The Lammy Doctrine, A Conversation With The Shadow Foreign Secretary

The Lammy Doctrine, A Conversation With The Shadow Foreign Secretary


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The Lammy Doctrine, A Conversation With The Shadow Foreign Secretary

This interview published by our journal, Grand Continent, is also available in French, Italian and Spanish.

As a Shadow Foreign Secretary, you coined the expression Progressive Realism as a roadmap for your mandate if the Labour Party wins the upcoming elections. In a world that is less and less democratic and where the Global South deals with everyone regardless of ideologies, what does it mean to be a progressive realist?

Above all else, progressive realism means taking the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. That approach will underpin British foreign policy if Labour wins the next election. We are at a historical juncture where we require hard headed realism about Britain, the balance of power and the state of the world. But instead of using realism as a tool devoted solely to the accumulation of power, in the manner of traditional realists such as Henry Kissinger, we will put realism at the service of progressive goals, like countering climate change, defending democracy, promoting the international rule of law and accelerating towards UN Sustainable Development Goals. It is the pursuit of ideals, without delusions about what is achievable. 

I came to this world view through my heritage. My parents were from Guyana, a former British colony in the Caribbean. If I have the privilege to serve I will be the first foreign secretary to be able to trace my lineage back to Africa through the Atlantic slave triangle trade.

Like many who share my background, I have spent many years reading, thinking and travelling across the Caribbean, Africa and India, trying to grapple with this legacy and what it means for Britain and Europe. 

One cannot understand geopolitics today without an appreciation of the narratives that drive decision making in Brasilia, New Delhi, Johannesburg, Lagos and Jakarta, as well as Washington, Beijing and Brussels. It is important to emphasise that the global south wants genuine partnerships on core progressive causes like decarbonization and poverty reduction, not handouts. Progressive realism means recognising that the era of western-dictated solutions is over. But that does not mean we should replace it with a nakedly transactional approach. We need above all to recognise sovereignty of decision making. However, on the more than forty-five trips I have taken as Shadow Foreign Secretary, I found demand for more, not less, British involvement in global problem solving. For example, Guayana seeks the West’s support for their sovereignty, against Maduro’s threats and the climate crisis. Progressive Realism means finding ways of supporting both causes while avoiding the colonial mentality of past centuries. 

I often fight back against an outdated attitude towards the wider world, in my own country. In my recent travels to India to meet Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar, the transformation since my first backpacking visit as a young man, is astounding. Most Europeans have failed to appreciate how drastically the world has changed since my party last entered government in 1997. Back then Britain still administered a major Chinese city, Hong Kong, as a colony and the British economy was larger than that of India and China combined. The Chinese economy is now six times larger than Britain’s. Our world is messy, multipolar and heating up. Progressive realism means recognising this power shift and being ready to accept trade offs whilst still working to advance progressive causes in this context. 

In your Foreign Affairs piece, you wrote that “NATO will remain the foremost vehicle for European security” and that “European security will be the Labour Party’s foreign policy priority”. Can you elaborate on that? 

If Labour takes office later this year, we will face the most significant war in Europe since 1945. So, of course, enhancing Europe’s security and deterring further Russian aggression will be our highest priority. I believe that NATO remains the absolute bedrock of European security, but we must do more to complement it through European coordination and structures, and it is here that we must rediscover the spirit of innovation.

When our leader Keir Starmer asked me to be Shadow Foreign Secretary, I looked back over the careers of my predecessors. The lessons of Ernest Bevin, the towering Labour Foreign Secretary of Clement Attlee’s 1945 government resonate particularly in these dark times. Bevin, like me, was born into poverty and was the link to the global trade union movement in a way I am working to be our party’s link to the US Democrats. But he understood that the struggle against fascism and the struggle for economic rights were deeply intertwined and was a hugely popular figure with both British troops and trade union movements across the world. 

Reading my friend Andrew Adonis’s excellent Ernest Bevin: Labour’s Churchill, I felt a kindred spirit but also saw a common strategic predicament. It was Bevin who saw the existential threat that the Soviet Union posed to European democracy and focused Britain’s strategic priority squarely on our shared continent. It was Bevin who worked tirelessly to bring about the NATO alliance, whilst convincing Attlee the UK needed its own nuclear weapon. Vladimir Putin’s Russia, is such a threat to the European democracies today. And Bevin’s diagnosis of the indispensable role that NATO would play in Europe’s future security remains as true today as it was in the late 1940s. Bevin was both a progressive and a realist through his recognition that only tough deterrence would make Western Europe a safe environment in which the post-war welfare state could grow and flourish.

