As Keir Starmer’s Labour Party coasts toward power, its foreign policy discussion is all about being an outrider for Washington. As geopolitical conflict heats up, it wants to make Britain the US’s most implacable ally on the European continent.

Labour leader Keir Starmer launching the party’s campaign for May 2 local elections in the Dudley North constituency on March 28, 2024, in Dudley, UK. (Eddie Keogh / Getty Images)

Since Harold Wilson became the first Labour prime minister at the head of a nuclear-armed United Kingdom six decades ago, the party has pitted itself against two opposed political forces. Against a Conservative Party enamoured with delusional notions about reasserting British hegemony, Labour has insisted that American leadership should go unchallenged. Against a Left hostile to both NATO and the development and maintenance of a nuclear program, Labour has conjured up undemocratic ways of suppressing such views.

In the manifesto for Labour’s victorious 1964 election campaign, Wilson’s party railed against Tory attempts to ensure that Britain’s nuclear program was independent from NATO decision-making. Nuclear weapons, the party argued, ought to be “under effective political control so that all partners in the alliance have a proper share in their deployment and control.” What this meant in practice was, of course, American control. The same year, Wilson and his defense minister, Denis Healey, lied to fellow MPs in order to build Polaris, the United Kingdom’s nuclear submarine program, by claiming that construction had already begun and that stopping the process would be more costly than continuing.

Not much has changed in the sixty years since Wilson took office. The party still finds itself navigating between two positions that it deems irrational: the “irresponsibility” of a Left that demands democratic oversight over decisions to go to war, and the hubris of a Tory party unwilling to accept Britain’s diminished role on the world stage.

Where things differ today is that the task of maintaining Western hegemony has higher stakes than it has since the close of the Cold War. The reemergence of great-power competition following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China’s rise to the status of a peer competitor to the United States and Israel’s ongoing genocide in Gaza, has forced America and its allies to have to think seriously about the role they are willing to assume to maintain a balance of power favorable to them.

Against a Conservative Party enamored with delusional notions about reasserting British hegemony, Labour has insisted that American leadership should go unchallenged.

Britain, which had previously played an ornamental role in the US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — repurposing centuries of experience in Ireland and the other colonies to torture civilians in the Middle East — now finds itself in a position of having to think seriously about its geopolitical interests. An antiwar movement, concerned primarily with carving an alternative, non-Atlanticist, path for Britain, would be able to see the present moment for what it is: a period in which the liberal international order faces profound crisis. Instead, imperial nostalgia, tempered only by fealty to America, are the only major currents to be found amongst Britain’s political class.

Imperial Nostalgia or American Hegemony?

Seen from any rational perspective, the UK’s attempt to position itself as a global power — in an earlier spell as foreign secretary, the future Conservative premier Boris Johnson coined the term “Global Britain” to describe the country’s muscular post-Brexit foreign policy — is an exercise in collective self-deception. Yet in 2016, Johnson, at the time heading UK foreign policy, proudly announced Britain was “back East of Suez” — a reference to the country’s partial withdrawal from the Persian Gulf in 1971 following a series of costly attacks on British military positions and a growing domestic economic crisis. (Could it seriously be the case, then US secretary of state Dean Rusk had asked after learning of Britain’s departure from the Gulf, that the UK was abandoning its global responsibility for “free aspirin and false teeth”?)

An antiwar movement, concerned primarily with carving an alternative, non-Atlanticist, path for Britain, would be able to see the present moment for what it is: a period in which the liberal international order faces profound crisis.

Drunk on imperial nostalgia, Johnson made plans to establish a permanent naval base in Bahrain — the hub from which the UK is currently challenging the Houthis’ humanitarian blockade of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait — and made promises of more bases in Singapore and Brunei, neither of which have materialized. As prime minister in 2021, he signed an agreement to field nuclear submarines in the South Pacific as part of the AUKUS security partnership alongside the United States and Australia.

Predictably, Britain, which closed its last two iron-producing blast furnaces in January 2024, lacks the industrial capacity to properly maintain its AUKUS commitments. A combination of arrogance and incompetence, characteristic of the country’s private-school-educated elite, pervades its thinking on defense policy. While the Tories talk up the country’s role in a potential confrontation with China, the two nuclear-powered submarines it currently has under construction — incredibly named HMS Agamemnon and Agincourt — are on target to take more than twice as long as their Australian counterparts to complete.

