Even amid the mounting rhetoric over the Russia-Ukraine standoff, Britain’s recent foreign policy “debate” has seemed singularly unhinged. Foreign secretary Liz Truss’s attempts to project the capacity to face down Vladimir Putin collapsed into farce as she misidentified two Russian regions as part of Ukraine — prompting her counterpart Sergei Lavrov to describe the meeting as “like a mute talking to a deaf person.” More risible still has been the posturing of Labour leader Keir Starmer, combining parody-defying saber-rattling with McCarthyite swipes against the antiwar left. There is, he told the BBC’s political editor in a self-important explanation of his antics, “nothing Russia wants more than to see than division in the United Kingdom between the political parties.”
Such theatrical warmongering is so out of joint with the hard realities of multipolarity and ecological breakdown that observing it can almost be considered a form of escapism. One reason for this Westminster derangement is obvious, owing to still-fresh memories of the unwelcome challenge to Atlanticist orthodoxy from 2015 to 2019. The prospect of Jeremy Corbyn becoming prime minister induced a panic that has yet to cease, despite his defeat. In those years, three of the most significant figures in Britain’s antiwar movement ran the Labour Party — threatening, at the very least, to democratize the foreign policy debate and range popular opinion against its prevailing consensus. Starmer’s leadership brought a restoration, which still today marches on.
There is, though another cause of these pathologies in the discourse about Britain’s place in the world: an unspoken intellectual and political crisis facing the Atlanticist worldview. For Labour’s Atlanticists, at least, foreign policy has long been comfortingly simple. Their maxim is one of unthinking deference to the United States, premised on a recognition that Britain’s ability to exercise imperial power rests on its status as a supporting pillar of the American empire. Under New Labour, this junior partnership morphed into total subordination. What, then, is to be done when the global hegemon seems to be in retreat, with its aggressive capacities tempered and constrained?
During the totemic debate on whether Britain should join the American-led coalition against ISIS in November 2015, John Bew, the chief intellectual champion of Labour Atlanticism, pithily condensed the core of the tradition: “Our friends want to know to what extent we stand with them.” In other words: Why bomb Raqqa? Because Washington said so. Bew’s widely read 2016 biography of Clement Attlee sought — not entirely unfairly — to reclaim him for the Labour right, admiringly reconstructing his founding role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The tome can be found in many Westminster offices — not least, the Observer approvingly reported recently, on arch-Blairite Wes Streeting’s coffee table.
A recent diatribe by Keir Starmer in the ever-more McCarthyite pages of the Guardian takes its lead from Bew — presently Boris Johnson’s top foreign policy advisor in Downing Street — by holding up Attlee and Ernest Bevin’s commitment to aiding American global dominance as their chief virtue and trumpeting commitment to NATO as the crucial yardstick of alignment with the Americans in the present. But, devoid as they are of any real thought about foreign policy, the veneration of the metropole by figures on the Labour right often takes rather undignified forms.
David Lammy’s chief qualification for the post of shadow foreign secretary, for instance, seems to be his connections to middling Barack Obama–administration staffers. Having previously organized strategy calls for Starmer with Ben Rhodes — an Obama national security official turned podcaster — upon his appointment, Lammy’s reported instructions were “to get Keir into the Oval Office before the next election.” For Starmer, the significance of Joe Biden’s election was first and foremost the promise that Britain (read: Starmer) might stand by America’s side as it once more seized the mantle of “global leadership.” With obsequious political fantasy standing in for grand strategy, the essence of the Labour right’s foreign policy ambition seems to be a desire to serve as extras in a West Wing reenactment.
Such fantasies are ripe for mockery. But they are of a piece with a deeper intellectual malaise: Labour’s Atlanticists are wedded to an idea of the United States frozen in the unipolar past, and they are impervious to the catastrophic failure of the “project for a new American century.” This has begun to result in significant disorientation, as the shifting geostrategic tectonics of the twenty-first century and cracks in the foreign policy consensus in Washington itself render the real world less intelligible to Labour’s aspiring hawks.