In the case Trump is reelected in november and decides to distance from the Alliance, how do you plan to coordinate with your NATO partners in the European Union, in particular on Ukraine?

President Trump has a particular way of communicating which focuses attention. We should heed the signal, not the noise. Every US President of my lifetime has made the argument that Europeans must spend more on their own security. This was a live conversation when I was studying as the first Black Briton to attend Harvard Law school against the backdrop of the Balkan wars. It is abundantly clear to me that Trump, like his predecessors, wants a better defended and more capable Europe. That is the core argument which underpins the rhetoric. It is worth noting that during Trump’s last presidency, US spending on European defence in fact grew, as did that of the wider alliance. I am in touch with a variety of figures close to Trump including Robert O’Brien, his former National Security Adviser and my friend Senator J.D. Vance, who both keep highlighting this issue of burden sharing as essential. 

Which American politician said this? “The current path is not sustainable. Our alliance can endure only as long as we are willing to fight for it,and invest in it. If the alliance is to remain effective, adaptable, and relevant, rebalancing NATO’s burden-sharing and capabilities is mandatory – not elective.” Those are not the words of President Trump. Those are the words of my friend President Obama’s Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel a decade ago. 

We Europeans must face the fact that US attention will inevitably tilt more towards the Indo-Pacific and away from Europe over the next decade. It was my friend Barack Obama who first launched the “Pivot to Asia” in 2009. From conversations, this remains a key to his foreign policy outlook. This American shift is a medium-term trend which will outlast today’s leaders’ period in office. It is therefore indisputable that we should coordinate more and better. To that end, Labour has proposed a wide-ranging UK – EU security pact whose central objective will be to increase our capacity and capability to help Ukraine and deter Russia.

Your proposal of negotiating attendance to the EU foreign affairs council meeting for the UK received negative reactions. How do you react to them? Could you specify what you intended?

Brexit is settled, and with a Labour government, the UK will not rejoin the single market or customs union, but within those parameters there is a great deal we can do to strengthen our cooperation as neighbours, as partners, as Europeans. 

On both sides of the channel, there is broad support for more foreign policy cooperation between the UK and the EU. Given the threats we face, I regard this as a strategic imperative. The precise mechanism through which we cooperate is less important than the fact of the cooperation itself. My suggestion was that the UK could attend meetings of the Foreign Affairs Council when there was a clear rationale for doing so, and that this could be one element of a new structured dialogue between the UK and EU. David Cameron has already been invited to attend a FAC meeting, and chose not to. American Secretaries of State have also attended the FAC on an ad-hoc basis and Ukraine attends meetings concerning it. I do not propose that the UK should necessarily attend on a standing basis, as this is obviously reserved for member states. 

There is also a strategic question for the EU here. What sort of partnership do you want with the biggest economy and the largest military power in Europe outside of the EU? My message is that a future Labour government would want to build a new geopolitical partnership between the UK and the EU, based on common interests and mutual trust. 

More generally, what form could a thorough, more formalised relationship with the Union take on foreign policy

We look forward to discussions on this issue with our European partners if we are privileged enough to win the election. However, we have made our headline ambitions clear. We are seeking a new geopolitical partnership with the EU, with an ambitious EU-UK Security Pact at its core, covering not just foreign and defence policy, but also economic security, climate security and a range of other foreign policy-adjacent issues. It is shocking that the UK and the EU have no formal dialogue mechanism covering these issues at present. That is Boris Johnson and Liz Truss’s legacy. It is worth comparing the UK to the US in this regard. The EU – US Trade and Technology Council is a ministerially chaired body which brings together a range of domestic and international economic and security issues. It is supported by ten working groups which span technology standards, green goods, secure supply chains, data governance, export controls and human rights among many other issues. It has created a framework which enables a constant hum of official cooperation between the two camps, and played an important role in designing and delivering sanctions against Russia. There is nothing like this level of institutional cooperation between the UK and the EU, or for that matter the UK and the US. Each relationship requires a bespoke arrangement and the TTC is not a template. But it is an important paradigm of what can be achieved given the political will. 

In his Sorbonne speech, Emmanuel Macron opened that door: “We must build a new paradigm, greater cooperation and concrete initiatives together. To this end, we already have frameworks and groundbreaking partnerships in place. The United Kingdom is a natural partner, a long-standing ally, and the treaties that bind us, including the Lancaster House Treaty, form a solid foundation. We must build on this. Strengthen this. Brexit has not affected this relationship. Perhaps we should even extend this foundation to other partners? The European Political Community is certainly the right place to build this new security paradigm, this additional degree of cooperation, and to construct this common security and defense framework.” Do you share his view?

