The Council on Geostrategy’s online magazine

About | Contributors | Submissions

What should a ‘progressive realist’ foreign and defence policy look like?

The United Kingdom’s (UK) 2024 General Election will take place on 4th July after being called last Wednesday. It is widely believed that Labour will emerge victorious, opening up questions about the direction of Britain’s international engagement. David Lammy, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, has laid out a vision in Foreign Affairs for a British foreign and defence policy grounded in ‘progressive realism. What should this look like? We asked five experts in today’s Big Ask.

Evie Aspinall, British Foreign Policy Group

First and foremost, a progressive realist approach should be honest about the UK’s position in the world – we are not a global superpower, we are a mid-sized power with an outsized influence based on a legacy that many in Labour will be uncomfortable with. A progressive realist policy should therefore seek to act collaboratively, engaging with allies and partners both new and old, championing local partners and advocating for reform of the multilateral system to reflect the changing world Britain is operating in.

Where the UK does choose to lead, it should do so authentically, in areas where it has genuine capabilities. The UK’s education, legal, and financial industries, for example, are real sources of strength, respected around the world. They provide clear opportunities for both trade and investment and for creating a more holistic international development offer, and progressive realism should look to embed these as a core part of the UK’s international activities.

Finally, progressive realism needs to be clear and consistent. From the outset, a potential new government must make clear what, in practical terms, the UK’s values and priorities under progressive realism are and it must stick to them. This applies as much to how it behaves domestically as it does internationally, ensuring that the UK can make an authentic claim to the values it seeks to promote and defend in the world. The ultimate goal for progressive realism therefore should be to make the UK a more consistent, reliable and authentic actor and partner on the global stage.

Ed Owen, former Labour government advisor on foreign affairs, 2001 to 2005

If elected, a new government under Keir Starmer will face the most unstable and dangerous international challenges since those that confronted Clement Attlee in 1945.

As then, Labour will need to match ideals with a hard-headed realism to promote Britain’s values and interests. The world is in a very messy place, and the UK will need to maximise its influence to make an impact on global issues such as security, trade, climate change and human rights.

Fundamental to this will be to rebuild key relationships damaged in recent years, not least with Europe. A closer, more effective relationship with the EU will be vital, not least for Labour to deliver on its domestic policies on growth, illegal migration and national security.

The UK needs to recommit to multilateral action and institutions too, and championing reform within the UN, IMF and World Bank. Our reputation across the world, particularly in the ‘Global South’, has suffered. It will require a determined diplomatic and development focus to restore it. 

Labour must also ramp up investment in defence as part of a wider commitment to European and transatlantic security. The war against Ukraine is an existential threat to the democratic world and Starmer must recommit the UK to defending Kyiv’s interests as a means of protecting our own.

Just days after the election, Starmer is likely to be in the US for the first time since becoming Labour leader in 2020 as prime minister. The NATO summit in Washington DC provides him with a perfect opportunity to demonstrate his commitment to the most successful defence alliance in history – and to the UK’s enduring and essential relationship with America, whoever is in the White House.

Given that it a Labour Government that helped create NATO in 1949, it is perhaps fitting that the organisation will provide Starmer with his first international platform to set out how he will engage with the wider world.

James Rogers, Council on Geostrategy

In his article on progressive realism, Lammy hailed Ernest Bevin and Robin Cook as Labour’s two most inspirational foreign secretaries. Of the two, Bevin was by far the most transformative. He could even be seen as the original ‘progressive realist’: progressive because he had the ambition to achieve broad geopolitical ends; realist because he understood the importance of national power to realising his aims. Above all, Bevin was a patriot who knew what his country could achieve if its power was harnessed for the greater good.

In no small way, Bevin made modern Europe. He transformed British geostrategy; ‘offshore balancing’ gave way to a permanent continental commitment backed by the development of a British atomic bomb. His objective was to create a new centre of gravity to draw the Americans and Canadians in. Ultimately, he sought to combine the military and industrial power of the British Isles and North America through an alliance system – NATO – to smother European geopolitics for good.

