Reactionary idealism in British foreign policy

Haro Karkour
Monday 10 Jun 2024

A general election is due this year in the UK. All polls show a Labour win not seen since the days of Tony Blair. We should therefore pay attention to Labour’s vision of British foreign policy in the coming years.


David Lammy, the Labour shadow foreign secretary, outlined this vision in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs. “Progressive realism” is the label for Labour’s brand of foreign policy. It is a brand that “advocates realist means to pursue progressive ends” towards “countering climate change, defending democracy and advancing the world’s economic development."

Can realists be driven by ideals? Of course. Ideals are the essence of the national interest. But there is a difference between realists and idealists. Realists reject a foreign policy driven by the imposition of the nation’s ideals, say a religion or the cause of democracy, abroad. Realists also would not call for socially engineering the cosmopolitan objective of “world development.”

In contrast to realists, defined as such, the shadow foreign secretary embraces expansive goals. While he acknowledges the need not to repeat the errors of Iraq and Libya, this is qualified with a mention of “red lines” that “ought to be respected” in Syria. Respected or what? Another British adventure in the Middle East?

The priority for realists is not the defence of democracy abroad but rather its preservation at home first. It makes little sense to see the world in democracy/autocracy terms when the Labour government itself suffers from a democratic deficit among voters drifting to independents and other parties.

Reactionary idealism, not progressive realism, is Labour’s vision of the future. Reactionary in its attempt to defend the power structures of the past, by force if necessary. Idealism in its detachment from contemporary reality.

For example, Lammy’s call for a “two-state solution” in Israel-Palestine does not explain where the 800,000 Israeli settlers will go or how the UK will force the Israeli government to move them, if it is not even ready to cut arms sale in the midst of a running ICJ case of genocide.

Against the factual reality on the ground, Lammy is confident that Ukraine will not only prevail but also join NATO. The reality of Russia’s advancement and possession of nukes escapes the idealist as he gets carried away with his vision of the future.

Finally, a Labour foreign policy will acknowledge that climate cooperation can only be achieved with “fairness.” “Fairness” is the same term that Trump used as he embarked on trade wars. Whatever “fairness” means is unclear. Climate finance, the key area of fairness between rich and poor countries, lacks a definition that all can agree on. How will disputes be settled?

As any realist would acknowledge, adjustment of conflicting interests, not lofty talks of cooperation and punishment of “evil autocracies,” brings about peace. Interests cannot be adjusted when the goal is to preserve past power structures and when present realities are left unacknowledged.

What the Foreign Affairs piece shows is not the possibility of a progressive realism, which few would disagree with, but rather that, left undefined, the realist label can be hijacked for reactionary idealistic ends.

The “rules-based order” is over; in fact some would say it never existed. It is time to bring real change, and for this change Britain will need to acknowledge that the world is not black and white; that countries have interests that will contradict those of Britain’s. The key is to acknowledge and adjust these interests, through diplomacy, not set out red lines that Britain ought to police or cling to institutions that mirror static power relations and interests derived from a privileged past.

*The writer is a lecturer in international relations at Cardiff University, UK.

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