It is always a pleasure to study the speeches of Emmanuel Macron on the future of our continent and his latest was no exception. One of the things I admire most about reading the President is his passionate commitment to European culture. 

I’m a passionate Francophile. We share, as countries, such a deep and intertwined past. I think back to my days as the first Black chorister at Peterborough Cathedral, where I learnt that what seemed a bastion of Englishness had taken its gothic form, under the reign of French-speaking Plantagenet Kings. But we also share, as cultures, global imprints, which I have spent decades exploring in my many journeys. My love and fascination for French writing, food, music and thinking is not just rooted in my deep love for Europe. It also comes from my Caribbean heritage and my travels in Africa. English and French are both world languages and neighbours way beyond the Channel. 

Europe is at its best when we celebrate these multiple fusions — historic and modern — and encourage the creative spirit that drives them. And that desire to innovate must apply to our politics too. Emmanuel Macron seems to me a politician who understands this. I have always admired his willingness to take risks, to set out a bold vision when so much geopolitical thinking sinks into the status quo. We share a common analysis: a strengthened Franco-British axis is an indispensable pillar of effective European defence. 

President Macron’s proposals to look at the Lancaster House agreement are particularly intriguing and I look forward to a more detailed discussion if we have the privilege to serve in government. As regards the European Political Community, the Labour party is highly enthusiastic about the format’s potential.

If elected, you intend to act so that the “British government must leave the Kremlin with no doubt that it will support Kyiv for as long as it takes to achieve victory.” How do you respond to Macron’s “not ruling out” sending troops to the ground in Ukraine?

The NATO Secretary General has been clear: there are no plans for NATO combat troops on the ground in Ukraine. I want to focus instead on the incredible successes that Ukraine has achieved. Despite its minimal navy, Ukraine broke the Russian blockade of Odesa and is now exporting substantial volumes of grain. In the air, Ukraine has shown incredible ingenuity and tactical skill in its deployment of drones. On land, while the Russians are making advances, the bravery of the Ukrainian army has been astonishing. The UK Ministry of Defence estimates that Russian casualties number over 450,000, with 10,000 armoured vehicles and an astonishing 3,000 main battle tanks also destroyed. The new US support package has now thankfully passed and Ukraine’s allies must and will stand firmly behind her. 

Having been Shadow Foreign Secretary for the entirety of the war in Ukraine, I have noted three waves of ultimately flawed analysis covering each stage of the conflict: at the outset of the invasion, an overflow of-pessimism, that Kyiv would fall in days; following Ukrainian successes in Kharkiv and Kherson there proceeded an over-optimistic hope that Russian troops would buckle. And then a return to an overly pessimistic view at present.

As part of progressive realism, you want “Ukraine, Israel, and Palestine: for each to be a sovereign, secure, and internationally recognized state” and “key goal for the Labour Party is to work with international partners to recognize Palestine as a state, as a contribution to securing a negotiated two-state solution.” How can this be achieved with the US vetoing it? 

The West needs to answer the charge that we care only for sovereignty in Ukraine and not in Palestine. This is not the case. If we are elected, a Labour government will work with like-minded countries to recognise Palestine, as part of our efforts to support a two state solution. I note that High Representative Borrell has just said several EU member states will likely recognise Palestine by the end of May and I look forward to working with him on this issue.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent rejection of a Palestinian state is morally wrong, practically wrong, and against the interests of all people, Palestinian and Israeli. It is essential that the Palestinians have a peaceful political path to the future of dignity, opportunity and self-determination that they deserve – just as Israelis must be assured they can live in safety and security and the horrors of 7th October cannot be repeated. 

Recognition is a sovereign decision of Britain, as it is for any other state. No country holds a veto over it. The United States veto only applies to Palestinian membership of the United Nations. It is worth remembering that ten member states of the European Union already recognise Palestine as a state alongside a number of others who are moving in that direction. This is not a minority position internationally: 139 out of 193 UN member states recognise Palestine as a state. Even within the United States, currents of opinion are shifting within the Democratic Party and there are many in Congress and in the administration who share my analysis that we need to demonstrate that a peaceful path forward towards de-occupation exists for Palestinians.

More generally on Gaza and the Israel-Hamas war, in which ways your position would differ from the actual British government?

Last week I flew to New York to meet the United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres where I noted some of our points of difference.

