The future of the left since 1884

Foreign policy in Trump’s world

On Saturday, shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry MP addressed the Scottish Fabians on foreign policy in Trump’s world.



“Thank you to the Scottish Fabians for inviting me to be here today.

Thank you as well for having the foresight, and dare I say it the humanity, to arrange this session for the afternoon rather than the morning, given I spent last night at the Edinburgh South burns night supper, from which I am just about starting to recover.

I must just make a serious observation though, because it’s relevant to our discussion today. Amid all the good fun and joking last night when I was going round the tables meeting all the members, and when I was at the university earlier, I lost count of the number of people who said to me: ‘Emily, we’ve got to do something about the Rohingya’. Or Yemen, or Syria, or any number of other issues. And above all, when people talked about Donald Trump, it wasn’t just contempt that people felt, it was also a genuine concern and fear at what he’s capable of.

And of course, we’re used to hearing that phrase: ‘There are no votes in foreign policy’, which goes alongside that other American phrase: ‘All politics is local’. But to my mind, when I think about last night, I’m not sure those old adages are true anymore. Because the ‘all politics is local’ mantra thrived on the fact that, for many people, it has traditionally been the local paper and radio station that were their main and most trusted source of news.

But nowadays I think the personal connections that people feel towards local media are also felt towards the news and opinions shared with them by their friends on social media. And on those channels, what is happening in Myanmar or Yemen can inspire almost as much passion, commitment and fury from people as what’s happening at their local A&E.

It’s a cliché, but it’s true, the world becomes smaller everyday and we are becoming more and more interconnected. So I think there are votes in foreign policy, and one thing is for sure: as I’ll discuss today, there is certainly a major difference between the two main parties when it comes to foreign policy, and our approach to Trump.

But let me say first what a pleasure it’s been to spend the weekend in Edinburgh after another long and arduous few days in Westminster. Believe me, shadowing Boris Johnson is a busy enough job when he is just focusing on being foreign secretary, but when he also starts doubling up as chancellor, health secretary and deep-sea bridge architect all in the same week, it can get pretty tiring. On the train up here, I half expected to see him coming up the carriage wheeling the drinks trolley.

But Boris did have one clear foreign policy message this week: that we are all misguided in relation to Donald Trump; that our relationship with him is vital for our place in the world; and we should welcome him here to Britain this year. Well, as with so much else Boris says, I beg to differ. And it is very timely to have this session here today, so I can explain why I believe that the government’s strategy towards Trump is so misguided; that we need to develop a foreign policy independent of America’s; that there is actually a great opportunity for Britain if we do so; and finally, that the Scottish Fabians have an important role to play.

And let me start by acknowledging an inauspicious anniversary. Because it was a year ago today that Theresa May visited the White House, walked hand-in-hand with Donald Trump, invited him to make a state visit to Britain, and stood at a press conference with him, talking about their good relationship and everything they had in common.

But what turned that episode from simply nauseating into downright unacceptable was what happened a couple of hours after she left when Donald Trump signed his executive order banning Muslims from six countries from entering America.

And I said at the time, I didn’t know what was worse. Did Donald Trump think so little of Theresa May that he didn’t bother to tell her what he was about to do? Or did he tell her, and she didn’t raise any objections in response? Of course, we soon found out it was the latter. And indeed, it took No.10 a full 48 hours to issue a statement objecting to Trump’s decision, only once the impact on British dual-nationals became clear.

But what happened that day set a pattern for how this government has engaged with, and responded to Donald Trump. On every crucial decision, there is no public pressure, no advance warnings, only the diplomatic equivalent of hand-holding. And time and again, they are ignored and made to look like fools.

After the Muslim travel ban, we had the Paris climate change agreement, the needless escalation of tension with North Korea, the Iran nuclear deal, and the Israeli Embassy decision – none of them a bolt from the blue, all fully-trailed during his election campaign – but none of which this government’s softly-softly approach has been able to influence.

And what follows after these decisions? No public condemnation from No.10. No political consequences. The state visit remains on offer. They claim the special relationship is as strong as ever, and the mythical future Trade Deal remains their priority.

Which is how we reach the stage where Donald Trump can describe the entire continent of Africa – Including nineteen of our Commonwealth cousins – as ‘shitholes’ – and there is not a peep of protest from the government. Instead, they continue to insist that The Queen – the head of that Commonwealth – must welcome him into her home.

And one year on from that day at the White House, we see Theresa May once again, side-byside with Donald Trump in Davos, as he tells the world how close they are, and says they’re on ‘exactly the same wavelength in every respect.’ I mean you’ve got to say, if Donald Trump thinks he’s on the same wavelength with Theresa in any respect, she should be pretty worried. But every respect? I think the whole country should be worried.

But it is all part of that same pattern I described, one this government seems unable to break out of, where they hope if they just keep appeasing the President, he will eventually come around to their way of thinking, and if we just give it long enough, the old certainties that we have come to expect from American foreign policy will somehow re-assert themselves.

