Jeremy Corbyn: An Underrated Threat to NATO
The United Kingdom's two main political parties, the ruling Conservative Party and the opposition Labour Party, have been seized by isolationist doctrine in the past year. The UK's decision to leave the EU and its dangerous consequences have been extensively documented. Underrated, however, is the threat posed by Jeremy Corbyn, the far-left leader of the Labour Party, to the UK's status within the transatlantic community – namely NATO.
It was the Foreign Secretary of the post-war Labour government who signed the North Atlantic Treaty on behalf of the United Kingdom. No Labour Party leader since then has called the UK's membership of NATO into question – until Jeremy Corbyn's election in September 2015. The current Leader of the Opposition is a long-time critic of the Alliance. In a speech to the House of Commons in 1999, he argued that "at the end of the Cold War, the Warsaw pact collapsed; [and] NATO should have been collapsed too". He has consistently criticised the leaders of the most powerful NATO members for using the Alliance to circumvent inconvenient UN resolutions.
More recently, he claimed that NATO "expansionism" was at least partly responsible for Russia's annexation of Crimea. As leader of the Labour Party, he has expressed unease at the prospect of coming to the military defence of an ally, as stipulated by Article 5, and has called for a vast reduction in the number of NATO troops posted along the Baltic nations' borders with Russia.
Countless opinion polls have indicated Jeremy Corbyn's chances of becoming Prime Minister are, for all intents and purposes, nil. Nevertheless, UKIP and Brexit have shown the potential for a vocal minority movement to derail an entire country. Though hardly popular among any age segment of the electorate, he is notably less unpopular among young people. Indeed, his victory in both Labour leadership elections owed much to the support he enjoyed among the party's younger members. In his astonishing victory in the 2015 leadership election, he was backed by 65% of members aged 18 to 39, as compared to 59.5% of all members.
Although his relative popularity among this demographic hinges primarily upon his domestic policies, namely his opposition to austerity, his anti-NATO views and criticism of the West also strike a chord. Given that young people are typically depicted as the most internationally-minded age group, this may seem surprising. Less-so when one remembers that the generation in question reached political maturity as the devastating consequences of the Iraq war and the 2007-2008 financial crisis unfolded. Both of those catastrophes occurred during the watch of a centrist Labour government.
In the years following its eponym's departure, "Blairism" has become a toxic brand in the Labour Party, to the extent that Tony Blair is perceived less favourably by his own party than by the wider electorate. His enthusiasm for military intervention abroad and his close association with George W. Bush drove Labour members (especially those too young to remember 18 years of Conservative rule before his 1997 landslide victory) towards his polar opposite within the party.
It is easy, but wrong, to dismiss the Corbyn movement as simply this generation's iteration of hard-line, yet ultimately harmless, youthful leftism. His leadership is often likened to that of Michael Foot in the early 1980s, whose manifesto featured such foreign policies as unilateral nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from the EEC. Unlike Corbyn, however, Foot won the leadership as the centrist option within the party (the most likely left-wing option was Tony Benn, later one of Corbyn's closest ideological allies in parliament). He was nonetheless resoundingly rejected by the wider electorate in 1983, at a time when the country as a whole was much more left-leaning than it is today.
Comparisons to the anti-Vietnam War movement, meanwhile, are no more justifiable. Though criticised by many for its stance, the Labour government of the time was in fact supportive (publicly) of the US's war. Even had it not been, the Cold War had a unifying effect on transatlantic relations that cannot be taken as a given today.
Though unlikely, Corbyn's ideas could yet gain wider traction and make the UK's secession from NATO a genuine prospect. Alternatively (and more probably) they could continue to damage the Labour Party's polling numbers, at a time when the UK desperately needs a viable parliamentary opposition to press the case for a gentle exit from the EU. A messy departure would serve to alienate Britain's NATO allies in the EU, and cause further damage to its relationship with Washington.
In order to free the Labour Party (and British democracy) from a hostage situation at the hands of a hard-left minority, centrist politicians must heed the more legitimate concerns raised by Corbyn's movement. Mainstream politicians in other NATO countries facing similar agitations ought to do likewise. On foreign policy, this should mean expanding transatlantic relations beyond trade and military cooperation – sensitive matters for the left, towards less criticisable and controversial areas of aligned interest.
Though the election of Donald Trump in the US makes partnership difficult in the short term, the argument should be made for initiatives such as deeper European-American cooperation over climate change and greater joint action in the provision of development aid. Not only would they appease the likes of Corbyn, they would also constitute the basis for a formidable axis for good in the world.
Daniel Wraith is an editorial intern at Atlantische Initiative. Born in the UK, he grew up in France. He is currently studying for an undergraduate degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics at the University of Warwick.