Young Labour’s Armchair Diplomats Are Wrong. NATO Remains One of Labour's Finest Achievements

Too often it is too tempting to rise to the bait.

Had people rolled their eyes and moved onto more important news, Moggmania might have remained in well-deserved obscurity. Instead, hardly a day goes by without the Member for the Nineteenth Century being asked his views on the hot topics of the day. 

So perhaps the appropriate reaction to the Young Labour Conference should be an eye roll and then a look at some serious politics.

After all, youth movements in UK politics do not have a healthy track record. In the 1980s, Norman Tebbit was compelled to disband the Federation of Conservative Students who had made a name for themselves by supporting extreme positions.

Alongside rejecting a two state solution in Israel/Palestine and voting against free movement of people, Young Labour - in a motion of breath-taking inaccuracy and muddled thinking - voted for Britain to leave NATO.

The motion, which ended by noting that Jeremy Corbyn had a history of opposing “imperialism and aggressive war”, defined the Korean War as a war of aggression. It accused NATO of a predominant policy of aggression in Iraq and Afghanistan, fuelling Islamophobia and global resentment.

What they are doing is themselves fuelling grievance by giving succour to extremist narratives.

They are doing so dishonestly. Clement Attlee saw the use of force in defence of South Korea to repel an attack from its neighbour as an obligation. How can that be argued as aggressive? NATO had no role in Iraq and its role in Afghanistan was UN-mandated from 2003 - two years after the start of the war. They also omitted Kosovo that stopped the genocide of Muslims by Slobodan Milosevic’s regime. If the facts don’t fit, eh?

Try telling Eastern Europe that NATO’s existence cannot be justified

Far from renouncing NATO, its foundation should be seen as one of Labour’s finest foreign policy achievements. Attlee and his foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, were at the forefront of the talks that led to its establishment.

Its founding principles, defined in Article 5, that member states act in defence of one another - an attack on one member state is an attack on all - represent true internationalist solidarity. NATO was formed so that nations could act together to protect one another and the less strong from aggression. Written after a half century mired by war, that it has been invoked only once tells of its success.

In attacking NATO, the regressive left  - once again - finds itself in agreement with President Trump who has spent a good portion of his presidency undermining NATO and demanding payment of debts from member states. It finds itself allied with Vladimir Putin who has said he wants the organisation to fall apart.

Maybe with hindsight NATO, with its Cold Wars associations, should have been disbanded when the USSR fell. Maybe another organisation should have arisen in its place. But to argue that is not the same as to argue that it should disband now nor that one of its most important members should leave. We are where we are.

Foreign policy analysts are not given the gift of clairvoyance. To blame NATO for its expansion into Eastern Europe - or to see it as aggressive - is to forget that former Soviet satellites, as democratic nations, wanted to become members of the organisation. So try telling Eastern Europe that NATO’s existence cannot be justified. 

Is it perfect? No. But NATO is as important now as it has ever been. Leaving NATO would be a betrayal of those countries - often with large Russian minorities - for whom Article 5 provides reassurance.

Labour used to be an internationalist party 

Only in the imagination of the fevered few is NATO an assertion of American dominance (aka “imperialism”), it was and is about Western European, and North Atlantic, defence. Trump makes a good bogeyman. And it is true that he potentially is a threat to world peace. His posturing over Venezuela or North Korea has nothing to do with NATO though. He does not "stand astride" the organisation. Nor has any American: every single NATO Secretary General has been European.

Moreover, Trump is not the world’s only danger. Where in this analysis of NATO’s supposed ills is an equal condemnation first of the Soviet oppression of Eastern Europe, then of Putin’s neo-nationalist aggression in Ukraine or Georgia?

It is no coincidence that the countries most likely to be threatened with Russian nationalist aggression are those who see NATO as a protection.  

This means nothing to the armchair diplomats of Young Labour. Curiously, they have a mirror in the neoconservative movement they condemn so forthrightly. Their attempts to link NATO with CIA assassinations parallels right-wing untruths that held Saddam Hussein responsible for 9/11.

Young Labour’s motion was to support internationalism. It would be interesting to learn how they intend to do this by leaving one of the bulwarks of European defence. By osmosis?

Labour used to be an internationalist party. It used to embrace European Union membership. Not any more. Now its youth wing no longer supports NATO, a policy close to the leadership’s views if not official policy.

That is why this matters. There is a myth that somehow Corbyn represents true Labour values. This man is no social democrat. Labour has descended into a mire of trendy leftism, embracing hollow mantras - “illegal war”, “imperialism” - because it no longer has the intellectual courage to grapple with imperfect reality. Bit by bit, the party is retreating to its comfort zone.

And that sound you hear is Clem Attlee and Ernest Bevin - proper social democrats - spinning in their graves.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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