Britain’s insistence on making military commitments in Asia that it simply cannot fulfill has had two main consequences: embroiling it in America’s new cold war with China and abandoning the Sinophile stance of David Cameron, who served as Britain’s prime minister between 2010 and 2016. During his second stint in office (2015–16) he sought to bring Britain into the Belt and Road Initiative and rely on the People’s Republic for investment in crucial infrastructure. As in many discussions around economic policy in the UK, Cameron’s Sinophile stance, and the backlash against it, relied on a series of confused assumptions. Chief among them was that the problem facing the British economy was chronic underinvestment caused by a scarcity of capital — a deeply confused notion in a country which hosts one of the world’s biggest capital markets.

In reality, high inequality, made bearable by rising private indebtedness, has suppressed domestic demand in the UK while the rich have enjoyed a savings glut. The Conservatives’ turn to the East was simply an attempt to find ways of subsidizing the investment of Britain’s elites by tapping into Chinese capital. The failure of this plan was a sign that the UK was no longer permitted to deviate from Washington’s dictates, even to engage in boondoggle projects with China.

Cameron, in his meek attempts to pivot away from Atlanticism, went as far as ring-fencing health care and education spending and reducing funding to the military in an attempt to find some alternative to welfare austerity. When confronted publicly by military personnel about the long-term damage that such cuts were inflicting on the armed forces, he responded mockingly. These financial cuts did not stop Britain from launching bombing campaigns in Libya, Syria, and Somalia under his watch, but the fact that the Tories imposed them was a sign that an attempt at a sea change was made. During this brief period, Britain barely met its NATO commitment of 2 percent of GDP, fudging the numbers by including money allocated to spies as part of the UK’s overall defense spending.

The failure of the Tories’ pivot to Beijing was a sign that the UK was no longer permitted to deviate from Washington’s dictates, even to engage in boondoggle projects with China.

Slowed austerity and the development of closer ties to China eventually came into conflict with the interests of the United States, which had, under Barack Obama, firmly committed itself to a “pivot to Asia” after over a decade of disastrous interventions in the Middle East. By the time Donald Trump was elected, Johnson had accepted that Britain should reprise its role as a lieutenant to the United States, despite the weakness of the UK armed forces and economy. The Tories have embraced this position eagerly, but characteristically they have been unwilling to rid themselves of the confused idea that there is only influence to be won, rather than risk to be borne, by asserting military power abroad.

Because of this, the Tories have committed Britain to positions that have worried foreign policy intellectuals, even those comfortable with the idea of Western hegemony. For instance, Britain’s decision to field submarines in the South China Sea alongside Australia and the United States makes more likely a scenario in which “Beijing decided that a UK warship was an appropriate proxy target against which to assert its counter-Western preferences without guaranteeing the full blowback that would follow an attack on a US naval vessel,” as security expert David Blagden has observed.

Shoring Up Western Hegemony

Labour, which now looks certain to form the next government, has signaled that in power it will rationalize, rather than turn away from, Tory foreign policy. David Lammy, who is the shadow foreign secretary, and John Healey, who is the shadow defense secretary, have reiterated the party’s support for NATO and the Trident nuclear weapons program, the development of which they both view as being as integral to Labour’s history as the foundation of the National Health Service. Similarly, Healey has stated that the party’s commitment to AUKUS is “absolute.” Where Labour differs from the Tories is in their realism — Lammy’s ghost writers have coined the phrase “progressive realism” — about the potential influence which Britain, a middling country both economically and militarily, can have on the world stage.

Despite largely accepting the Conservative outlook, a sour point for Starmer and Lammy — both former hardcore anti-Brexiteers — remains Britain’s withdrawal from joint security arrangements with the EU. Broader geopolitical considerations, rather than anxiety about terrorism, are the chief reason for this. Russia looms large, of course, but its significance is increased because the United States has been forced to turn its attention to Asia in preparation for a potential confrontation with China.

