Britain, like much of the West, is clearly living through a period of reluctance, even quasi-isolationism, with regard to foreign conflicts. Interventionism may not be dead, but it is most certainly having a nap. A perception that fingers were burned in Iraq and Afghanistan pervades almost all foreign policy thinking, to a greater or lesser extent. And nowhere is this to be seen more clearly than on the fringes of British politics.
On the left fringe, Stop the War Coalition and their fellow-travellers within Labour’s hard left have decided that the West is so fundamentally evil, that they must oppose it so strongly as to apologise for some deeply unpleasant regimes who oppose it (in this case, the borderline-despotic Russian regime). Exhibit A: the Stoppers’ Putin apology pieces, or their frankly bonkers assertion that NATO is “itching for war”, when in fact its constituent nations are going to great pains to avoid the merest hint of military involvement.
On the right fringe, there a few odd backbench Tories along with UKIP; owners of a “little Englander” mentality all, seasoned with an instinctive mistrust of the Establishment and a longing for the smack of firm government. This strange combination ends up with their views converging on, paradoxically – as we saw recently with the Putin-admiring Nigel Farage – the same lines as the left.
Then there is the mainstream of both parties; as we saw on the Syria vote, many of these on both sides are happy to opt for happy isolationism and call it statesmanship.
And stuck in the middle, between all these are a small minority who realise that their parties, and their country, really need to wake up. That it is absurd for our past in Iraq and Afghanistan to dictate our policy against all present and future threats.
This modest little group knows that history has shown us, time and again, that isolationism can only ever be a short-term policy. It is not containment, it is worse than that: containment would be some kind of dynamic standoff between two sides taking action. Isolationism is walking away and leaving it to the other guy; it is the Pontius Pilate school of international relations. Neither is it an attitude which – aside from a couple of historical lapses – sits well with Labour’s proud history, as the likes of Ernie Bevin might once have attested to.
In amongst all of this are the party leaders: but here there is a difference between the parties.
Cameron has placed himself squarely in the middle of the stage; he intervened in Libya; he wanted to intervene in Syria but his party would not let him. Miliband, on the other hand, sat on the fence, in the most generous interpretation of events; in the back of our minds there is that best-forgotten image of his staff applauding as he returned from the vote, having stopped the “rush to war”, in his own words.
But this is not a debating club. This is not a game. Whilst Miliband is not, as some idiot Tories have said, singlehandedly responsible for the failure of the West to intervene in Syria, the reality is that the combination of Cameron’s lackadaisical whipping operation and Miliband’s whipping against, sent a message to Assad and the same to Putin.
It said: do you what you like on your own doorstep – we just want a quiet life. The US facing a unilateral action bereft of its traditional chief ally, followed suit.
Fast-forward to today: Russia is currently invading its neighbours with an audacity which reminds one of nothing so much as Germany’s 1938 annexation of Czechoslovakia (take a bit of a country; half a country; the whole country).
Cameron is likely, at some point, to be forced into taking some action against Russia, even more so if he is still PM after the next election. That does not mean, of course, direct military action; that would be unimaginably serious. But diplomatic pressure and sanctions alone are clearly going nowhere.
So, it could be anything, from contributing to UN peacekeeping; to a renewed covert, Cold War offensive; to rearmament (the latter is not as drastic as it sounds, given that the armed forces have just experienced their most drastic cuts in a generation, while Russia has quietly been rearming for some time).
So far, Miliband has been commendably forthright in his condemnation of Putin’s actions; Douglas Alexander was, it seemed even more enthusiastic than the Tories to kick Russia out of the G8. But it is easy to support the prime minister when he is standing up rhetorically for democracy and freedom. It is less easy when he is moved to take action.
Finally, there is at least the possibility – even if it is a somewhat more remote possibility than many in the party would like to admit – that Miliband may in less than a year be in charge of those armed forces himself.
Over the last week or so, Miliband has been in Israel and Palestine, where he says he has had a chance to ruminate on his foreign policy priorities. But perhaps the traditional, centuries-old conflict should not have been his main focus.
Had he been close to the border with neighbouring Syria at some point, he might have heard the shellfire. He might have reflected on the results of geopolitical inaction in that little client state, to which Russia happily supplies the weapons which have been killing Assad’s own citizens, including many thousands of children.
The same principle applies to Ukraine. It is the miserable effect of repeatedly saying “okay” to the playground bully, until he fears no-one.
At some point, Miliband will need to come down off the fence and decide which side he is on in this evolving new world order. He can be like Obama, who – and I defy anyone to argue convincingly that this will not be the case – will go down in history as a weak, vacillating president who was simply not up to the job of international geopolitics.
Or he can look to do something. As someone once said: “whatever the dangers of the action we take, the dangers of inaction are far, far greater”.
This post first published at Labour Uncut and selected for Progress' What We're Reading