Given the current state of UK politics, with the Conservative government focused almost exclusively on Brexit and the resulting electoral uncertainty, the likelihood of a government headed by Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has increased substantially. The last UK-wide elections—in 2019, for the European Parliament—suggested that in England and Wales, the vote was spread relatively evenly across four political parties (in Scotland, the nationalist SNP dominated, meaning that each seat was contested by five main parties). In addition, with the “first past the post” electoral system, predictions of who might win a general election are problematic. The UK electoral system means the party with the largest number of votes in each constituency gains the seat in the House of Commons and it is feasible for a party with an overall lower share of the vote to win more seats than this would indicate depending on how evenly their votes are spread across the country. With two major parties, this is rarely a problem, with four (or five) more or less evenly sharing the vote, there is a real risk of an outcome (number of MPs) that is very different to the actual share of the votes.
On this basis, it is essential to consider what might be the foreign policy choices of a Corbyn government and how this might affect the United Kingdom’s allies, especially the United States. Corbyn seeks to present his foreign policy as one of support for the oppressed, of opposition to wars and invasions, and as an extension of former Labour foreign secretary Robin Cook’s “ethical” foreign policy. As this paper makes clear, this framing is deceptive—and consciously so. Corbyn has a long record of supporting human rights abusers, as long as they are, in his terms, on the right side, and opposed to U.S. or Western imperialism. Even his vaunted support for the Palestinians falls away when they are attacked by the Bashar al-Assad’s regime rather than Israel. Equally, while it is true that he would seek to end the UK’s current support for Saudi Arabia, he would simply replace it with support for Iran.
If a Corbyn foreign policy will not be an attempt to promote human rights and international cooperation over issues such as climate change, then what will it be? This paper argues that in Corbyn’s worldview, a small number of anti-imperialist states (Russia, Iran, Syria, Venezuela, and China) and a larger number of anti-imperialist movements (such as Hamas and Hezbollah) are threatened by the United States and the “West.” The latter is a rather amorphous concept but appears to include the major states and shared institutions of the post–World War II international order (including military alliances such as NATO and diplomatic and economic alliances such as the European Union). As shown below, Corbyn has tended to assume an automatically pro-Russian stance over a range of issues, including tensions within the former Soviet Union, Syria, and how the Vladimir Putin regime in Russia describes bodies such as NATO and the EU.
If Corbyn’s foreign policy is enacted, this suggests the Corbyn government will play a disruptive role. Some of this will be defended as a correction away from Saudi Arabia and Israel (but toward Iran instead). In other ways, his models of international politics and international trade mean he sees little value in multilateral organizations, so there will be another force pulling apart these long-standing alliances. This is not to argue that such bodies should be beyond criticism, or that they would not benefit from reform, but the key is that Corbyn has no interest in such nuances. These organizations support imperialism and capitalism and must, to use his own words, be defeated.
To explore these issues, this paper takes two approaches. First there is a consideration of the underpinnings and logic behind Corbyn’s view of international relations. That this largely focuses on the debates and disputes between relatively small sections of the British left in the late 1970s may be a surprise to some. However, the views held by Corbyn and his close advisors were all formed in this milieu, and to understand their likely future choices it is essential to explore the intellectual underpinnings. This is followed by brief discussions of Corbyn’s actual response to a number of international issues. These provide evidence for what his views actually mean in practice, and a number of themes recur:
- He has a binary worldview, with imperialism and capitalism on one side and opposition to them on the other.
- He condemns human rights abuses by those he sees as supporting imperialism but is dismissive of the abuses carried out by regimes he himself supports. He tends to see any domestic opponents of such regimes not as legitimate protesters but as agents of Western imperialism.
- He identifies a number of states (such as Russia, Venezuela, Syria, Iran, and, sometimes, China) as the core anti-imperialist states and seems to believe they are constantly being threatened by the U.S. and the wider West.
- There is never any nuance in his positions, so the messy, brutal civil war in Syria is reduced to an anti-imperialist Assad government struggling against jihadi and Western-sponsored opposition groups. Missing is any reflection of the peaceful initial revolt against Assad or why over 11 million people have been forced from their homes and many have fled the country.
- The views of his advisors are very important and there are important issues where it is clear they have led him to change his position as a result of their influence. With Putin, Corbyn was initially critical but has increasingly come to support the regime and repeat its arguments. Over nuclear disarmament, he has moved from lifelong opposition to the UK possessing nuclear weapons to support for renewal of the UK’s Trident missile system. If we are to understand how Corbyn will frame a given issue, we need to understand the likely views of his close associates.
In turn, this offers insights into the likely foreign policy of a Corbyn-led government:
- In economic terms, he will support a degree of autarky and the UK’s removal from the world economy so he can carry out his desired economic reforms.
- In terms of international organizations, we can assume the UK will withdraw from the EU (despite opposition from most of the Labour Party) and will play a negative role in organizations such as NATO, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank. Outright withdrawal from all these bodies is unlikely due to opposition both within the Labour Party and elsewhere in the British political system.
- We will see a clear break with the traditional Western preferences for Israel and Saudi Arabia in Middle Eastern policymaking. This may be a much-needed rebalancing, but, in reality, it will be replaced by close support for Iran.
- We can expect a greater tolerance for the Putin regime’s actions and worldview, and presumably, backing for Russian actions in Ukraine and possibly other former Soviet republics.
How far any of this can be converted from rhetoric to practical action is debatable. There are constraints within the British political system and, in reality, these positions lack majority support among Labour Party members of Parliament. But even if it remains rhetorical, it will represent a major shift in UK foreign policy. And even if the change is limited to the words used, the U.S. will find a Corbyn-led government’s choices and attitudes a major departure from the UK’s traditional views.
The implications for security and possible military cooperation are substantial. Some of Corbyn’s close advisors were long-term supporters of the USSR and seem to have decided that Putin’s Russia is an acceptable successor. Here, they may not be able to implement an active policy change (toward open support for Russia or Iran), but they can be expected to act to stop any attempts to challenge Russian expansionism. In addition, in the sharing of security information, the UK government will cease to be a reliable partner. Again, the practical issue is less that a Corbyn-led government would actively side with Russia (or its allies) and more that it might block or undermine any actions it sees as inimical to Putin’s interests.
In light of the above, it would be prudent for the U.S. national security establishment to give serious consideration to downgrading or even suspending a Corbyn-led government from the Five Eyes intelligence alliance and temporarily demoting its NATO membership. There is a serious risk that any information passed to either Corbyn or his close allies could be compromised, especially if it involves Russia or Iran.