Within the bloc, competition over who will assume the leadership vacuum created by a distracted America has heated up. French president Emmanuel Macron, who in the early phases of the war mooted a reproachment with Russia, has quickly become the Western alliance’s most bellicose member. In a recent interview with the Economist, he restated remarks he’d made earlier this year that France would not rule out putting boots on the ground in Ukraine. Unofficially, it seems that this is not just a promise. In early March, leaked audio revealed that British and French soldiers were already operating in Ukraine, covertly manning Storm Shadow and Scalp missiles, a dangerous escalation of a war bound to deepen division between the European allies.

Already, fractures have opened up between Europe and the United States over the new cold war.

Macron’s comments — and his covert actions — have irked Germany in particular, not just because they risk escalating the war. His effort to forge a broader security alliance with non-EU European states, such as Britain but also Norway, provides him a means of outflanking the Germans, whose economic interests are undermined by a prolonged war with a country which, until recently, was its chief energy supplier. Russian sanctions have made Germany reliant on expensive American liquid natural gas, further reducing the competitiveness of its industries. The war has given federalism, which France has long pursued to strengthen its global influence, a new lease of life by providing it with a new geostrategic justification. Much like the COVID-19 pandemic, which led EU nations to create a de facto unified fiscal policy, the war in Ukraine has also strengthened the hand of those in favor of more bloc-wide spending.

Already, fractures have opened up between Europe and the United States over the new cold war. Strategic autonomy, a euphemism for independence from the dictates of Washington, has long been an aspiration of French foreign policy since Charles de Gaulle’s withdrawal from NATO’s integrated command in 1966. Under Macron, who visited Xi Jinping in China in March along with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, such calls have only grown louder. Economic ties between the bloc and the world’s largest economy are one of the main reasons for this: China accounts for over 20 percent of the EU’s imports and that figure has only increased in recent years, unabated by Washington’s demands for decoupling.

In March 2023, the United States succeeded, after applying significant pressure since 2018, to force the Netherlands to comply with American bans on the export of high-end semiconductors to China. But whether similar pressure could be applied to France, Germany, or indeed Hungary is unclear. Certainly, it would be unwise for the United States to bank on forming any coalition against China that relies primarily on European support. This fact goes a long way toward explaining the willingness with which Trump has called NATO into question: an alliance made up of members, many of which do not meet their spending requirements, and whose geopolitical interests do not align entirely with those of the United States, is likely to fracture.

Defense intellectuals close to a potential Trump administration have essentially acknowledged this point. American foreign policy is currently split between three currents: primacists, restrainers, and prioritizers. The first group insists on unrivalled US hegemony in every region of the world; the second on isolationism, restricted to policing of the Mexico border and maintaining high tariffs; and the last group recognize that American relative decline has made primacy impossible, and that the most urgent priority for the United States is suppression of China. Although all of these currents are prevalent within the United States, it is the last that has won cross party support, evinced in everything from the attempted TikTok ban, to sabre-rattling about the People’s Republic’s ambitions in the South China Sea.

For Elbridge Colby, the former Trump advisor and author of The Strategy of Denial, which is the closest thing the Republican right have come to a foreign policy manifesto, Europe is at best a secondary theatre. America’s grand strategy ought to be directed toward the goal of constructing a smaller but more coherent Asian NATO, designed with a singular aim: arresting the rise to hegemony of the People’s Republic.

Within a context of growing European irrelevance, as the US turns its attention East, Labour has understood its potential role as ensuring the continued existence of the Washington-created European security infrastructure.

Within this context of growing European irrelevance, as the United States turns its attention East, Labour has understood its potential role as ensuring the continued existence of the Washington-created European security infrastructure. Like the Conservatives, Labour has signaled that it will act as a proxy for American interests in Europe and has agreed with the Tories’ plans to increase miliary spending to 2.5 percent of GDP.

Since World War I, US foreign policy has aimed to prevent the emergence of a power on the Eurasian landmass capable of exercising hegemony over this economically crucial region — thereby assuming a role which in foreign policy parlance is often referred to as an “offshore balancer.” In a bi- or unipolar world, achieving this aim has been difficult, but dependent on a relatively simple calculus of power. But China’s growth has worried American hawks, making Labour’s project of freeing up the United States to deal with its main rival more pressing.

Accordingly, Labour has promised to strengthen defense coordination with the bloc’s core powers such as Germany, which, like Britain, massively reduced its military spending following the end of the Cold War. It is, however, likely that France will remain Britain’s most important partner, a fact signaled by Lammy’s mention, in his recent Foreign Affairs article, of securing the Sahel region — a core aim of French foreign policy — as one of Europe’s broader geostrategic objectives. This goes to show that the alternative to American hegemony — European strategic autonomy — would not be an improvement, but instead an antidemocratic suppression of the Global South through the use of coercive economic mechanisms such as the CFA franc, and the backing of military regimes across Africa to police the flow of migrants.

Thus far, the bloc has given paltry sums to the war effort, much of which — in the form of financial commitments — stretched over a four-year period. (A cynical interpretation is that many of these promises are being made on the assumption of Ukrainian defeat, or the rebranding of a stalemate in which Russian continues to hold much of eastern Ukraine and Crimea.) In contrast, the vast majority of US aid has taken the form of military equipment. But the Republican right, likely to assume government in 2025, is fearful of depleting reserves that could be put to better use in a confrontation with China over Taiwan.

Continuing the Conservatives’ legacy, Labour has sought to tip the balance by reasserting its historic commitments, which Denis Healey, the party’s longest-serving secretary of defense between 1964 and 1970, stated clearly toward the close of the Cold War.

The main objective of a Labour government in NATO would be to persuade its allies to cooperate in building a conventional deterrence in Europe, as American leaders of both parties . . . have asked.

This is what Starmer and Lammy have in mind when they bemoan Britain’s weakening ties with Europe after Brexit. Accordingly, in February, Starmer, dressed in military fatigues, paid a visit to Estonia where the UK currently has just under nine hundred troops as part of its “enhanced forward presence” in the region. The position of the Labour Party should therefore be seen as an attempt to make itself into the primary intermediary between the United States and Europe during the ongoing conflict.

This explains why at every turn, Labour has made sure to confirm that it is in lockstep with the United States and its aims. Even Starmer’s choice of Lammy, who has close connections with the American security establishment, as shadow foreign secretary was a decision clearly tailored toward appealing to Washington and detoxifying the Labour brand. As with almost all of Starmer’s stances, his hawkish foreign policy emerges out of his desire to distance himself as much as possible from his predecessor.

Under Jeremy Corbyn, the concern of right-wing Atlanticists was that Britain would adopt a position that called for the end to the Saudi —  now Anglo-American — bombing campaign in Yemen or for the implementation of laws to prevent undemocratic declarations of war. America, the Labour right feared, would respond by rescinding security access and ending the special relationship, a move which would be lethal to the careers of figures like Lammy, who justifies his value to Labour through his close connections to Washington.

Labouring Against the Left

Accordingly, Labour has taken extreme foreign policy positions. It has voiced its support for the American-led bombing of Yemen in the shamelessly named “Operation Prosperity Guardian.” The party also initially came down against calls for a cease-fire in Israel’s ongoing war on Gaza. When the International Court of Justice announced that it would not be throwing out South Africa’s case accusing Israel of committing genocide, Labour’s shadow minister for international development, Lisa Nandy, said that her party backed America’s decision to withhold the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) aid directed to the region on the spurious grounds that these funds were supporting people linked to the October 7 attacks. This is a line far to the right of any other major social democratic party in Europe — with the exception of Olaf Scholz’s Social Democratic Party (SPD), which, under the guise of Germany’s historical debt to Israel, has demonized pro-Palestinian protesters.

Labour’s line on Israel is far to the right of any other major social democratic party in Europe, except Germany’s SPD.

Labour have recognized that the key impediment to pursuing its aims is the antiwar movement at home and its remaining supporters within the party. A vicious witch hunt, on par with that launched by the party’s right-wing factions to level bogus charges of antisemitism, has taken place since the onset of the Ukraine war and has only worsened since Israel launched its invasion of Gaza.

Soon after October 7, Starmer suspended Andy McDonald, a pragmatic member of the Labour left, for remarks that would have been inoffensive and unmemorable had they not been made during the height of a right-wing culture war confected to expel pro-Palestinian voices from British politics. “We won’t rest,” McDonald said to a crowd during an antiwar rally, “until we have justice. Until all people, Israelis and Palestinians, between the river and the sea can live in peaceful liberty.” The mention of the words “river” and “sea” — now habitually presented as a Hamas catchphrase — drew handwringing condemnations.

