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The limits of progressive realism | Comments on ‘The Case for Progressive Realism’

A member blog post by

Frances Guy

Scotland's International Development Alliance

When David Lammy’s article on progressive realism in “Foreign Affairs” came out on April 17 many people in the UK will have read some of the extracts in the British press but if you have time, it is worth looking at the original article in full and considering what it might mean for Labour’s future foreign policy direction. 

First, is the choice of publication; Foreign Affairs is an American journal aimed principally at an educated American audience. It is prestigious and has an international readership but the choice is clear; Lammy is not speaking to British electors or European colleagues. For that reason, there is much in the article about China and in defence of pragmatic choices in diplomacy. 

 We can take some solace in the clear emphasis on tackling climate change and the importance of recognising that fairness needs to be part of the global climate bargain as well as the clear call to stop all new licences for oil and gas exploitation. But note the use of the word fairness, not justice. Little here about poorest communities suffering from the profligate industrialised world. I fear a focus on fairness opens a path for populists to focus on our current contribution to carbon emissions rather than our historical legacy.

Indeed, Lammy talks about being honest about the past but does not address where that honesty might lead to.   He mentions that Britain should once again become a leader on development but stresses that a new relationship with the Global South must be based on trade and not only ‘aid’, yet fails to mention the injustices inherent in the current system of global trade. If he becomes foreign secretary in a future government there is clearly a space for some early learning about fair trade principles and the dangers of exploitative supply chains.

Lammy uses the legacy of Robin Cook to illustrate his point that limits of idealism do not mean that it has no place in foreign policy. I would put it to our shadow Foreign Secretary that human rights are still (just) part of the global order that Britain is doing so much to undermine and that asking for political leadership to uphold these core values is not idealist but fundamentally pragmatist. Without rights and justice our world will not be worth living in for people or planet.

Lammy claims that Labour has stood by its progressive principles when taking a stance on Hamas actions and Israel’s response. At no point does he mention the need for humanity. Calls for a ceasefire are not idealist; they are a recognition of the need to end suffering.

Hopefully there is still time to influence our potential future leaders, but clearly there is some work to do!

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