But the fact is – as long as Trump is in charge – they will not. Those certainties, that America was a reliable ally on climate change, that they would behave with sensitivity in the Middle East, that they would not launch a nuclear first strike, that they would stick to international treaties, and at least try and work through the UN on matters of peace and war, all those certainties are now out of the window.

We can no longer frame our own approach around them, and are instead reduced to guesswork and scenario-planning. Even America’s support for NATO and their willingness to stand up to Russia now ebbs and flows with Donald Trump’s moods.

And it is not just the removal of old certainties that is so testing, it is also the creation of huge new uncertainties. When Trump says he is looking at military options in Venezuela, is he serious? We have genuinely no idea. When he says America will maintain an open-ended presence on the Syrian border with Turkey, and train 30,000 Kurdish fighters to work alongside US troops, effectively setting up a new mini-state in the Middle East, does he know what he’s doing? Is this just a negotiating tactic? What is the idea?

I think there are parts of the government and the media, that believe this is all a deliberate and cunning tactic that Trump regards his very unpredictability as the best way to keep America’s enemies at bay. If that is the theory, there’s absolutely no evidence it’s working, it doesn’t square with the absence of strategy in any other aspect of Trump’s administration, and most importantly, even if it is a deliberate tactic, it would seem rather a reckless and unstatesmanlike way for the supposed leader of the free world to behave.

The truth is this uncertainty and unpredictability on foreign policy is just another manifestation of the rolling chaos that we’ve seen from the White House over the last year. Which makes it all the more inexplicable that our own government is prepared to follow him so blindly and slavishly wherever he decides to lead, rather than forging our own foreign policy independent of the whims of the White House, and having the gumption, even just once, to tell him publicly that he is foolish and reckless, and carve a different path without him.

And let me give you one very topical example, where I have urged the government to do exactly that. For almost 70 years, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA for short, has been helping millions of Palestinians and their descendants spread across Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, who have been displaced from their original homes over the years as a result of conflict, Israeli bulldozers, and other factors.

UNRWA’s budget last year was $760m. To put that into perspective, you could fund their work for the next 220 years with the cost of one ‘Boris Bridge’ across the channel. And it would be a far better use of money if we did. Because thanks to UNRWA, 500,000 Palestinian children receive schooling every day, and millions more receive healthcare.

But this month, Donald Trump cut their funding by $65m. Because, and I reluctantly quote his Tweet: “We pay the Palestinians MILLIONS, and get no appreciation or respect.” Indeed, he went further in Davos this week. He said the money had been cut as a direct result of the Palestinian authorities’ refusal to meet Mike Pence in the wake of the Trump Administration’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

And he actually said that the money was now ‘on the table’ as a negotiating chip to force the Palestinians to accept the US peace plan. So young children will be denied education and medicine, until the Palestinian authorities start showing Donald some ‘appreciation or respect’, and bend the knee over peace talks. If it wasn’t so cruel, it would be laughable.

Now my information is that the loss of that money could trigger a dangerous domino effect for UNRWA. Given that most of their costs are local staff salaries, cuts mean severance payments, severance payments mean further cuts, and the vicious circle goes on. UNRWA could face a Catch-22, where it cannot afford to maintain its services, but risks bankruptcy if it cuts them: a devastating scenario for Palestinian families and a humanitarian crisis in the making, entirely caused by the egomania of the American President.

And I’ve made clear to the UK government: firstly, they should act unilaterally to help plug that funding gap on a temporary basis, but also recognise we need a long term and multilateral solution to the shortfall, by initiating a special global funding conference, such as that held in response to humanitarian emergencies, the difference in this case being that we must not wait for the emergency to strike before acting.

But here’s the problem for the current government. If they do that, their friend Donald will say: ‘What are you doing? I’m punishing them, and you’re letting them off the hook. I’m trying to blackmail them into accepting my peace plan, and you’re removing my leverage.’ And they know that, which is why instead of trying to lead international efforts to resolve the UNRWA crisis, they’re sitting on their hands doing nothing.

And to my mind, that kind of passivity is not only the wrong approach, it is also the waste of a massive opportunity for Britain to step into the global leadership void that Donald Trump’s America has left. And let me now explain what I mean by that.

This month, Gallup revealed that global approval of America’s leadership has fallen by 18 percentage points in the last year alone, to just 30 per cent, the lowest level in the history of the survey. Below Germany and China, and only just ahead of Russia. Indeed, global disapproval of American leadership was the worst of any of those four countries. Imagine that, more of the world disapproving of Donald Trump’s leadership than Vladimir Putin’s.

And ironically, one of the few bright spots for Trump in that survey was Africa, where his approval ratings in most countries were pretty good. This survey was however conducted before he described the entire continent as a ‘shithole’, so we’ll see if that holds.