Take August 2021, when the House of Commons was recalled amid the crisis over Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal order. In many ways, the debate among MPs played out predictably. Hysterics about abandonment, melancholy over defeat, and paeans to the mission civilisatrice all abounded. But in another respect, the debate was peculiar: much of the confused anger of Westminster’s tin-pot warmongers was directed at Washington. Starmer was “deeply concerned” about Biden’s withdrawal (“not the right decision”), questioning his “catastrophic error of judgement.” It was left to the proverbial anti-Atlanticists — a tiny handful of socialist MPs — to effectively defend the White House’s decision to end the most interminable of America’s “forever wars.” Labour’s leadership longed for the certainties and righteousness of October 2001.
As the Ukraine crisis escalates, Biden himself has at times been relatively measured, acknowledging that the Russians have “overwhelming superiority” in the situation militarily and insisting that Vladimir Putin is “an informed individual,” making serious calculations about “what the immediate . . . the near-term, and the long-term consequences” of any incursion would be for Russia. Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz continue to seriously push for a diplomatic solution. And a Russia expert at the Rand Corporation calls in the Financial Times for a statement from NATO acknowledging that it has “no intention to offer Ukraine membership at present” in exchange “for a tangible drawdown of Russian forces on the border.” These positions reflect different strategic perspectives, but all are grounded in reality.
Starmer, meanwhile, wildly claims that Russia is “on the verge of annexing Ukraine,” and declares that he knows “bullies only respect strength.” His puffed-up visit to NATO’s Brussels headquarters last week was, in this imaginary, presumably meant as a show of strength to the Kremlin. As Paris, Berlin, and now even Downing Street to some extent scramble for a diplomatic solution, Starmer blasts those to his left counseling compromise in terms that ape Cold Warriors and neoconservative high priests.
Labour Atlanticists’ detachment from reality will only worsen as challenges to Washington’s dominance — from within, by advocates of a more restrained US military posture in the world, and from without, through the entrenchment of a more multipolar world order — intensify. Already, these pressures (not to mention the looming prospect of Donald Trump’s return) are making US foreign policy more contested and less predictable. If it isn’t already, “follow the Americans” will soon be redundant as a practicable watchword for British policymakers. Sadly for the heirs to Tony Blair, there will be no return to the Crawford Ranch.
This conjuncture seems to leave open two paths, roughly speaking, for British foreign policy, both entailing greater autonomy from the United States than has prevailed for decades. First is functioning as a mega-hawkish outrider to Washington, encouraging intervention and fanning the flames of tension with China. This option has been zealously seized upon by large parts of the Tory Party. The Conservative chair of the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee, Tom Tugendhat, warned after the Afghanistan withdrawal that “interdependence must not become overreliance.” Tugendhat is the most influential enthusiast for the new cold war with Beijing. At the more absurd end of things, defense secretary Ben Wallace — who threw an almighty tantrum of his own about Biden’s Afghanistan decision — recently likened European diplomacy with Moscow to the appeasement of Adolf Hitler (drawing a rebuke from the Ukrainian government).
The second path is an orientation that dispenses with imperial pretensions and, properly embracing autonomy, seeks a sort of realist refashioning of Britain’s place in the world — elevating diplomacy and military restraint while centering the threat of climate breakdown. More or less, it is a progressive iteration of this path to which Jeremy Corbyn, the wider Labour left, and the Stop the War Coalition subscribe. It is hard to escape the sense that the increasingly frenzied McCarthyite smears against them aim to obscure a more dangerous reality: the anti-Atlanticist program is clear-eyed, pragmatic, and popular.
At first glance, little distinguishes the Labour Atlanticists from the Tory hawks. But upon closer inspection, it’s clear that the former are uniquely mired in denial about the twilight of unipolar American power. There is nobody more pitifully enthused by the prospect of serving as Washington’s subaltern than the Labour Atlanticists — and so nobody has been left more adrift as the conditions of possibility for such a role begin to recede. Starmer’s hysterics, then, are not only a product of his establishment conformism but the result of an underlying confusion — and a refusal to reckon with the world as it is.