‘Foreign policy’ will not save us

Sunken ships in the Suez Canal

Don Flynn explains why the left needs an active internationalism

The withdrawal of British military bases east of Suez, announced by Harold Wilson in 1968, was seen at the time as opening a new direction for the UK state, with its colonial period now definitively behind it and the way open for a progressive politics that would concern itself with building Jerusalem in the green and pleasant land of the British island.  

It never worked out in quite that fashion. Though the Union Jack was being hauled down from government buildings and army barracks across the world, what still needed to be maintained and defended was the influence of commerce and corporations that continued to feed on the territories they once ruled. As Tony Blair once put it, Britain was a small country that punched above its weight. It had to. With around one quarter of its GDP being dependent on trading in foreign markets, Britain is a nation in which the lineaments of its imperial past continue to show in the distinct form of its mundane present.

To preserve these interests, British governments have, until recently, relied on two pillars of a single strategy: the transatlantic commitment to partnership with the United States, and its membership of the European single market. As long as these could be made to support the overarching goal of ensuring a form of global capitalism conducive to the interests of British corporations and the City of London, all would be well.

Preserving this structure has meant that what is called ‘foreign policy’ functions in a densely technocratic manner, seeking to ensure that what are considered moral and ethical issues are kept in the shade. A deep division rooted itself into British politics, with the ‘domestic’ agenda being a place where the political parties could define themselves against each other on the basis of their stands on things like the provision of public services versus the freedom of citizens from the burden of taxation. Many battle royals were waged across these segments of policy concern, but on the detail of foreign policy there was seldom much difference between Labour and Conservative.

The consensus on foreign policy began to fray when, from the 1980s onwards, tension between the interests of the United States and the then European Community became more apparent. The preference for regulation on the part of the Europeans was interpreted as a move to restrict US access to their large markets. As this developed, the UK government, in both its Labour and Conservative guises always the most transatlantic of the European nations, acted increasingly on its preference for its supposed special relationship with Washington. 

Under Tony Blair, this expressed itself as a deep commitment to the version of globalisation promoted by the US government combined with opt-outs against a set of economic and social policies being brokered in Brussels to bring about the completion of the single market. New Labour’s fierce advocacy of participation in the US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan deepened the rift with Europe further.

It took the Conservative-led governments from 2010 onwards to complete the process of breaking with its continental neighbour. From that moment onwards, the international order in which the UK saw itself prospering relied on the goodwill and strength of Washington for its preservation. Yet it was precisely at this point that the United States took a deep dive into becoming a nationalistic MAGA-land, with a diversion into Biden’s efforts to rally American leadership which seems doomed to failure.

Progressives in the Labour Party have long wanted to see an ‘ethical foreign policy’ as the basis for its relationship with other countries. The left has seen this as requiring a much stronger commitment to development and the ending of inequality across the planet, with current levels of poverty being correctly seen as the major source of instability and conflict. 

A more radical perspective on these issues would have to acknowledge that global poverty is not a mere ‘failure’ of current international policy, but an outcome that arises from the dominance over the world economy of the interests which both the US and the EU are, by different strategies, pledged to uphold.

This is a global system that is breaking down at every point. The disruption of the supply chains on which the rationality of neoliberal globalisation depended, worsened by the Covid pandemic but already in crisis with the rise of Chinese bargaining power and nationalism in general, is threatening the prosperity which the global north nations have considered their right. New wars, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine being just one, seem to be offering an unwanted glimpse of the future. Meanwhile, the possibility of a just transition to a zero-carbon world is diminishing, as governments threaten to suspend promises of fossil fuel reduction because of a gamut of emergencies which beset their countries.

As the world of conventional ‘foreign policy’ collapses into chaos, the question for the left is whether this holds out opportunities for a genuine internationalism which overcomes the false division between domestic politics and obligations to people in other parts of the world.


  1. Thanks for another bit of doom and gloom with no suggestion as to what should be done. And why should anyone care what “The Left” thinks? It is never anything much but “It’s all the fault of the Americans”, followed closely by “we have the wrong sort of Europe”. Is that it?

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