Kate Osamor, another Labour MP, also received a suspension for suggesting that people should treat Holocaust Memorial Day as an opportunity to reflect on “more recent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and now Gaza,” a comment hard not to read as aligning with the intention of the occasion’s founders.

In February 2024, Labour suspended Azhar Ali, parliamentary candidate for Rochdale, a constituency with a large Muslim population, for insinuating that Israel had provoked the October 7 attacks. More egregiously, Graham Jones, who hoped to re-stand for the Hyndburn seat for which he was MP from 2010 to 2019, was suspended for saying that British people who fight in the Israeli Defense Forces “should be locked up,” a position arguably in line with the UK’s laws against foreign mercenaries and also supported by the South African government.

Labour’s former leader Jeremy Corbyn — barred from the party after facing spurious allegations of antisemitism — has committed to running as an independent in the Islington North constituency he has served since 1983. Starmer also attempted to bar left-wingers Diane Abbott and Faiza Shaheen from running just over a month before the election. At the time of writing, Labour’s leader has abandoned his attempt to force longtime Hackney North MP Abbott from her position, but Shaheen remains off the ballot. Meanwhile, Natalie Elphicke, a Tory right-winger, was welcomed into Labour’s ranks with open arms by Starmer.

The Labour right has consistently prioritized ideology over party and openly sabotaged Labour’s electoral chances if that meant putting leftists deemed harmful to the national interest in power.

Socialist critics of the Labour Party have long argued that disagreements around foreign policy and the role of private investment in the economy between its left- and right-wing factions were insurmountable. There was, these critics insisted, a fundamental asymmetry between its left and right when it came to the sacrifices each was willing to make.

The party’s right has consistently prioritized ideology over party and openly sabotaged Labour’s electoral chances if that meant putting leftists deemed harmful to the national interest in power. On the left, fidelity to the party has taken precedence over anything else. The fear seems to be that socialists would be unable to offer any principled criticism of the Labour right that could win over the public and membership and allow them to either take control of the party or form an independent bloc outside of it. Unable to decide between jumping or taking over the ship, the left has found itself cast out at sea.

Exterminism or Catastrophism?

How has the Labour Party come to accept this sorry state of affairs? The simple answer is that it hasn’t. The position of Starmer — vehement in his opposition to the Left, spaniel-like in his allegiance to the Americans — is not new, but a reversion to the party’s historic line, which it has maintained with only slight deviations since it first came to government a century ago.

Central to Labour’s outlook since the post-1945 era has been the idea that American leadership is synonymous with peace and security. This worldview emerged out of the embers of a declining empire that sought, as best as it could, to recreate a balance of power favorable to the West — or opposed to the emergence of democracies willing to assert the interests of their populations over the West’s. However, without a critique of the American-led order and its chief tool, NATO, no coherent left-wing foreign policy can be launched.

Central to Labour’s outlook since the post-1945 era has been the idea that American leadership is synonymous with peace and security.

As leader of the opposition, Corbyn, despite offering the most humane foreign policy of any Labour leader, never went as far as to question the legitimacy of NATO, or his party’s support for British membership. Doing so would amount to crossing the reddest of red lines. Unwillingness to question NATO has ensured that the Left is unable to challenge the idea that all foreign conflicts ought to be seen as struggles between an American-led order and the autarky of tyrants. Nowhere has this been clearer in recent years than in the failed attempt by left-wing members of the Labour Party to call for a diplomatic resolution to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

Back in February 2022, eleven Labour MPs held this position for all of forty-five minutes, putting their names on an open letter calling for peace talks before removing them after Starmer threated to sack them. The letter, which began by recognizing the right of Ukraine to self-determination, fell afoul of Starmer and the dominant Atlanticist wing of the Labour Party by calling for a solution to the conflict decided primarily by its belligerents. Pause briefly and it becomes clear that the objections that the Labour leadership made to this document and its signatories relies on a set of astonishing assumptions.

