5:43 pm - August 22nd 2008
Someone once defined “faith” as being “a passionate belief in something that you know to be untrue”. Without wishing to offend anyone’s religious sensibilities, it does strike me that “faith-driven politics” has been one of the biggest weaknesses of the British left when it comes to foreign policy.
Putting to one side the Trotskyist fringe, one of the most fanatically driven group of “believers” were the Blairites who remodelled New Labour into what was initially such a successful political machine. What marked out Blairites from old guard Labour right-wingers, and the “soft-left” of the Labour party, from which they emerged, was a genuine belief that they had found a new political ideology.
It is no coincidence that so many of Blair’s lieutenants had Leninist backgrounds. There is a certain mind-set that wants to fit the complexities of the world into a set of rigid dogmas and battles between good and evil (with flinching cowards and sneering traitors thrown in for good measure).
Martin Kettle, who today asks why there has not been a million-strong march against Russia’s invasion of Georgia, sums up the attitude in many ways. Like many Blairites he comes from an orthodox left background and repented this dogma as he embraced New Labour which he hoped could “redraw the political map”.
New Labour’s triumph in 1997 was seen by many believers as proof that it had discovered the political equivalent of the philosopher’s stone – rather than a normal phase of the political cycle. But, having made their peace with capitalism, these were left floundering for a belief-set, which is probably why they embraced the humanitarian narrative with such enthusiasm. Out of the messy realities of the crises that had shaken the world during the 1990s they fashioned a new story complete with a set of heroes and villains created in their own image.
Blair’s Chicago speech, during the Kosovo crisis of 1999, set out the manifesto of what came to be known as the doctrine of liberal interventionism, which was subsequently used to justify the invasion of Iraq.
It is still difficult to understand why anyone on the liberal-left supported this invasion, but there is some internal consistency to the position of those like Nick Cohen and Christopher Hitchens. As Ali Eteraz has noted, they supported the use of American “muscle” to effectuate the “liberation” they had always dreamed of the left bringing and do not really seem to have thought through most of the rest. The crisis over Georgia has brought these arguments back into debate.
Martin Kettle explicitly links the Russian invasion of Georgia and Czechoslovakia to Labour’s current unpopularity – and starkly concludes that the party now faces “terminal eclipse”. His article conveys a sense of moral outrage, although it is difficult to see quite who its target should be, combined with an apocalyptic imagery that is a regular feature amongst political commentators of his political background. Denis MacShane adopted a similar tone a few days ago.
The reason why a million British people are not marching against Russian intervention in Georgia is because they know that Britain cannot do much about it. The reason why so many did oppose the invasion of Iraq was because they thought it was a stupid idea. These are fairly simple pieces of common sense and those who do not understand them really need to get out a bit more.
David Milliband should get a better handle on this as well. As I argued before, he is right to condemn Russian aggression, but needs to be a bit clearer about what he realistically proposes to do about it. Supporting a “structured route map” to Georgia’s eventual membership of NATO as he did in the Times on Tuesday is one thing, but contradicting NATO’s own Secretary General about what was agreed in a meeting on the same day is not so smart.
British foreign policy needs to be based on Britain’s actual place in the world, as a relatively minor player that can only use its influence in partnership with others. Britain’s natural allies are its European partners, although it clearly also has a long standing and valuable relation with the United States. Unfortunately, over the last eight years, US foreign policy has been driven by one of the most uniquely destructive Presidents to have ever governed the country.
Of course we should reject knee-jerk anti-Americanism, for all the reasons that Neil Robertson outlines, but the faith that Blair displayed in George Bush as a force for good in the world has also been discredited. The cold war is over and so is the uni-polar world of US hegemony. The economic rise of the BRIC block (Brazil, Russia, India, China) has yet to translate into an equivalent political influence, but its component parts are beginning to exert themselves in particular parts of the world. This poses a new set of challenges, which do not even seem to be on the mainstream left’s political radar screen yet.
Martin Kettle recounts how the crushing of the Prague spring in 1968, shattered a generation’s misplaced faith in one ideology. It is a tragedy that so many of his co-thinkers swapped one set of illusions for another.
Conor Foley is a regular contributor and humanitarian aid worker who has worked for a variety of organisations including Liberty, Amnesty International and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. He currently lives and works in Brazil and is a research fellow at the Human Rights Law Centre at the University of Nottingham. His books include Combating Torture: a manual for judges and prosecutors and A Guide to Property Law in Afghanistan. Also at: Guardian CIF
· Other posts by Conor Foley
Story Filed Under: Blog ,Foreign affairs ,Labour party ,Religion ,Westminster
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