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Western Foreign Policy Dissent and NATO's Role in the World

Jeremy Corbyn recently won his re-election to lead Britain’s opposition party, the Labour Party. An ardent socialist and sceptic of interventionism, he has advocated leaving NATO before being leader. Now as leader, he has consistently criticised it for destabilising eastern Europe due to its Eastward expansion in the 1990s, antagonising Russia and being involved outside NATO’s traditional sphere, for example in Afghanistan. Corbyn has publically argued at Labour Party, Stop the War Coalition and Momentum rallies (extra-parliamentary organisations closely allied to Corbyn) that NATO should be ‘closed down’ to bring a halt to potential war in Eastern Europe. With his position secure in Parliament, his argument, and the movements that agree will not disappear.    

Corbyn’s foreign policy argument is that NATO is a hegemonic instrument for the West, particularly America and oil companies. Recent history has shown that the United States has declared war on more states, like Iraq and Panama and non-state actors like Al-Qaeda or Somali rebels than Russia has. NATO has been used in interventions, like Libya, that in Corbyn’s eyes bring together NATO’s imperialism and oil security. Further evidence cited by Corbyn is that NATO is by far the strongest military alliance in the world– with a combined budget of $900 billion, with the United States contributing two thirds; it dwarfs Russia’s $50 billion. This hard military power can only ever be malign, military force that size cannot be benign according to Corbyn.    

There is reasoning in Corbyn’s dislike of the military alliance: NATO membership means that the UK can engage in morally questionable conflicts that it wouldn’t be able to do alone. The UK can work with other large military powers such as the United States, and France. If NATO ceased to exist after the Cold War, Western intervention in Yugoslavia would be much harder. Blair, Corbyn’s arch nemesis within the Labour Party, was a neoconservative before the ideology took hold in Congress and the White House. Clinton was cautious about foreign entanglements due to the debacle of Somalia in 1993, it was Blair that encouraged him to use NATO when Yugoslavia broke up. Again, George Bush campaigned in 2000 that there would be no foreign nation-building by the US military. 9/11 changed that, and Blair, with a history of foreign interventions and liberal peace-making was the first foreign leader to fly to America to talk with Bush and his aides. Although it is unfair to argue that NATO drags the UK in conflicts, Corbyn’s contends that it makes it easier for the UK to be involved in neo-imperialism.

Corbyn can be seen as desperately naïve. He does not take into account that the West is in relative decline both militarily and economically compared to the rising East, particularly China. 2012 was the first time military spending in the East surpassed Europe in centuries. As Europe is grappling with debt crises, military budgets have been slashed, only five members of NATO spend the required 2%, (the US, UK, Greece, Poland and Estonia). Western hesitancy to deploy their militaries is further sign that there is little public appetite, if ever there was, to engage in wars on the Western periphery – Libya, Syria/Iraq, and Eastern Ukraine. Whilst the West’s military budget may dwarf Russia and China’s for now, there seems to be little desire in Western governments to keep this primacy. There is already some reduction of militarism in Europe as Corbyn wishes.   

However, we shouldn’t take Corbyn as naïve, or lacking real-world thinking. The historian A. J. P. Taylor, who wrote The Troublemakers, argued that dissenting politicians, who often resigned or were sacked after speeches criticising British foreign policy had a sizeable influence in official policy. Corbyn, who has argued that he wouldn’t want to back a NATO ally if it were invaded by Russia, is the same as Trump’s lack of interest in America’s allies. Their dissent for now is troublemaking, it is mocked by the media and shocks foreign governments, but it can be become orthodoxy, or at least be an influence in official policy later. Currently it is very unlikely we will see Prime Minister Corbyn in 2020, it is unlikely Trump would win in November (although it could happen). But their ideas and arguments have now been said, the orthodoxy of NATO’s Article 5 has been challenged by opposition candidates in the Anglosphere, which are historically the most keen to use military force. The Establishment in the US and Europe have to now recognise the imbalances and security problems that these dissenters have brought to public attention.

While Corbyn (and Trump) will go due to failing in elections their movements and ideas will stay. The American security guarantee over the ‘free riders’, like Canada, France, Germany, or Italy who don’t spend their 2%, despite being fully developed states may well be argued by Clinton who is likely to be keen on continuing America’s ‘Asian pivot’, if her time as Secretary of State is anything to go by. American attentions may well be diverted from the Middle East to South East Asia in the coming years. Europe may have to do more of the ‘heavy lifting’ itself for its security, as was the case in NATO’s invention in Libya, where the US ‘led from behind’.

Barry Goldwater failed disastrously in the US 1964 election, winning only five states. But he began the conservative alignment of libertarians, Southern conservatives, big business, and rural voters that was shaped into electoral victories under Nixon and Reagan. In Britain Euroscepticism was a fringe movement inside the Tory Party and the old Labour Party. Since the UK joined in the Common Market in 1975, it has grown inch by inch into a victory in the recent EU Referendum. Euroscepticism is a relatively mainstream concern on all sides of the political spectrum, even leading Remainers, like David Cameron admitted he didn’t like the EU that much. Nigel Farage, former leader of UKIP and a leading figure in the Eurosceptic movement, has spoken fondly of Putin’s Russia and argued that Russia was provoked into defensive measures in eastern Ukraine; it was not as Farage argues pure Russian aggression. Corbyn may well see some of his ideas on militarism, NATO and Western military campaigns taken up by more conventional British and European politicians who would rather do business with Russia and China than contain their geopolitical aims, knowing they don’t have the military capabilities for containment and are in need of money. Corbyn and Farage share few political beliefs or aims, but their views of NATO and Russia have some surprising similarities. These dissenters on the far-right and far-left have already changed the shape of the British political environment; Trump has done the same in America.    

Corbyn, Trump and Farage are opening a debate on how the West deals with rising powers, how the West uses its militaries and questions the purpose of NATO. The economic rise of China and India, the geopolitical rise of Russia and Iran, and the huge population increases in Africa will change the balance of power in the world. NATO, an exclusive club for the North Atlantic may not be in its current form the institution to guide the West in dealing with this, nor in fact is the G7, another Western dominated club. The electoral success of Corbyn, Brexit, Trump and the nationalist far-right in Europe are clear signs that our current supranational institutions and the arrangements that follow them are not fit to deal with current problems that electorates feel. With a combined budget of $900bn, one would think that NATO could solve any security problem, yet its capability cannot help Syrian refugees migrating into Europe, destroy narco-jihadist networks in Middle East, Africa and Central Asia, and doesn’t even venture into the South China Sea. The largest economies and militaries in the world, the US and the EU cannot solve problems internally and externally.

Corbyn, Farage and Trump, with largely unworkable solutions have led the beginning of foreign policy reform in NATO’s purpose and arrangement, and of course the European Union. Corbyn may not get less military, militarism and NATO in the UK. Farage may lose his fondness for Putin. Trump-ism in America may have to live with some ‘free-riders’ in Europe. But the dissenting arguments have been made, now the assenting opinions from governments is needed. 

Thomas Furse is studying International Security MSc at Bristol

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