LONDON — British Prime Minister Theresa May barely survived Thursday’s election. The political damage is such that fewer and fewer observers believe she will be able to serve out her full term. Politically, it looks like Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn was the big winner, as his party surprised the pollsters and pundits (again) by gaining some 30 seats in parliament rather than losing that many or more, as was expected when the election campaign began.
With May now leading a less than stable minority government, and Corbyn energized and lionized by his unexpected success across the country, it is time to take seriously the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn—an old-school socialist who opposes NATO’s very existence as a provocation to Russia and regards U.S. foreign policy as a tool of corporate America—becoming prime minister of the UK. It could happen if May is unable to keep things together over the coming months—which also means examining the dynamic of a Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn duo taking over that most celebrated of international pairings, the U.S. UK “special relationship.”
One sure consequence of a Prime Minister Corbyn is that the White House would have to consider France, not the UK, as the strongest and most reliable U.S. ally in a crisis. Not only did the French election bring the West a leader who espouses values like tolerance, integration and the rule of law, but France’s President Emmanuel Macron is clear-eyed enough to recognize the danger Russia’s territorial aggression, relentless hacking and election sabotage pose to Europe and the world.
By contrast, Corbyn has argued that the West is to blame for Russia’s behavior. According to Corbyn, it was NATO’s decision not to disband after the fall of communism in 1989 and then its eastward expansion that provoked the Kremlin. And therefore, the invasion of Crimea was an understandable Russian response to these and other mistakes made by NATO.
Unfortunately, then for Trump, a long-time anglophile who has talked with such delight about plans for a presidential sleep-over at Buckingham Palace later this year, U.S. security interests will require Washington to shun the Corbyn-led British in a crisis and adopt a new policy of “France first.” Freedom fries, anyone?
Meanwhile, one can only imagine what the Kremlin would think about a Prime Minister Corbyn. The damage already done to NATO’s credibility and deterrence by Trump’s reluctance to reaffirm the core collective security commitment in the NATO Treaty, Article V, is bad enough. But the damage to NATO’s solidarity and cohesion posed by Corbyn leading Britain is beyond Moscow’s imaginings. Russia has been working to drive wedges between key members of the trans-Atlantic alliance since the height of the Cold War.
In Corbyn, Russia would have the ultimate “useful idiot” – a leader of a top NATO government who genuinely believes the alliance should not exist, who blames NATO for tensions with Russia, and who has said he would never follow NATO’s strategy of nuclear deterrence. Kremlin operatives would probably feel like they hit the “power ball” jackpot in a geopolitical lottery.
Labour’s more sensible officials have done their best to moderate or mask Corbyn’s underlying attitudes in order to make him more electable. The Labour manifesto on international affairs, for example, is vague in the extreme, consisting mostly of a series of security questions a Labour government would address. But Corbyn has been a public opponent of British and American foreign policy for some 25 years, and so his record and his views are impossible to hide.
Americans have almost no experience with political leaders from the far left, like Corbyn, who have made a career of attacking U.S. foreign policies time and again. The best analogy for Corbyn would be to those U.S. opponents of the Vietnam War who traveled to Hanoi to denounce their own country. In such a setting, Corbyn would probably be comfortable manning the proverbial anti-aircraft gun. Over the years, whether talking about Hamas, Hezbollah, North Korean dictators, or virulent anti-Semitic opponents of Israel, he has always found a way to be supportive of America’s enemies and critical of American policies.
Having debated Corbyn on and off over the last 20 years, I have no doubt that his condemnation of U.S. policy is heartfelt. The problem is that somehow for Corbyn, America is almost always in the wrong for the wrong reasons. Whether it was the first Gulf war, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan or Iraq, Corbyn not only questioned the effectiveness of U.S. policies—which was perfectly legitimate and unfortunately often accurate—but he also ascribed malign intent to them. Whether it was profit, or imperialist greed, for Corbyn, America’s motives were always suspect. To debate Corbyn was to constantly fend off labels like “corporate villain” or “war criminal.” It was rarely a respectful difference of opinion about how best to achieve shared objectives in a complicated world.
In all probability, there will never be a Corbyn government; more likely, the Tories will muddle along. But as an American living here, it is troubling to think how close he came.