Jeremy Corbyn’s views on British defence policy lie far outside the mainstreamon 23 September 2015
By James Strong
The first important point to make when studying Jeremy Corbyn’s foreign and defence policy views is that no-one yet knows how far he will try to impose them on his party, let alone how far he will succeed. As a man with an extensive record of voting against the Labour Party, he will struggle to convince back-bench MPs, very few of whom even wanted him on the leadership ballot, to follow his orders. At the same time, there are early indications that Corbyn intends to permit a greater degree of disagreement within the parliamentary party, in a deliberate contrast to the centralisation of the Blair years. He has, for example, indicated he would not oppose the renewal of Britain’s Trident nuclear weapons system if it was supported by a majority of Labour MPs. In addition, while Corbyn himself and his Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell are established members of Labour’s ‘awkward squad’ of left-wing MPs, others within his shadow cabinet sit well within the mainstream. Both Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn and Shadow Defence Secretary Maria Eagle have solid track records of voting along Labour Party lines. Both supported the invasion of Iraq, the intervention in Libya and RAF action against ISIS in Iraq. Both have previously voted in favour of renewing Trident. So while Corbyn’s views, as party leader, clearly matter, we should not assume every past position will now become official opposition policy.
A quick perusal of Corbyn’s track record on foreign and defence policy issues highlights three key areas where his views deviate from the mainstream, over NATO, military intervention and the Trident nuclear weapons system.
To begin with, Corbyn is an established critic of NATO, Britain’s security alliance with other Western European countries and the United States. He believes that NATO should have been broken up at the end of the Cold War and replaced by a pan-European security organisation based on the OSCE. In part this is a principled pacifist position, borne of the belief that the existence of a large Western military alliance without an Eastern rival to balance against leads inevitably to NATO involvement in conflicts elsewhere and to tension with Russia within Europe. Indeed, he has publicly blamed “NATO belligerence” for causing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In effect he presents a left-wing version of Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex” argument to explain how the desire of Western governments to sustain high military expenditure and the existence of NATO itself reinforce each other while leading to a seemingly-endless cycle of conflict.
Corbyn’s critical view of NATO as an organisation partially lay behind his objection to British involvement in operations in Kosovo in 1999. He was especially critical of the Western decision to bypass the UN Security Council on that occasion. He has warned in more general terms that NATO’s command structure removes British forces from British control, leaving them “under the control of NATO generals, answerable only to the President of the United States”. In the near aftermath of the 11 September attacks he stated “I do not believe that…NATO can administer world justice”. Following the NATO summit in 2014 he effectively accused the organisation of causing “an increase in terrorism” and of being one reason “why ISIL has grown as such a big force”. Though Corbyn has apparently softened his stance since winning the Labour leadership, his track record as a critic of NATO suggests he is unlikely to switch to full-throated support.
This stance brings Corbyn into conflict with the majority of the British public. The 2015 Chatham House-YouGov survey found 36% of respondents considered NATO “vital” to UK national security, while a further 25% thought it “important”. Just 14% of respondents overall, and just 8% of those aged under 25, agreed with Corbyn that it was no longer relevant.
Sceptical of military intervention
Secondly, Corbyn is deeply sceptical about the utility of military force as a tool of British foreign policy. He reiterated during the Labour leadership campaign that he could not “currently envisage” circumstances under which he would deploy UK forces abroad. He served as chairman of the Stop the War Coalition, originally founded to protest against the war on terrorism, until his election as Labour leader. In opposing the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the proposed Western intervention against the Assad regime in Syria in 2013, Corbyn was on the side of public opinion. But the public was divided on the prospect of action against the Gaddafi regime in Libya in 2011, and supported intervention against ISIS in Iraq (and, incidentally, Syria) in 2014. Corbyn opposed both.
Corbyn is, in other words, an instinctive opponent of British military action under most conceivable circumstances (including as part of its treaty obligations to other NATO members). British public opinion prefers to treat each case on its merits, as do most Labour MPs. This is likely to cause difficulties if Prime Minister David Cameron asks parliament to approve extending RAF operations against ISIS into Syria. Many on the Labour back-benches (and indeed some on the front) will support such an action. 66% of poll respondents supported Cameron’s decision to authorize drone strikes on ISIS targets in Syria and a large majority still favour extending RAF strikes. Labour MPs will likely face a choice; to support their new leader despite his record of rebelling against his party on such matters, or to vote with the Conservative government in favour of intervention both they and the public support. Cameron may not risk forcing them to make such a difficult decision. But if he does it will put Corbyn in a tight spot.
Opposition to Trident
Finally, Corbyn opposes Britain’s retention of an independent nuclear deterrent. Indeed, he is a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and a longstanding supporter of a nuclear-free world. He objects to both the financial and the human cost of using nuclear weapons, and to the supposed instability their existence produces for international politics overall. In January 2015 he supported a Scottish National Party motion arguing “that Trident should not be renewed”. He made his opposition to nuclear weapons part of his platform when campaigning for the Labour leadership, though he has sounded less hard-line since his election.
On the question of Trident, Corbyn’s views are in tune with those of voters in the Labour leadership election, 53% of whom supported scrapping the UK’s nuclear deterrent. At the same time, however, they are not representative of the electorate as a whole. The most recent YouGov survey on the subject found 25% of respondents favoured a like-for-like replacement and 25% total disarmament, with 31% wanting to reduce costs while keeping some nuclear capacity.
At odds with the electorate?
A close look at Corbyn’s views on British foreign and defence policy reveals some significant trends likely to place him at odds with the electorate unless he moderates his views. He is far more favourable towards Russia than towards Britain’s traditional allies in NATO, especially the United States. Though he is not uncritical of Vladimir Putin, he has quite explicitly blamed NATO for provoking Russian aggression in Ukraine rather than Russia for actually carrying out Russian aggression in Ukraine. Though most British people think he made the right call in opposing the invasion of Iraq, his opposition to action against ISIS is far less popular (at least provided no ground troops are used). He favours nuclear disarmament while his countrymen (including even the Scots) largely do not. These differences are large, profound and likely to be problematic. Just 20% of poll respondents trust Corbyn to take the right decisions on defence, compared to 54% who do not. That will damage his electability. It will also further widen the considerable gulf that already exists between the new Labour leader and his parliamentary party.
James Strong is Fellow in Foreign Policy Analysis and International Relations at the LSE. He tweets @dr_james_strong.
Image: The Weekly Bull CC BY-NC-ND