Miliband’s foreign policy speech: something for both hawks and doves

Miliband's speech poses as many questions as it answers


Labour leader Ed Miliband will today give us some idea as to what Britain’s foreign policy would look like under a Labour government. In a speech at Chatham House, Miliband will contrast the “pessimistic isolationism” of the Conservatives with the “hard-headed multilateralism” of a future Labour government.

The speech will be the first foreign policy intervention from the Labour leader of the campaign so far. And for those of us who’ve been critical of some of Miliband’s foreign policy positions in the past, there’s much to welcome (though a few questions remain).

On Libya

Miliband’s diagnosis of the violence in Libya, as well as its relationship with migration via the Mediterranean, is largely correct. Miliband will say that military intervention against former Libyan dictator Colonel Gaddafi was the right decision, however “since the action, the failure of post conflict planning has become obvious”:

“David Cameron was wrong to assume that Libya’s political culture and institutions could be left to evolve and transform on their own….Britain could have played its part in ensuring the international community stood by the people of Libya in practice rather than standing behind the unfounded hopes of potential progress only in principle.”

This shows a better understanding of topic that those on both sides of the political spectrum who lazily blame the problems in Libya on military intervention. Action was taken, as Miliband will say, “to avoid the slaughter Colonel Gaddafi threatened in Benghazi”. This is unarguably correct. Chaos engulfed Libya based on the short-sighted decision by the west to abandon the Libyan people as the post-Gaddafi state attempted to reassert its authority. The resulting power vacuum was then filled by violent militias – and more recently by ISIS.

Still, there are a few quibbles: why is Miliband only raising nation building in Libya now, almost four years after British military action in Libya came to an end? And what can be done to halt the migration flows from Syria, where Miliband effectively prevented military action against Bashar al Assad, who has butchered hundreds of thousands of Syrians?

On Ukraine

The conflict in Ukraine makes a brief appearance in the speech. Miliband will say:

“Was there ever a more apt symbol of Britain’s isolation and waning influence than the when the leaders of Germany and France tried to negotiate peace with President Putin and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom was nowhere to be seen?”

Despite this section appearing only briefly, some of the other points Miliband will raise in the speech are relevant to the threat posed to Europe by Russian leader Vladimir Putin. So Miliband will talk about David Cameron taking Britain “to the edge of European exit because he has been too weak to control his own party”, thus making a point which is pertinent to the situation in Russia too. As I wrote last week, Putin is seeking to hobble European resolve by hobbling the European Union, hence his wooing of Europe’s anti-EU fringe parties.

Cameron’s sop to UKIP in promising an EU referendum was also, inadvertently, a sop to Vladimir Putin, who would like nothing more than a weakened Europe with Britain heading for the exit door.


Miliband will say that it was right for the UK to join other nations in air strikes against ISIS targets in Iraq, but that military action alone will not defeat the terrorist group. In combating ISIS, Miliband will emphasise the importance of “regional actors playing a central role”.

The question that follows from this is: which regional actors? Local solutions in the Middle East can often create as many problems as western interventions. The Kurds are certainly playing a central role in the fight against ISIS, and should be supported in doing so. However if the fetishisation of ‘regional actors’ means a greater role for Iran in Iraq then this is likely to create as many problems as it solves.

Shia militias are now our official ‘allies’ in the battle with ISIS, yet it was Shia domination of Iraq which helped to fuel the rise of ISIS in the first place. If a central role for regional actors means the domination of Iraq by Iranian-backed militias, that’s really no solution at all.

On isolationism

“Britain is stronger”, Miliband will say, “when we look boldly, confidently outward to the world, not turning in on ourselves or acting on our own, but working with our allies, never for them: a genuine and hard-headed multilateralism with our values at its core.”

His speech will criticise the “pessimistic isolationism” of the Conservative party without going into the specifics, other than to say that Britain is better when it is “not turning in on ourselves or acting on our own”. Multilateralism is the key word here. While setting out a firm interventionist position on the decision to take military action in Libya and against ISIS, the emphasis on not “acting on our own” can be read as a swipe at the quasi-unilateralism of the 2003 Iraq war. Miliband will say that we must “learn the lessons of previous interventions” but will not, I suspect, talk about the failure to take early action in Syria, where things might feasibly have turned out better if moderate opposition forces had been given adequate support in 2011.

