s not dwell on that. Let’s move swiftly on and not think about how this statistic is actual people whose lives have been immeasurably improved. It’s only the same number of people as the entire UK population thirteen times over. Just think of how many people that is. In forty years. And that includes everyone in Xinjiang, whose living standards are rising by 6% a year and whose labour is no more forced than that of anyone else who works in a factory.
It is also odd that Lammy does not mention that the “conflict in Yemen” is fueled by British made arms, of the sort that Conference sadly voted to boost, and the Saudi Air Force and Navy are trained to bomb and blockade ports by the RAF and Royal Navy – leading to famine and the world’s worst cholera epidemic. Nothing to see here. Let’s talk about Ukraine instead.
Lammy says “No act of imperialism is ever the same. But Vladimir Putin’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine this year was just the latest front in an age-old war between democracy and dictatorship. Freedom and subjugation. Empire and independence.” From the country and allies that have – just since 1990 -brought us two wars each in Iraq and Yugoslavia, the invasion and twenty year occupation of Afghanistan and the reduction of Libya from the most prosperous country in North Africa to a war ravaged basket case, this might be considered a little ironic. Quite what kind of “act of imperialism” Lammy considers these to be is unclear, who was fighting for “freedom” and who for “subjugation”, who for “Empire” and who for “independence“, he doesn’t say. Possibly because it’s too obvious if you think about it for a moment. Does he have no self-awareness at all?
“Vladimir Putin’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine” is an oft repeated mantra that conceals more than it explains. Deliberately. The war in Ukraine did not start with the Russian intervention this February. It started with the overthrow of a democratically elected President in 2014, aided and abetted by the considerable resources of the USA and EU, in cahoots with the local far right. This led to a rebellion on the Donbass region and an eight year civil war. As Sir Richard Sherriff, the former NATO Deputy Commander, remarked, a little off script, “this war started in 2014”.
The invasion this February followed attempts by the Russians to get an agreed mutual security arrangement that was spurned with complete contempt by NATO.
The Russian decision to recognise the Donbass Republics in February was not carried out by Putin alone but had the support of the overwhelming majority of the State Duma, including the main opposition Party, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, reflecting concerns at the failure to implement the Minsk Agreement, refusal of NATO to engage in any talks about mutual security, and a build up of 130,000 Ukrainian troops – whose pay was tripled in December – opposite Donetsk and Lugansk threatening their liquidation.
All war is barbaric, but it may seem odd to viewers of the atrocity porn produced by Feargal Keene and the like that by comparison with what the Americans do, the Russians have been relatively restrained. There have been a number of specific strikes on infrastructure like power stations or dams, but in US air campaigns they aim to smash the entire power and water treatment systems on day one to reduce the population to a state of rebellious despair. “Shock and Awe”*. In fact, the US dropped as much explosives on Iraq on the first day of the second Iraq war as it took the Russians a month and half to do in Ukraine. All relative? Up to a point. But not if you’re underneath it.
The term “Special Military Operation” incidentally, is not a weaselly euphemism to cover all out war, but an internationally accepted definition of a particular sort of limited war, and everyone who reports on this knows it. This is now escalating and will continue to do unless peace negotiations can get going.
Worse, Lammy’s way forward is both delusory and condemns Ukraine and its people to being a permanent proxy war zone for NATO. “Whether it takes six months, three years or ten, Ukraine will win.” Ten years of war? Seriously? “Ukraine will win“? With Russia incorporating the South and East into the Russian Federation and mobilising accordingly, I can’t see that. Lammy is calling for war without end.
At a point that even EU Foreign Representative Jose Barroso is calling for a negotiated peace acceptable to both sides – “we stand ready to assist the peace plan just launched and we urge all parties to seize this opportunity to de-escalate the crisis and end violence of this developing tragedy,” it is deeply depressing that Labour’s Foreign policy spokesperson striking the same sort of bellicose posture that Boris Johnson did when he intervened to sabotage the last serious attempts at peace talks back in April.
If he wants the “global food crisis”, not to mention the energy crisis that he, again oddly, didn’t mention, to end, we need to end the war. That starts with pushing for peace, not a ten year war.
Lammy envisages a war crimes tribunal for Putin. On the model of the sort we have seen for George W Bush and Tony Blair for the hundreds of thousands of deaths in Iraq that their war led to? One like that? Or perhaps the one for Putin after the Chechen war, at a time he was considered a “strategic partner” by NATO? War crimes, it seems, are always committed by our enemies. Never by us, or anyone allied with us. The numbers don’t count. Especially if they are in the Global South.
Lammy is also right that the Tories tend to craft a Foreign Policy that is a wolf in wolf’s clothing and that the current government, delirious on Brexit Kool Aid is picking fights with everyone and thinking it can get away with it. It won’t. But his version of looking outward is simply to reassert traditional alliances with the rest of the Global North as it rearms on a colossal scale, while hoping a wee bit of extra aid will keep the Global South sweet enough not to start lining up with the Chinese model of development.
While Lammy is right to argue for restoring overseas aid to 0.7% of GDP, his argument is less that this is the right thing to do as partial reparations for the damage and exploitation done by the Empire and slave trade, more about enhancing the “soft power” of the UK as the beneficiary of it, even though, as he said his “ancestors knew what it was like to have their freedom taken away. They heard the twisted lies of imperialism as they were stolen from their homes in shackles and turned into slaves.” Quite so.
“A voice for peace, development and freedom across the globe” is sorely needed. A voice for expanded UK military expenditure, for an unquestioning alliance with the USA in its provocative militarist dotage as it pushes for wars it thinks it can win in Ukraine and the South China Sea, won’t provide any of that.
“Shock and awe” marries the two US bombing traditions of precision targeting with colossal force. But, unlike the initial advocates of precise targeting, who argued for overwhelming strikes on key targets of military significance, “choke points” like the Schweinfurt ball bearing factory in the case of Nazi Germany, these strikes combine taking out military HQs but also decisive civilian infrastructure. So, from day 1, there is no power, no clean water, no functioning sewage system. It seems odd that advocates of this approach are trying to argue that “the Russian way of making war” is more barbaric than that.
The idea that destroying civilian infrastructure makes a population less inclined to resist has never been vindicated in practice; unless it reaches the almost genocidal scale of the B29 raids on Japan in 1945 led by Curtis LeMay, who went on to bomb North Korea “back to the Stone Age” a few years later; in which the state of mind of the shattered survivors barely counts. In the initial argument in WW2 between the US Air Force, who thought they could “hit a pickle barrel from 6 miles up” using a precision bombsight in daylight (they couldn’t) and the RAF, which went into carpet bombing wide civilian areas at night, the British side disregarded its own experience during the Blitz, that the raids had made the civilian population hate the bombers harder and strengthened resistance to them, thinking this wouldn’t apply in Germany because the people were “a different sort”. No stiff upper…A racialised argument within white supremacy, indicating that the British took it for granted they were ubermensch, but that it was rather vulgar to proclaim it.
All quotes from “The Bomber Mafia” by Malcolm Gladwell.