Skip to main content
KBS_Icon_questionmark link-ico

Keir Starmer's foreign policy dilemmas

Tim Willasey-Willsey

Visiting Professor at King’s College London and a former senior British diplomat

31 May 2024

Professor Tim Willasey-Wilsey explores the foreign policy challenges and dilemmas faced by Keir Starmer and the Labour Party in the UK. He discusses the balance between realism and progressive ideals within Labour's foreign policy framework, as well as the potential issues they may face if they come into power, including relations with countries such as the US, China, and Russia.

It was reassuring to see John Healey and David Lammy sharing a platform at last week’s London Defence Conference 2024 at King's College London. Labour’s shadow Defence and Foreign Secretaries spoke from the same hymn sheet as they espoused Lammy’s doctrine of “progressive realism”. One sensed that Healey was more on the realism side of the equation and that Lammy’s progressiveness is currently being held in check by the firm control of Keir Starmer and Sue Grey at party headquarters. That was certainly the suggestion behind Dominic Lawson’s testy piece in the Sunday Times three days earlier.

Lawson’s text was mild compared to Ben Wallace’s article in the Daily Telegraph on the eve of the conference. Entitled ‘Foreign Office HQ is where British interests go to die’ the attack by the recent Defence Secretary on the FCDO was truly brutal. One could detect more than a hint of score-settling in particular in the criticism of Simon MacDonald (the former top civil servant in the department) whose testimony had inflicted damage on Wallace’s friend and political mentor Boris Johnson.

However, beneath the invective there were shreds of truth. The FCDO and the Ministry of Defence have been on divergent courses for many years. Wallace cites the examples of Sudan, Afghanistan and Ukraine in identifying FCDO’s alleged feebleness. The best recent example of the FCDO forgetting its true role was when Iran demanded full repayment for tanks which the Shah had ordered from Britain but which had never been delivered. The FCDO eventually facilitated the payment of £393.8 million to Iran in 2022 and obtained the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratliffe and two other detainees. Officially the payment and the releases were not linked because refusing to pay for the release of hostages has been a long-term hallmark of British foreign policy.

The payment was made partly because Ben Wallace (perhaps forgetting his role) approved it whereas his two predecessors at Defence, Gavin Williamson and Michael Fallon, had opposed a measure that risked providing succour to a dangerous enemy. It was The Guardian that broke the story of the MoD’s opposition to a deal that would “end up in the hands of Iranian forces determined to pursue what they see as a malign military agenda in Yemen, Syria and Lebanon.”

Putting to one side Wallace’s motives and the legal aspects (and trying to forget the mayhem which Iran has created in the Middle East since then) the important point is that it is the FCDO which should worry about the wider foreign policy and regional implications of paying Iran nearly £400 million, Instead the FCDO was concerned about the consular aspects and left the geopolitical issues to the MoD.

The integration of the former Department for International Development (DfID) into the erstwhile FCO has exacerbated a split which has led to the MoD focussing on geopolitics and hard power and the FCDO seeing itself as the soft power department dealing with climate change, human rights, poverty alleviation, female education, modern slavery, consular affairs, and migration. All these are important issues but so is the task of resisting Russian and Chinese global aggression and the malign roles of Iran and North Korea. George Bush junior’s once illusory Axis of Evil has now become a reality.

The danger with the Healey/Lammy succession is that both men fit too cosily into the two existing but divergent roles. Healey the realist will continue Wallace’s impressive legacy in Ukraine whereas Lammy, despite his outreach to Donald Trump, may naturally gravitate towards progressive issues.

However, events are unlikely to be so cooperative. If the Russian advance in Ukraine continues and if Donald Trump is elected again as US president (as seems increasingly likely) Ukraine will need heavyweight foreign policy input beyond what the MoD can provide. Britain should have a major voice in any decision whether support could continue to Ukraine without the US. On the other hand, if a path of negotiation were chosen, then serious diplomatic muscle, would be needed to ensure that Ukraine’s and Europe’s security are not compromised.

If China were to move against Taiwan (as is quite possible) during Labour’s first term the response cannot be left to the MoD (which is unlikely to have any assets in the region to contribute). The FCDO response would need to be prompt and clear influenced but not dictated by the US reaction.

Of the post-war foreign secretaries Ernest Bevin could do heavyweight diplomacy but few since him have had the aptitude or the backing from No 10 Downing Street. Two prime ministers, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, became ‘heavy hitters’ in the foreign policy domain but Keir Starmer has hitherto demonstrated little interest in the subject.

Labour and Lammy are unlucky that their probable election to government comes at a time of a rightward shift in global politics. None of Trump, Le Pen, Erdogan, Meloni, Orban, Modi, Netanyahu, Xi, Putin and many others are naturally to their liking. Events created by such people are likely to require firm responses at a time when the UK is short of hard power tools. Whichever way you look at the problem it is important that the Healey/Lammy relationship remains close. There is also the option of David Miliband playing a role following the perceived success of David Cameron’s short spell of running the FCDO from the House of Lords. However, the probability is that Sir Keir Starmer will be more involved in foreign policy and sooner than he expects.

In this story

Tim Willasey-Wilsey

Tim Willasey-Wilsey

Visiting Professor

Latest news