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Nato summit will test Labour’s ‘realist’ foreign policy

Will progressivism or realism win out? Credit: Getty

July 8, 2024 - 11:45am

There is an argument to be made that our new Labour government, having tacked Right to woo the British electorate, is merely a more competent Conservative administration. When it comes to foreign policy, this would be a welcome development. The past half-decade’s churn of prime ministers left the country committed to maximalist foreign policy goals, inheriting a Johnsonian Global Britain boosterism regarding the UK’s place in the world that was, in reality, far beyond our material capabilities.

This week’s Nato summit is the first major event for our new Labour government. It will also be the first opportunity to present a scaled-down British strategic vision to both our quietly relieved US sponsor and our closest European allies, which new Defence Secretary John Healey has promised will be the focus of a coming wave of bilateral defence agreements.

But the welcome shift in focus also raises questions about defence spending and capabilities which may have unpalatable answers. Defence of the North Atlantic sea lanes is a logical and vital British responsibility, but does the Royal Navy’s denuded surface fleet maintain the capacity to do so in the event of war? What, indeed, is the strategic argument for keeping our costly but all-but-undefended carriers at all? Winnowing down Britain’s grand defence commitments is an unavoidable objective; but the implicit consequence is that in any future confrontation with China, Britain will be a bystander.

This may not be an unpopular outcome with the British public, seemingly tired of risky international grandstanding. While David Lammy’s proposed strategic mission — his so-called “progressive realism” — may be woolly and incoherent, Healy’s more modest proposal has the virtue of starting from Britain’s limited material capabilities, and working out what can realistically be achieved from this basis. This is why Healy pledged, in an interview last year, to scale down Johnson’s “Indo-Pacific tilt”, the grand rebalancing of Britain’s strategic focus to the far edge of the world. “There needs to be a realism about military commitments into the Indo-Pacific,” Healey said. “Our armed forces are ill-served by leaders who pretend that Britain can do everything, everywhere.”

Healey’s analysis is absolutely correct, and taps into a vein of American foreign policy thinking that presents a European focus on the Pacific as a costly and ultimately ineffective distraction from our own continent’s security. Indeed, American analysts such as Elbridge Colby, tipped to be Donald Trump’s national security advisor, have long warned that the European fad for the Far East threatens to be a strategic drag on Washington rather than an asset.

As Colby told the New Statesman last week: “The UK has to borrow US aircraft for its aircraft carrier […] I’m not trying to be a jerk, but who’s going to defend that aircraft carrier? Who’s going to sustain it? […] If you look at the realistic situation in the UK and the state of the armed forces and spending prognosis and reindustrialisation, and you look at the UK’s ability to project power, [the Indo-Pacific tilt] is just not realistic.”

Labour’s new defence vision, which cuts Britain’s role to its straitened cloth, makes a virtue of necessity; but a new role as a regional Northwest European power, while necessary, is undeniably a diminution in global standing. The age of Global Britain is over. Under Labour, in defence terms at least, our solely European future may have just begun.


Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.

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Andrew Dalton
Andrew Dalton
4 days ago

There is an argument to be made that our new Labour government, having tacked Right to woo the British electorate, is merely a more competent Conservative administration.

They’ve not even been in the job for a week yet. Oh, I nearly forgot about Liz Truss.

John Tyler
John Tyler
4 days ago
Reply to  Andrew Dalton

And the Conservatives have tacked so far to the left over the previous decades that Labour’s tack right merely puts them a little less left of centre.

Susan Grabston
Susan Grabston
4 days ago
Reply to  John Tyler

Brought a newton cradle to mind :).

Susan Grabston
Susan Grabston
4 days ago
Reply to  Andrew Dalton

Let’s wait for Reeves’s budget. We may yet be spewing our cornflakes.

Sue Whorton
Sue Whorton
4 days ago

We cannot feed ourselves. We need the seas to be safe for trade.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
4 days ago
Reply to  Sue Whorton

Yes…that’s worked well for the Red Sea..

Santiago Excilio
Santiago Excilio
4 days ago

We cannot even stop a bunch of inflatable ribs crossing the channel or crew our two brand new type 26 frigates (without retiring some other ships first). Indo-pacific excursions? Give me a break!

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
4 days ago

The RN has maintained two River class OPV in the Pacific theatre for the past three years or more.

Ash Sangamneheri
Ash Sangamneheri
4 days ago

Enough with the military adventures, we don’t have money to pay our teacher, doctors, carers, soldiers, housing, NHS, etc, where is the money for war going to come from? Yes, we should prepare for war, in Europe not some distant lands.

Martin M
Martin M
3 days ago

I’d say war in Europe (against Russia) is a pretty good bet actually.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
3 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

Then Europe will become a radioactive ruin.

Martin M
Martin M
2 days ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

So your plan is to just let Russia invade who it likes, and do nothing? Doesn’t sound too good a plan.

Milton Gibbon
Milton Gibbon
4 days ago

I think Mr Roussinos is projecting his views onto the US foreign policy establishment. The role of British naval power is very welcome among Americans who do not want to carry the burden of any war unilaterally. Colby is one analyst whose vision clashes with Trump’s in wanting the US to go it alone. The Aukus pact (with Aukus+ including Canada, NZ and Japan being very likely in future) is how the US is betting on the coming Pacific war with China. The US might not win the war but it can’t afford to lose it and the more allies it has accross the board can only help. Also don’t underestimate carriers, they are astonishingly rare (marking you out as a top-tier naval power – Russia has only got 1 and that is worse than either of ours). Our carriers would likely be operating in American formations so don’t believe the bull about them being undefended. If there are American planes being flown off them what does it matter if we are all working together?

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
4 days ago
Reply to  Milton Gibbon

Yes great idea! The UK getting into a war with China from which it gets no benefit whatsoever…

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
4 days ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

Your comment implies you can see no disbenefit to the UK from China invading Taiwan and controlling commercial shipping in the S China Sea.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
4 days ago

I certainly see no way for the UK to prevent it if China chooses to do so…or indeed for the USA to prevent it. Both will lose a war against China, with horrific consequences for both.

Martin M
Martin M
3 days ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

I think you underestimate how hard it is to successfully mount an invasion over water. It was different when Russia invaded Ukraine. They just had to drive over a line on a map.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
3 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

Taiwan is acknowledged by all as being part of China. Any attempt to prevent it from taking control of its own territory would inevitably result in severe damage to the property and population of those nations seeking to do so.

The UK has no vital interests at risk in who controls Taiwan. The risk to the UK is far greater than any supposed benefit.

Martin M
Martin M
1 day ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

Hopefully the US will do the right thing and protect Taiwan using all the weapons available to it. Britain might not have a big role in that conflict, but it has more at stake in a European conflict.

Last edited 1 day ago by Martin M
Panagiotis Papanikolaou
Panagiotis Papanikolaou
4 days ago
Reply to  Milton Gibbon

I think there is a misconception that the UK (or any other EU country) can make such strategic decisions without the blessings or strong-arming from the USA.
If the American plan is to divert the naval power of the UK in the Pacific, this will probably happen and will be advertised to the public with the proper narrative, leaving the mainland Europe to fend off the Russians.
One very interesting factor in the Americans success in this plan will be (as the author stated) the Chinese influence in the UK – the chinese have infiltrated or managed to build financial relationships with a large part of the British establishment.

Martin M
Martin M
3 days ago
Reply to  Milton Gibbon

Russia’s one carrier is so unreliable it has to be accompanied by a tug every time it puts to sea, and it belches so much black smoke you can see it from a considerable distance away.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
3 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

But do you want to see if Russian nukes work?

Martin M
Martin M
1 day ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

If they are happy to see if ours work, I am up for it. I was born during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Nuclear war with Russia has been a real threat for my entire life. If it has to happen, let’s get it over with.