X Close

David Lammy’s ‘progressive realism’ isn’t realistic

Is David Lammy's realism realistic? Credit: Getty

April 18, 2024 - 11:00am

In an essay published yesterday for Foreign Affairs, Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy set out his foreign policy doctrine. Vowing to combine the best of Ernest Bevin’s Fifties Nato-building realism and Robin Cook’s turn-of-the-century idealism, Lammy described this vision as one of “progressive realism”.

Lammy identifies some of the false assumptions of the past, and the key challenges ahead. He notes that economic globalisation did not bring about the promised wave of liberal democracy, instead increasing our dependence on authoritarian states, and that reducing America’s security burden in Europe is key to retaining US support. Yet progressive realism promises to embed new false assumptions into our thinking.

In arguing that “governments do not have to choose between values and interests”, Lammy continues to cling to the utopian thinking that has dominated British foreign policy for the last few decades, turning strategies such as “Global Britain” into empty sloganeering. Even the most powerful countries in the international order have found it hard, but essential, to stomach that trade-off.

At the heart of the doctrine’s weakness is its failure to provide any kind of roadmap for how Labour will respond to the many foreign policy dilemmas it will face in government. There will have to be trade-offs, particularly with ambitious domestic goals such as economic growth or Net Zero the predominant focus at a time of economic and resource scarcity.

When there are simultaneous demands for Labour to both usher in a green revolution with Chinese-produced solar panels and avoid complicity in the human rights abuse of Uyghurs who make them, which will come out on top? When the UK attempts to shut Russia off from global trade, and defend global democracy, how will it bring on board Narendra Modi’s increasingly ethnonationalist India, widely accused of democratic backsliding? If Donald Trump is elected US president later this year, it is entirely possible that he will continue his attacks on multilateralism, global institutions, and attempts to combat climate change. How would a Labour government retain American support in Europe as we struggle to overcome political, economic, and temporal obstacles to re-arming?

The multiple liberal norms progressive realism champions are all worthy and desirable. Yet, unranked, we are left none the wiser as to how Britain will respond when forced to pick between them. The unstructured fusion of idealism and realism has run into problems before. A 2008 analysis of Obama’s “progressive realist” approach warned astutely that the risk was paralysis and deadlock, well before his foreign policy became known for the inaction that Lammy now explicitly criticises.  On many issues of substance such as China or Ukraine, his approach differs little from existing Government strategy.

Lammy argues that the Conservative desire for a Global Britain is rooted in nostalgia for a long-distant past. Yet his own progressive realism stems from a similarly romantic but unachievable desire for a revival of successful global multilateralism, whose last rites have been read. As Nathalie Tocci has convincingly argued, hope of a multilateral revival under President Biden has not materialised, and global institutions have found themselves paralysed in an increasingly multipolar world.  Re-engagement now for its own sake risks leaving Britain an isolated bag-carrier for the obligations that will follow.

As external foreign policy dilemmas occur, they will set off Labour’s own internal crises, as the party tries to mediate the interests-values tension which it has yet to ameliorate. Labour has a long record of party-rupturing disputes over foreign policy. In stark contrast with Sir Keir Starmer’s stage-managed, minimalistic approach to his platform for government, Lammy is building an ideological trap for his party here.


Ollie Ryan Tucker writes on national security and intelligence at Neither Confirm Nor Deny.

OllieRyanTucker

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

13 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
2 plus 2 equals 4
2 plus 2 equals 4
1 month ago

Foreign Secretary is rapidly becoming a ceremonial role. That’s how come Sunak was able to give it to a member of the Lords for the first time in 40 years and nobody much cared.
Labour’s foreign policy will inevitably try to be everything to everyone because they know their core voters demand left-wing internationalism while the swing voters they need expect them to “stand up for Britain”. The best we can hope for is that it will be a harmless mess. At worse Starmer will develop Blair-like delusions of grandeur about being the world’s community support officer.

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
1 month ago

What a surprise! Labour has lots of great sounding rhetoric, with no practical substance behind it. The situation is not isolated to foreign policy.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
1 month ago

My new doctrine in life: to run for the hills from anything or anyone calling itself/themselves “progressive”.

Elizabeth Fairburn
Elizabeth Fairburn
1 month ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

No, no and no again! The hills are already full of those who have already done that!

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
1 month ago

Empty rhetoric as usual. I remember joining a firm that emphasised the importance of prioritising in its induction talk. When I asked what the priorities of the firm were no answer emerged. Unless you know what your priorities are and the trade offs are then policy is all at sea.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
1 month ago

This is the future folks; a man who has morphed over time from semi-reasonable parliamentarian to shameless grifter.

He unforgettably gave his approval to the laughable tome ‘Brilliant Black British History’ (aka The Big Black Book of Lies) along with that other uber-muppet Diane Abbott.

If you think things can’t get any worse, you are in for a very nasty surprise from Keir the Woodentop and his token working class redhead. A veritable ship of fools with, clearly, no options and no ideas before they’ve even been elected.

Civil War, anybody ?

Clive Pinder
Clive Pinder
1 month ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

As an ex Tory Cllr and donor I have to ask the question: Are The Tories any different, let alone better?

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
1 month ago
Reply to  Clive Pinder

Of course not.

Mike Doyle
Mike Doyle
1 month ago

David Lammy: A man for no seasons.

John Howes
John Howes
1 month ago
Reply to  Mike Doyle

How about a man who can’t reason?

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago

Lammy’s “Progressive Realism” is just another meaningless Labour word salad, with nothing concrete or definite to suggest.
Which might be OK if he realised that’s all it is.
Unfortunately, I suspect he takes himself seriously here.
Of course, it’s stuffed with dubious, unsbustantiated and sometimes downright untrue claims like this:
“Lammy identifies some of the false assumptions of the past, and the key challenges ahead. He notes that economic globalisation did not bring about the promised wave of liberal democracy, instead increasing our dependence on authoritarian states”.
Economic globalisation did actually coincide with a spread of democracy around the world. Over 50% of the world’s population apparently has elections this year (some of which are meaningful ones).
I’m not sure he’d recognise a false assumption.
One thing’s for sure: Ernie Bevin wouldn’t be impressed.

Carol Hayden
Carol Hayden
1 month ago

Bet he doesn’t want to be reminded about his ‘progressive misogyny’! Remember his comment about dinosaurs and bigots (or women) ‘hoarding their rights’ in relation to trans identifying men?
Nothing progressive about the man.

Mark HumanMode
Mark HumanMode
1 month ago

umm, THAT photo… anyone…?