Often the Left understands right-wing opposition to the supposed radicalism of certain factions — or, in Corbyn’s case, the leader — of the Labour Party as a response to a domestic policy unfavorable to British capital. But at points during Johnson’s tenure as prime minister, he entertained adopting large chunks of Corbyn’s platform, effectively nationalizing parts of the railway system and later flirting with increasing access to affordable childcare. But what was unconscionable was the demand that states should resolve their differences diplomatically, without the intervention of a country based on another continent. The causes for this are of course partly fealty to the United States, but underlying it is the military weakness of the UK, which is unable to maintain Western hegemony without the aid of America.

A revelatory article published by the political scientists Samuel Charap and Sergey Radchenko this April 16 makes this last point especially clear. In it, the authors exposed how close Europe came to peace and the role that the UK and United States played in ruining these efforts. On March 30, 2022, Johnson is reported to have said that “any deal with [Vladimir] Putin was going to be pretty sordid.” Any deal, “would be some victory for him: if you give him anything, he’ll just keep it, bank it, and then prepare for his next assault.”

However, key to this reticence, Charap and Radchenko make clear, is the unwillingness of the UK and other European nations to offer security guarantees to Ukraine that would satisfy both sides of the conflict. This is not unsurprising given the general weakness of the British military, which, as some reports have pointed out, would be unable to last two months in a conflict with a nation like Russia.

Essentially, the calculus seems to have been: the West will support a war that claims thousands of lives on both sides and leads to an interactable stalemate rather than risking involvement. The question this raises is, if this was the calculus in March 2022 — that the UK and other European nations would do anything to avoid committing to joining the fray — how seriously should any talk of intervening in the war be taken now? The alternative to American leadership would, of course, be regional security guarantees — but this would rely on military and geostrategic autonomy on the part of Europe and the UK, a prospect that all parties have worked to forestall.

Jeremy Corbyn, despite offering the most humane foreign policy of any Labour leader, never went as far as to question the legitimacy of NATO, or his party’s support for British membership.

The strongest challenge to the assumption that American global leadership was the solution to all conflicts to emerge within the Labour Party came in the 1970s and 1980s; their failure goes a long way toward explaining the inability of the Left to launch any coherent challenge to Starmer’s hawkish stances. Against a Labour Party that openly debated terminating the Polaris nuclear submarine program and withdrawing Britain from NATO, Margaret Thatcher, once elected to the leadership of the Conservative Party, hung her hat on defense and accused the last Wilson Labour government in 1974–76 of weakness and harboring pro-Soviet loyalties. The host of declassified documents made available in the past two decades show this was completely untrue.

In internal memos and discussions, both Denis Healey and Wilson maintained a pro-American and anti-Soviet line. However, in the lead up to the 1979 election, which the party lost to Thatcher’s Conservatives, the Labour left succeeded in passing motions that nominally committed the party to unilateral nuclear disarmament and the closure of American bases. The context for this was the twin events of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and NATO’s decision to base nuclear missiles in Britain and Germany. This led to an upsurge in antiwar mobilization, headed by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which sought to exercise influence over the Labour Party. Within the party, however, support for a scaling down of the Cold War was contained to the membership — which, like today, has the ability to pass motions well to the left of a parliamentary Labour Party that in turn blithely ignores them when in government.

In the heady days in which the Cold War threatened to rise, for the second time in two decades, to dangerous levels, the Left spoke against escalation by embracing the catastrophic language of an impending apocalypse. Parallels to this can be found in the approach to thinking about poverty taken by Labour during Corbyn’s election campaigns. In his two runs, Corbyn often focused on the horrors of the world created by capitalism — food banks, starving children, coercive maniacal bosses — in a way that only succeeded in moving political participants between two modes: righteous rage and resignation in the face of an enemy capable of exerting control over all aspects of human life.

In 1980, the historian E. P. Thompson brought the cry of impending doom to a fever pitch, responding to the specter of nuclear conflict by proclaiming that the West had entered an age of “exterminism.” Through this arresting phrase he subordinated the whole language of socialism to the life-or-death struggle for existence. Unintentionally, Thompson and the sections of the Left that thought about war as a contest in which only survival was at stake, had abandoned politics entirely, replacing it with what the cultural critic Raymond Williams  called “a sense of helplessness beneath a vast, impersonal and uncontrollable force” — a feeling appropriate to a cornered animal, not a socialist seeking to seize control of the state and use it to create a world better than anything that had come before.

