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

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