But my point is that survey provides clear evidence that, since Trump came to office, this massive void has opened up in global leadership, waiting to be filled by a country like ours.

If we are prepared to take the lead internationally on issues like conflict resolution and climate change, human rights, and the refugee crisis. If we are prepared not just to wring our hands about the suffering of the Rohingya Muslims, or the people of Yemen and Syria, or Palestinian refugees and Libyan migrants, but actually take the global lead on ending that suffering. And if we are prepared to stand up to Donald Trump, and tell him clearly that he is not just wrong when it comes to UN funding cuts, the Paris Treaty, the Iran nuclear deal, North Korea, Palestine, and so much else, but simply unfit to lead.

Yet instead of grasping that nettle, this government simply bumbles on, leaving me in absolutely no doubt that the only way we are going to get that decisive change is by electing a Labour government that will put human rights, conflict resolution and social justice back at the heart of our foreign policy, that will be unafraid to stand up to Donald Trump, and will seize the opportunity for global leadership that his presidency has offered us.

And that brings me on to the last thing I wanted to talk about on today’s theme, which is the contribution that the Scottish Fabians and Scotland generally must make and will make to shaping British foreign policy under a Labour government.

Now some people might ask why Scotland has got that kind of special contribution to make. After all, we don’t talk about London’s special contribution to foreign policy, or the Midlands or the North East, or for that matter, Wales or Northern Ireland. But to my mind, doing so with regard to Scotland feels both appropriate and essential.

And that is – I believe – for two main reasons: the first is very prosaic, which is that – as a nondevolved issue – it is important that the Scottish government, and Scottish groups like the Fabians, are properly consulted on matters of foreign policy and properly listened to in Westminster, and you will be under a Labour government.

But the second reason is more abstract, which is the notion that there is something distinctive that Scottish thinking and Scottish values bring to the development of foreign policy that Britain as a whole always benefits from.

I think that is partly down to the internationalism that has always been at the heart of Scottish history, in everything from the military alliances of the Middle Ages to the surge in trade in the eighteenth century, and the need for Inward Migration over the past century. It is an internationalism borne of geographical, political and economic necessity, which has inspired so many great Scottish minds to develop their political ideas and philosophy with the rest of the world in mind, not just their own backyard.

I think it is also partly down to the real kinship that the people of Scotland have with other nationalities all around the world. Most obviously because of the large Scottish communities in every corner of the English-speaking world, with whom there is direct kinship, and as Scotland itself has becomes the home of thriving diaspora communities from other countries around the world, both historically, from Ireland and South Asia, and more recently, from Poland, Nigeria and elsewhere.

But it’s more than kinship, it’s best described by a word which has become quite unfashionable in recent years – solidarity. We see that in the passion which the people of Scotland bring to supporting the rights of oppressed minorities, embattled nations, and peoples facing severe hardship all around the world. And I’m sure none of us need a history lesson to understand why that kind of solidarity is ingrained in the Scottish psyche.

And finally, I think it is in part down to the fact, that ever since the Scottish enlightenment, all great political thinking in Scotland has been imbued with a moral, ethical and philosophical dimension about the kind of world we aspire to live in, and the values and principles that underpin our actions, which I believe is vital for our foreign policy development, and which is all too often missing from the kind of realpolitik approach to foreign policy where the only values are financial, and the only principle is to take America’s side.

So those three factors: a devoted internationalism; an unshakeable belief in global justice; and a moral framework for decision-making are why I believe that, especially in a Trump world, the Scottish contribution to British foreign policy remains so influential and so integral.

And I do not think it is any coincidence that the greatest foreign secretary of my lifetime, Robin Cook, and the greatest chancellor of my lifetime, Gordon Brown, both proud sons of Edinburgh University brought all those values to bear in their work: Robin in introducing the ethical dimension into UK foreign policy, so – for a while – we actually thought about who we were selling arms to and what they were doing with them, not just how much trade it would bring; and Gordon in transforming the role of chancellor so that it was just as much about saving lives overseas, as about managing the economy here at home.

Gordon and Robin did not always see eye to eye, but when it came to foreign policy beyond Europe, they were very rarely at odds. And indeed it was in part their shared horror at the aftermath of the Iraq War that enabled them to set aside their historic feud and become close friends in the years before Robin’s tragic death.

Their Scottish blood may not be running through my veins or Jeremy Corbyn’s, but their values are, and I believe it is time to put those Scottish values firmly back at the heart of our foreign policy. That is the way to carve a different path from America’s over the next three, or God forbid, eight years; that is the way we can seize the opportunity and deal with the crises which Trump’s presidency has presented; and that must be one of the defining missions and great success stories of the next Labour government.

Thank you.”

The full text of Emily’s speech first appeared on the Scottish Fabian website. 


Emily Thornberry MP

Emily Thornberry is the Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury and Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade


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