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Editorial: Coronavirus, international trade and the Labour reshuffle

BARBADOS is seeking answers over the US decision to block a ventilator shipment. 

Germany decries “modern piracy” over Washington’s actions diverting face masks that Berlin had ordered to its own shores.

In the throes of a global pandemic, the Donald Trump administration’s bully-boy behaviour abroad — which has notoriously included blocking Chinese medical aid to Cuba when Cuba has gone the extra mile to assist countries from Jamaica to Britain — is only matched by its chaotic, inconsistent and irresponsible approach to containing its spread in the US itself.

The US is not alone, of course. A number of countries have opted to kick downwards — Germany blocking equipment intended for Italy while Italy has blocked equipment intended for Greece, for example, even if in the latter case the severity of the Italian Covid-19 crisis explains a reluctance to allow scarce equipment to leave the country, even when bought and paid for by a foreign government.

What Berlin labels “wild-west tactics” might be seen as a new development. In fact they expose the crude power relationships that underpin the rules of international relations and trade.

Rerouting masks might shock Germany, but Washington’s “might is right” attitude is grimly familiar to countries like Cuba and Venezuela, subject to punishing illegal sanctions for nakedly political reasons, while its imperial arrogance is exemplified by the extraterritorial enforcement of such sanctions — with companies from Britain, the EU or anywhere else hit with heavy financial penalties if they fail to comply with sanctions that their own governments oppose.

Nor has international law been any barrier to the US, Britain or our allies launching unprovoked attacks on sovereign countries such as Iraq or Libya, or funding and arming militants aiming to overthrow the government in Syria.

In Britain our experience of coronavirus — which contrasts dramatically to that in countries which took rapid action to contain it like China, or to countries which have invested significantly in a health service with some extra capacity for emergencies like Germany — vindicates the warnings of Labour in the Jeremy Corbyn years about the consequences of privatisation and cuts for our public services.

Internationally, a lawlessness that is now affecting rich and powerful countries as well as poorer ones likewise vindicates the socialist and anti-imperialist left’s criticisms of a global order based on exploitation and force.

Even Corbyn was never able to reshape Labour’s foreign policy in line with his own longstanding opposition to the US-led Nato military alliance or nuclear weapons.

But the party under him did speak out against US, Saudi and Israeli aggression and caution against war when the prospect of it loomed over Venezuela or Iran.

It also, in some of the work done by then shadow international trade secretary Barry Gardiner, began to question the inbuilt inequalities in global supply chains and international corporate treaties, though such criticism was effectively shelved as the party locked itself into support for a European Union that together with the US sits at the apex of the unfair trade hierarchy.

The left has watched new leader Keir Starmer’s shadow cabinet reshuffle with justified dismay, since most of the Corbyn team’s socialists have been ejected, as have most of the voices who warned against the disastrous second-referendum policy.

The bias of a team among whom support for Nato and the EU is instinctive will be towards trying to revive “norms” around a trading system governed by corporate treaties, policed by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund and which is deeply implicated in worsening poverty, forcing open markets at the cost of weaker countries and runaway climate change.

But that trading system is in crisis, and the left is well placed to win a wider understanding of why its recovery is far more dangerous to humanity than its demise.

Winning the whole labour movement to such a position would dramatically advance the fight for a better future after the pandemic.

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