While the Left busied itself imagining the end of the world, the Right thought seriously about the balance of power politics.

That the heavens did not fall served to discredit the catastrophism of sections of the antiwar movement, just as the continued existence of human life under the Tories makes a joke of Labour Party alarmism. While the Left busied itself imagining the end of the world, the Right thought seriously about the balance of power politics. The similarities with the present response of much of the Left to the horrific ongoing bombardment of Gaza by Israel need hardly be stated. Consistently, the Left, conflating moral with political analysis, draws the public’s attention to the ruthlessness of the Israeli campaign in Gaza — indiscriminate acts of killing, humiliation, and degradation carried with out with genocidal intentions. But a catalogue of the dead is not a political program. The animating core of Britain’s foreign policy is Atlanticism, motivated primarily by a crisis of purpose amongst the country’s elites who are unable to carve out any autonomous path for themselves.

An Elite Without Purpose

On the American right, the ramifications of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, Israel and Hamas, and rising tensions between China and the United States have become an obsession. This was always the subtext of Trump’s “America First” agenda: a recognition of a zero-sum logic between deciding to prop up the global system and the need to assert American primacy over it. More recently, conservative thinkers have come to see US security commitments as having been made with credit that is in very short supply. Former Trump advisor Colby’s 2021 book The Strategy of Denial asks openly whether the US should offer any support to South Korea in the event of an attack by its northern neighbor, a prospect about which the Right seems deeply concerned.

America, he thinks, must ask itself which positions it can plausibly defend — a far cry from Biden’s proclamation, a week after Israel’s invasion, that the world’s largest empire was not at risk of overstretch: “We’re the United States for god’s sake. The most powerful nation in the history of the world.” The United States, under the influence of a more pragmatic Republican right, took more than six months to approve the latest package of military aid to Ukraine. However, it is unclear whether the $61 billion aid package will succeed in forcing Russia from a territory in which it is dug in. Stephen Wertheim, another establishment foreign policy intellectual, has warned that America simply cannot maintain all of its positions across the Persian Gulf, Eastern Europe, and Asia if they are called into question.

The complete lack of seriousness amongst the British political class, but also sections of the Left, when it comes to thinking about the realities of politics is shocking. For decades, foreign policy within the UK has been constrained by the axiomatic assumption of American leadership. Although it is too soon to make proclamations, it seems clear that not only is the United States engaged in a scaling down of its commitments in Europe, but also the pursuit of a domestic policy — the set of protectionist tariffs and tax credits lumped together under the Inflation Reduction Act — which undermines the system of free trade that had held together both regions.

Withdrawal from the UK’s more extravagant commitments in the South China Sea should be a minimum requirement of any moderately sensible foreign policy.

Given these facts, at the very least the position that Starmer should take is to insist on charting some alternative path for British foreign policy that is not premised on the idea of American global leadership. Withdrawal from the UK’s more extravagant commitments in the South China Sea should be a minimum requirement of any moderately sensible foreign policy, and one of the rallying cries of an antiwar left.

Financialized Elites

Britain’s refusal to confront the United States, and unwillingness even to stake out an independent path for its foreign policy, are rooted in one same cause: the elite’s inability to see itself as representative of national interests. Instead, Britain’s elite, much like their German counterparts, conceive of politics in civilizational terms. This outlook has led Berlin to pursue a foreign policy agenda of increasing tensions with Russia that is hostile to its own economic interest of facilitating the smooth running of a growth model dependent on cheap imports of natural gas from the East.

However, in the German case, this civilizational outlook has led to the emergence of populist challenges from a reimagined social democratic left. Sahra Wagenknecht has presented a chauvinist defense of German industry, which she has tied to a critique of the ongoing war and its harmful consequences for the country’s economy. For her, what the ongoing war in Ukraine and attempts to sever ties with China — nascent though they may be — risk is the deindustrialization of Germany and the destruction of the coalition between unions and an industrial bourgeoisie that made social democracy possible.