The next British government could learn much from Bevin’s example. As Bevin faced Stalin, the next British government will face Putin. A new phase of progressive realism should seek to align Britain’s allies and partners behind a Russian defeat in Ukraine. This will mandate innovative, even disruptive, international leadership. It will require more resources, both diplomatic and military. And it will demand a more confident and assertive Britain, ruthless in pursuit of its ends.

Gary Kent, Progressive Britain

If Labour wins the upcoming general election, there will be substantial foreign and defence policy continuity on Ukraine, the Middle East, and the transatlantic alliance, but specific priorities depend on the initial 100 day ‘sprint review’ of threats and the Strategic Defence and Security Review.

However, Labour can strike a new tone at the NATO meeting in Washington marking its 75th anniversary and the European Political Community summit in Oxfordshire, both in July. The message could centre around reconnecting to the world so that the UK is viewed as more confident and reliable.

Europe should be at the heart of Britain’s external policy. Brexit preceded war-driven protectionism and reindustrialisation by continental blocs, which make a solo voyage much harder.

Labour could dramatically demonstrate its wish to fill the Europe-sized policy hole. Breaking with the Conservatives’ splendid isolation could trigger a grand bespoke bargain with the EU which uses defence, intelligence, and energy policy as powerful cards.

Geopolitics is becoming riskier given aggression and the spread of disinformation by hostile and linked autocracies. Labour should deploy the UK’s diplomatic heft to analyse and explain world events. A new government may be tested early on.

Labour’s doctrine of progressive realism is ‘the pursuit of ideals without delusions about what is achievable’. But the balance needs constant negotiation in a hard-headed manner with partners.

Labour can use the UK’s soft and hard power, without nostalgic illusions, to develop alliances and partnerships which defend democracy, marginalise autocracy, and advance social justice as well as national interests. This will take Labour closer to achieving the sort of lasting differences for economic and national security it did at home and abroad after 1945, 1964, and 1997.

Gray Sergeant, Council on Geostrategy

‘Progressive realism’ promises the hard-headed pursuit of progressive ends. In his Foreign Affairs piece, Lammy includes defending democracy as one of these ‘just goals’ and praises Robin Cook’s mainstreaming of human rights into British foreign policy.

The PRC threatens these ideals. The fulfilment of Chinese nationalist aspirations would see one of Asia’s most successful democracies, Taiwan, crushed. While, right now, Beijing aids Russia’s attempt to annex Ukraine. The PRC also seeks to reshape global human rights norms and institutions in their authoritarian image whilst their approach to development undermines efforts to improve social and environmental standards and combat corruption.

Given the regressive effects of the PRC’s growing influence and assertiveness, a future Labour government should continue to view the PRC as an ‘epoch-defining and systemic challenge’. Accordingly, a strategy to prevent Beijing reshaping the international order should be the central goal emerging from Labour’s promised China audit.

Likewise, if Labour takes power, a new government should continue efforts to expand the UK’s involvement in the Indo-Pacific, given the region is the frontline of geopolitical, order-defining competition with the PRC.

Lammy clearly recognises all the above. In Foreign Affairs, he stated that AUKUS is ‘a floor, not a ceiling’, of Britain’s involvement in the Indo-Pacific, and has proposed deepening security partnerships in the region (sentiments hopefully shared by his counterparts in the Shadow Defence team, who have only recently warmed to the idea of the ‘tilt’). While on the PRC, the challenge and competing strands of Lammy’s ‘three Cs’ approach seem to fit the ‘progressive realist’ framework.

Then again, only two weeks ago the Shadow Foreign Secretary also spoke of the Foreign Office’s role being ‘above all else, delivering growth and jobs’.

Join our mailing list!

Stay informed about the latest articles from Britain’s World

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *