Roger Liddle on the need for Britain to step up to the European and global challenges that lie ahead
The Russian invasion of Ukraine constitutes the greatest threat to peace in Europe since the Second World War. None of us imagined, especially after the end of the Cold War, that we should witness such terrible scenes of armed conflict on our Continent ever again. Although the horrors of ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia should have warned us that the legacies of European history cannot simply be wished away. But it is time to abandon our once complacent assumptions, and Britain must match the seriousness of the events taking place with a concerted look at the principles of our foreign and defence policy.
In some respects, the government has handled the Ukraine crisis well. The righteous vociferousness of our condemnation of Putin’s actions has been matched by the rapid supply of weaponry, tougher sanctions on Russia than ever before, and financial help. Importantly, Britain had recognised the need to help train Ukrainian forces since Russia’s unlawful seizure of Crimea and the outbreak of the Donbas insurgency in 2014.
Yet in the immediate term, our support for refugees has been dismal. Also, Liz Truss’s rhetoric on war aims, in a war which Ukraine not Britain is fighting, is more bellicose than President Zelensky’s. For the medium to longer term, there is no sign of the necessary rethinking of our defence posture and our approach to strengthening European security.
The government’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, which had strengths in both attempting to establish a basis for a grand strategy and recognising the scale of the challenges associated with a shifting global order, now belongs on the scrapheap of history. It identified the danger that stood before us: a revanchist Russian state intent on aggressively remaking the European settlement that emerged following the Cold War. But it missed drawing the necessary policy conclusions with an emphasis on an Indo Pacific tilt, deprioritising the army, and no new thinking on transatlantic and European collective security.
Labour must be part of the conversation on the future of British foreign policy. This is a period marked by widespread intellectual inflection, with the forthcoming NATO Summit and the revision of the Strategic Concept set to outline the tenets of the alliance’s strategy for the coming decade. We should seize this opportunity to analyse how to engage with the transatlantic and European security system once back in government; and advance a progressive agenda that will mitigate the consequences of this current conflict and prevent future wars.
Brexit has long warped the discourse on European cooperation. The urgency of current events should compel us to pursue engagement with the EU’s plans for a Common Security and Defence policy, so we can lead on the preservation of stability on the continent. Furthermore, the potential return of President Trump serves as a warning that the United States’ magnificent, renewed commitment to multilateralism under Joe Biden may be fleeting and we must work with our European partners to effectively confront the challenges ahead. A new defence compact will emerge whether Britain is part of it or not, and Labour must advocate for our involvement and leadership.
For twelve years, narratives of austerity and isolationism have warped our sense of responsibility to our wider commitments. Defence and overseas aid budgets have been cut, and we have alienated traditional partners – leaving us exposed to a hostile Russian state that we have ignored at the expense of China. No amount of transformation in global politics can refute the simple facts of geography and we must not continue to dismiss the European continent as merely a feature of Britain’s past.
Labour has a proud history of leading Britain on European defence and one of our proudest legacies is the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation that Ernest Bevin and Clem Attlee were so instrumental in creating in 1949. But NATO was not born out of a vacuum. It was created amidst the Marshall Plan, European economic reconstruction, and the emergence of moves to a united Europe on the continent under the shadow of Soviet aggression.
Many of us have fought over the decades to sustain that legacy against the forces of anti-Americanism and false equivalence. Today, we must honour Bevin and Attlee by not just reinvigorating our defence policies but urgently addressing the imminent global famine and the future reconstruction of Ukraine. Britain can play an integral role in rebuilding the international system and strengthening the unity of all Europe from the wake of this conflict, but only if we accurately locate the sources of disorder and mobilise our power to address them.
Lord Roger Liddle is a Labour Peer and a former No.10 adviser on Europe. He tweets @liddlro
Published 6th June 2022