In an interview with the New Left Review, Wagenknecht has made this explicit, going as far as to praise former chancellor Gerhard Schröder: “Schröder was a Genosse der Bosse — a comrade of the bosses, as we used to call him — but at least he looked at the situation and understood the importance of ensuring the flow of affordable pipeline gas.” Undeniably, Wagenknecht’s is not a revolutionary response to the crisis of economic and geopolitical competition. However, it is a response that indicates recognition that such a competition exists and that it has real stakes. Both are insights that make possible a shift in the Overton window, away from the “end of history” reflexes of other political elites who endorse American leadership with no questions asked. But in Britain, no representatives of the “national bourgeoisie” have been able to fashion themselves into a political bloc. Why?

The key reason is that the model of growth to which the UK decisively committed itself from the late 1970s onward was predicated not on high employment and the export of manufactured goods, but privatization and the deregulation of financial services. The revolving door between the financial service sector and politics, arguably a feature of British politics since the eighteenth century, is partly to blame. Every senior figure in charge of Treasury economic policy from 2010 to 2016 — George Osborne, Danny Alexander, David Cameron, Rupert Harrison, John Kingman, and Nicholas Macpherson — later went on to assume positions in investment banking; Rishi Sunak himself was at Goldman Sachs before entering politics and becoming prime minister.

The outlook of this section of the British ruling class is one that, as Aeron Davis argues, sees markets as “all about transactions, not about production, labour or materials.” Existing in the world of frictionless trade of financial services and the managing of the wealth of the global superrich, Britain’s elite is averse to thinking about politics in a manner bound by trivial domestic concerns like improving industry, investing in infrastructure, or public services. Even Britain’s intervention to stop the Houthi blockade can be understood on these terms, given the centrality of the City of London in the global maritime insurance industry.

Unflinching support for the United States remains in the economic interest of a state dominated by a financial sector that profits from trade in Eurodollars, dollar-denominated deposits held outside of the United States. American hegemony, upheld partly by the United States’ control over a currency in which most global trade is conducted, is therefore also in the interest of the often-dominant section of the British elite.

Labour has rarely sought to challenge the dominance of this section of the British ruling class. The two decades following 1945 should, historian David Edgerton aptly observes, be seen as a serious attempt at nation-building predicated on fostering a strong industrial sector and creating full employment. But throughout this period, Labour’s outlook remained subservient to America and unwilling to carve out an independent foreign policy position. (Nothing proves this more than the country’s purportedly “independent” nuclear program, which requires yearly servicing by the United States.)

Britain supports the US in a task of global dominance that the hegemon could accomplish just as well on its own.

The Left that emerged after the rise of Thatcherism was one shaped fundamentally by political defeat. In terms of disposition, it was imbued with the nineteenth-century philanthropism that informed the early Labour Party. Its primary concerns were the alleviation of poverty and human suffering, not the replacement of an aristocratic or bourgeois worldview with a working-class-led social order. Combined with this was a professionalization of social democratic parties that took place across the globe, but that was particularly stark in Labour’s case. Party elites responsible for economic policy, as Stephanie Mudge argues in Leftism Reinvented, stopped seeing themselves as representative of their domestic working class, but as comanagers of a global economic system — i.e., one upheld primarily by US dominance.

Under the thumb of the United States and lacking a strong economic fraction with an interest in carving out an independent path, Britain has been unable to develop a political elite that could think seriously about global politics. The milieu out of which Corbyn — a heroic figure on any account — emerged was the A to B marches of the Stop the War coalition, a tragically failed movement that organized the country’s largest ever protest shortly before the invasion of Iraq. The dilemma is that Britain lacks any coherent set of class interests that could be tied to an antiwar project. Unlike France or Germany, which can legitimately claim to have defense or trade interests of their own, the UK, a financial entrepôt affixed to a faltering state, is rudderless. Within this context, opposition to war or Britain’s geopolitical positioning can only really be voiced in the humanitarian language of compassion — a sign that even amidst a decline into irrelevance, some sense of decency remains on this small island.

This does not — and should not — be taken as a call to inaction. Britain supports the United States in a task of global dominance, which the hegemon could accomplish just as well on its own. At the very least, the British left must insist on an end to its country’s complicity.

This article was first published in the new issue of the transform review, In Times of War.”


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