Jeremy Corbyn’s Foreign Policy: A Curious Case of Realpolitik?

If there is one thing that can be said about Jeremy Corbyn’s time in politics it is that he sticks to his principles, often regardless of the consequences. Admittedly the 2017 Labour manifesto misses out a few of his core beliefs, but this was a manifesto assembled in a hurry, the Corbynite wing forced to pick its battles in the composition of the document. Nevertheless, Corbyn has been, and will probably continue to be, an ideological purist. This is especially the case regarding his foreign policy, his main area of interest. Curiously, however, the effect of his views and principles would be an incongruous blend of anti-Western and anti-imperial stances with basic realpolitik.

There was some uproar surrounding Corbyn’s recent comments following the attack in Manchester. In a speech, Corbyn suggested a connection between Britain’s foreign policy and acts of terrorism. Despite the uproar, he was at least partly correct in the connection he outlined. Where the distinction must be made, is between identifying British foreign policy as acting as a catalyst or as an inspiration for terrorism. Make no mistake, the historic position on the left is to do both; it is British foreign policy – the bombing, the drone strikes, the assassinations, the invasions – that inspires such hatred in the minds of Salman Abedi et al. As well as this, so the argument goes, British foreign policy creates vacuums where terrorist activity can prosper and thrive, professionalising to the point where terrorists have the necessary resources and knowhow to attempt serious and highly organised operations.

In reality, accusing British foreign policy of inspiring terrorism is nonsense. ISIS makes clear in issues of Dabiq (its glossy and polished propaganda magazine) that foreign policy is a secondary issue, claiming “what’s important to understand here is that although some might argue that your foreign policies are the extent of what drives our hatred, this particular reason for hating you is secondary”. The root cause of their hatred is Western values. But where Corbyn’s comments hold some legitimacy is in his assertion that Western wars in the Middle East have created vacuums in which terrorist activity can thrive – most notably in Iraq. Yet even here, it’s worth noting, the link is flimsy at best; Afghanistan was a breeding ground for terrorists long before the invasion in 2001, while Syria has disintegrated into cesspit of terrorism without any help whatsoever from the West with military activity only beginning after the creation of the caliphate.

where Corbyn’s comments hold some legitimacy is in his assertion that Western wars in the Middle East have created vacuums in which terrorist activity can thrive

Corbyn’s position on Western military activity ultimately stems from one of his absolute core principles: a complete, unswerving, and unconditional opposition to any form of military intervention by Western countries. Prior to his election as Labour leader he was chairman of the Stop the War coalition, an extremist far-left group known for its ties with the Syrian and Russian regimes, and for its vehement opposition to Western military action. With there being at least a modicum of a possibility of Corbyn entering Number 10 Downing Street, it must be asked, what will be the effect of his positions on British foreign policy?

Realpolitik, the belief that foreign policy should be guided by pragmatism, rather than lofty morals or principles, has long been a defining characteristic of Western foreign policy. During the Cold War, the West allied with numerous unsavoury regimes provided they shared in the West’s anti-Communism. With Corbyn, despite his absolute commitment to his ideals, realpolitik will paradoxically be the inevitable effect of these principles. For Corbyn to oppose interventions – in Iraq, Syria, Kosovo, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Libya and elsewhere – he must prefer the alternative – to work with nasty, despotic, tyrannical regimes. It is always possible to make a select number of countries into pariah states, with North Korea being an example, but there are simply too many nations in important geographical locations, or with significant hard or soft power, or economic resources but with morally questionable regimes to isolate unsavoury regimes across the board. Of course for Corbyn this is less of a problem than for other leaders; during his political career he has been close to, or at the very least fond of, a series of ruthless dictators or autocratic leaders. Such despicable figures as Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro have been fawned over by Corbyn, who has also been happy to go on visits to Assad’s Syria and to take money from Iranian television. Nevertheless, with his complete opposition to any form of military intervention, the fact remains that Corbyn, if he is also the internationalist that he proclaims himself to be, will be forced to engage in the practice of realpolitik – negotiating, associating, and cooperating with regimes that he dislikes.

For Corbyn to oppose interventions he must prefer the alternative – to work with nasty, despotic, tyrannical regimes

The neoconservatives are one of the most maligned ideological categories in the Western world, at least for those on the left. And yet it is neoconservatives who were the idealists. Believing they could reshape the world according to Western values they sanctioned, supported and initiated naïve and ill-considered military interventions in places with regimes simply considered too unpalatable to ignore or cooperate with. Corbyn is right that Western intervention can create vacuums which act as breeding grounds for terrorists. But the alternative is realpolitik: working with regimes that supposedly clash with Corbyn’s dearly held values and beliefs. In an election where foreign policy has been largely absent from the political discourse, it is foreign policy where one of the greatest gulfs between the parties exists.