Last May, Corbyn made it clear stating, “I am not a pacifist. I accept that military action, under international law and as a genuine last resort, is in some circumstances necessary”. Yet numerous right-wingers have lined up to accuse Corbyn of standing by and opposing military action as a dogma. There arguments would have weight if it weren’t possible to look at the Labour leader’s record as a whole, or the ideas of the Labour left as a whole.
Corbyn’s philosophy on foreign policy draws substantially on the clarity and logic provided by Just War Theory as well as a healthy scepticism over any foreign policy based on throwing our weight around in the name of ‘liberal’ and ‘humanitarian’ values. And the truth is that most of the public are well aware that Britain has rolled from disastrous intervention to disastrous intervention with equally disastrous results.
It is true that beyond Corbyn’s scepticism there is something nascent about the Corbyn project’s attitude to international affairs - is it a simple rejection of Anglo-American exceptionalism? A renewed version of Nye Bevan’s call for a ‘third force’ on foreign policy? Or a non-alignment approach akin to the views of his old ally Tony Benn? This question remains unanswered and the fact it is not answered will continue to impede Labour.
But where Labour currently stands is an exceptionally good starting point — and is not as the Tories repeatedly insinuate, a pacifist approach. It is a rejection of the sense that UK foreign policy must not be ‘outsourced’ to the Trump administration, a belief in an independent foreign policy and a rejection of the rush to war mentality which has plagued Britain for nearly twenty years.
The pacifism accusation is intended to portray the leader as high-minded but unrealistic and a well-meaning soft touch. It is also particularly inaccurate. Corbyn’s long-time ally and mentor Tony Benn fought in the Second World War, his parents met at an event promoting the anti-fascist resistance during the Spanish Civil War, and Corbyn and his allies have long been the foremost supporters of the resistance to apartheid in South Africa. When Mandela was jailed he was no pacifist, instead he was seeking to overthrow the apartheid regime by more aggressive means than simple civil disobedience.
Corbyn has argued World War Two, the Spanish Civil War and the UN efforts in East Timor in 1999 - in which British Special Forces participated - were all examples of morally just military actions. And he has appeared to endorse the notion that the United Kingdom’s intervention in Sierra Leone in 2000 was broadly just. Similarly, Corbyn’s championing of the anti-apartheid movement and the Kurdish struggle against Isis is an understanding of the need to stand up against appalling injustices. His critics are effectively trying to delegitimise scepticism over military interventionism.
It is also not passive or isolationist as has also been insinuated by Labour’s critics. Corbyn set it out clearly at Chatham House last year, stating: “I will not take lectures on security or humanitarian action from a Conservative Party that stood by in the 1980s - refusing even to impose sanctions - while children on the streets of Soweto were being shot dead in the streets”.
Perhaps we should be doing more to scrutinise those who have supported virtually every military intervention advocated by UK politicians, yet repeatedly sideline abuses by our trading partners. The logic of ‘no dissent over foreign policy’ is bad for pluralism and for democracy, the logic that scepticism over interventions is equivalent to pacifism makes a mockery of any conception of just and unjust war.
Some critics rightly point out that ‘Syria is not Iraq’ and that ‘inaction is not an option’, but this narrative reinforces the logic that foreign policy ought to be all about bombing campaigns and military incursions. Options such as sanctions, supporting progressive resistance fighters, humanitarian aid and practical diplomacy are all quickly forgotten and the internationalist ideal quickly becomes conflated with the logic of direct military intervention. According to this narrative you are either an internationalist who believes bombing can restabilise the Middle East, or an isolationist who asks too many questions. Ironically it is the self-styled pragmatists who are throwing pragmatism out of the window.
And one aspect of the debate that has become especially concerning is the Tory narrative that parliament should not have a say in interventions, and that public opinion should not be important in foreign policy. Their approach to foreign affairs is that the public should have less of a stake, rather than more.
A War Powers Act is so long overdue that it’s slightly ridiculous that we are still debating it, something which even liberal interventionists like William Hague, Gordon Brown and David Cameron have advocated. Austria, Germany, Italy, Denmark, Sweden and Ireland all have relatively strong war powers acts, whilst the United States and the Czech Republic are among the many countries with slightly weaker war powers. Crucially, Britain, and some of its former colonies, are pretty much alone in the power the executive has to avoid holding a vote on bombing campaigns and incursions.
Given that the legality of the intervention was extremely tenuous at best, the fact that parliament was not consulted and the public were ignored is a massive travesty. This has been topped off with repeated deflections, accusations of passivity and of pacifism, aimed at delegitimising the opposition’s foreign policy.