First, is our commitment to international law. We were clear that the ICJ’s provisional measures must be implemented in full and we pushed the government to change its position to accept the jurisdiction of the ICC over the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Similarly we believe there need to be stronger measures to challenge illegal settlements and settler violence in the West Bank, which are so damaging for a two state solution. It is deeply regrettable that the Conservative government has damaged Britain’s reputation for upholding international law, including in its approach to the European Union. 

Second, is our commitment to the humanitarian situation in Gaza, and supporting long term reconstruction. As I told the Secretary General, Labour would immediately restore future funding to UNRWA. Following the publication of Catherine Colonna’s report on UNRWA, which shows Israel has yet to provide any evidence to support its allegations, the EU, Canada, Australia, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Germany, France and Japan have all now made that assurance. Despite the imminent threat of famine, the UK has shamefully failed to follow suit. I also told Guterres that Labour backs calls for an independent investigation with a public report on the deaths of all humanitarian workers in this terrible conflict.

Third, I also told the Secretary General that we are more than rhetorically committed to the cause of Palestinian recognition. This is a longstanding commitment of the Labour Party and has been our party policy for a decade. Recognition cannot wait for any final status agreement — it should be part of our efforts to achieve one.

Johnson’s “Global Britain” legacy relied on a greater focus on Asia. Are you taking up this program?

Boris Johnons version of ‘Global Britain’ was the definition of post-imperial hubris. The world has had enough of empty Conservative boasting, which harks back to a lost era. Our partners in the Indo-Pacific want to see a harder-edged focus on delivery. The next Labour government is absolutely determined to deliver on AUKUS and the GCAP next generation fighter project with Italy and Japan. The UK will remain a member of the CPTPP. We have become a closer partner of ASEAN, which we support. The UK’s Carrier Strike Group will also be visiting the region next year. Europe’s security will be our number one priority but a Labour government will not deviate from its commitments in the Indo-Pacific.

There is a broader issue here, I think. There is a certain strategic immaturity that sees Europe and Asia as strategically disconnected. This is something I always push back on. Look at the numbers. Last year South Korea exported more 155m shells to Ukraine than all European countries combined. Since September North Korea has sent over 6,700 munitions containers to Russia, the equivalent of over three million 152m shells. China, through dual use supplies, has according to our sources accelerated the Russian military’s reconstitution from 5-10 years to 1-2 years. The two are inextricably linked. At a time when the authoritarian powers in Eurasia — Iran, Russia, North Korea and China — are upping cooperation we should be upping cooperation with the Indo-Pacific democracies.

On China, you favour “de-risking” over decoupling. Do you work on the scenarios in which a Trump administration decides to go all-in and enforce a tougher anti-China policy? What could be the UK’s role in that case?

When it comes to China, UK policy needs a massive injection of consistency. The British government’s approach to the country has fluctuated wildly over the past fourteen years. Lord Cameron, as Prime Minister, pursued a “Golden Era” of engagement with Beijing, which flipped to overt hostility under Prime Minister Liz Truss. We now see a form of confused ambiguity under Rishi Sunak and Lord Cameron as his Foreign Secretary. 

If we win the next election, we will pursue a tripartite strategy towards China of competing, challenging and cooperating, supported by a full audit of the bilateral relationship, which will focus in particular on addressing vulnerabilities and dependencies, as well as areas where we can work better together. We will always take a tough stance on human rights and security issues, and make clear our concerns over Hong Kong. But it is a strategic necessity that we do this while keeping channels of communication open. It is ridiculous that the UK is the country in the G7 with the least formal dialogue with China, of any sort. The US, France and Germany have all all sent multiple ministers to Beijing compared to sparse UK visits. Both US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Secretary of State Tony Blinken have been twice in the space of a year. In contrast, when former Foreign Secretary James Cleverley travelled to China last year he was the first British Foreign Secretary to have visited Beijing in five years. 

It would be a mistake to assume that Trump is the driver of a more assertive US policy towards China when in fact both Democrats and Republicans have been moving in that direction for some time. There is a continuum between President Trump and President Biden on China and Europeans would be well served to realise this. We are moving, I think, into a rougher period of superpower trade relations, whichever party wins the elections in November 2024. The core question is how far can we maintain a broad Western approach that consolidates the alliance between the US, the EU and the UK, rather than creating fractures? A Labour-led United Kingdom will always seek greater coordination between the Five Eyes states and the EU on all these key strategic questions.

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The Lammy Doctrine, A Conversation With The Shadow Foreign Secretary, May 2024,

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