While there is a commitment in the speech to work through international institutions such as the UN, there is also a mention of restoring Britain’s commitment to NATO. Miliband ought to be asked whether this means committing to the 2 per cent NATO spending target next year – something David Cameron is on target to miss.

James Bloodworth is the editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.

23 Responses to “Miliband’s foreign policy speech: something for both hawks and doves”

  1. Richas

    Given the Tory lies that this speech for serious times and serious people is a personal attack on Cameron this piece is lacking.

    The speech is a proper doctrine.

    “Bartlet: Well, it’s a discussion for serious men.* They say a statesman is a politician who’s been dead for fifteen years. I’d like us to be statesmen while we’re still alive.”

    OK you can quibble the detail (above) but Ed is actually articulating a real foreign policy here, a policy framework everyone on the left should be championing.

    It is also Ed standing up as a statesman on the international stage. The gulf between Labour and the Tories on this issue is now clear and Labour has the best of it.


  2. James Chilton

    Miliband’s speech has merit, but foreign policy isn’t Labour’s strong suit in this election. Labour leaders should concentrate on proposing credible solutions to domestic problems. That’s more likely to impress the voters than a promise to adopt a “hard-headed multilateralist” approach to foreign affairs.

  3. Gerschwin

    So basically he has the same foreign policy as the Conservative Party except with a little exploitative spin over illegal migrants. World beating stuff!

  4. AlanGiles

    It is hard enough to take Miliband seriously on domestic issues – on the international stage he sounds ridiculous – I notice he was using the “Blair evangelical” voice on the R4 news, even so he can’t overcome the bogosity of his outpourings

  5. David Paxton

    I wish I could live in your head for a day.


    I think it was silly for Ed to imply that Cameron had some blame. How on earth can anyone stop Islamist madness and replace it with democracy. The UN who voted for intervention in Libya are responsible and should set up safe zones with military back up until the bloodlust is over. Gaddafi suppressed the Islamists. We should have stayed away from it entirely.

  7. keeshond

    This has guaranteed Ed Milliband a dollop of confected outrage of the cheap personal attack on David Cameron school which will probably gain him a press mauling over the .weekend. Nothing so open to misinterpretation should have been allowed to be uttered at this stage of the election campaign.
    Labour HQ may regret the Libya section: a parallel with post-reconstruction after the invasion of Iraq will surely be drawn.

  8. Cole

    Gosh, that was an enlightening post. Nothing better to do?

  9. Norfolk29

    My analysis is that the Miliband view of foreign affairs is completely different from the Tory view on all the current issues.

  10. AlanGiles

    No you haven’t, have you?

  11. Leon Wolfeson

    Er…no. But hey, article.

  12. Leon Wolfeson

    But instead, Labour are moving right. Oh well.

  13. Leon Wolfeson

    So you’re throwing your issues at others, Tory.

    No wonder you try and link democracy and religion.

  14. Leon Wolfeson

    Gee, not giving thee dictator free reign, as you blame the UN for risking having peace.
    You wanted more dead civilians, who you call Islamists, that’s all.

  15. Richas

    He did not – that was the tory spin not what he said at all

  16. Richas

    Well you could make a start by paying attention to what he said and actually discuss serious issues like a serious man.


    No chance of peace. Never was. Just the West as usual looking after their interests. Stirring the shit and letting the natives do what they do best. Lets Israel off the hook for a period.

  18. Guest

    You don’t want peace, right. Typical untermensch propaganda against the Other there too.

    Then you obess over Jews being alive. As usual.


    If there is peace then my share price will fall.


    Leon. Do join the plain English Society. You are not in Cambridge now!

  21. Guest

    You really do parody yourself.

  22. Leon Wolfeson

    Iraq’s peace was screwed up by the Americans.

    But I remind you that not intervening in Syria’s worked out so well.

  23. Guest

    Try reading the perfectly understandable English I post, Lord Blagger.

    You’re not in Britain now, after all.

Leave a Reply