Okay, it's true that Corbyn is a very British phenomenon right now, with roots in the Labor Party of the 1970s and 1980s. It's also probably fair to say that even if he wins the Labor leadership (which looks very likely right now), his odds of becoming Labor's next prime minister don't look so good. Still, if Corbyn wins the Labor leadership race, it really could have an effect abroad.
And, perhaps more important, his surprising success seems to tap into global themes that resonate far beyond Britain. Here's why the world should pay attention to Corbyn.
He wants to apologize for the Iraq war
Given the rise of the Islamic State militant group and the terrible chaos in many parts of the Middle East, many now look back upon the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq as a key moment in recent history. Jeb Bush, a 2016 presidential candidate and brother of former U.S. president George W. Bush, has been repeatedly grilled over his brother's decision to go after Saddam Hussein.
The anguish over Iraq is far more pronounced in Britain, but even among his peers, Corbyn has shown a remarkable desire to reckon with the consequences of Britain's involvement in the Iraq war. If he becomes Labor leader, he plans to apologize to the Iraqi people for the British role in the war. "It is past time that Labor apologized to the British people for taking them into the Iraq war on the basis of deception and to the Iraqi people for the suffering we have helped cause," Corbyn told the Guardian newspaper recently. "Under our Labor, we will make this apology."
Remarkably, Corbyn also has suggested that Tony Blair, the former Labor leader who led Britain into the war, could face a war-crimes trial. Such comments seem to be an acknowledgement that the "New Labor" Blair espoused is no longer popular with many Labor supporters.
He sees a very different British foreign-policy world
All this underscores Corbyn's distinct global outlook. Consider how he puts it himself on his own website:
I have always campaigned against neo-colonial wars that are fought for resources on the pretence of fighting for human rights. We need an understanding of our past and our role in the making of the conflicts today, whether it be the Sykes-Picot Agreement or our interventions in the Middle East post 9/11.
Even among the ranks of the leftish Labor Party, proactively talking about 'neo-colonial wars' or the wisdom of the Sykes-Picot Agreement (a World War I agreement that partitioned Arab lands) in your campaign material is pretty unusual stuff.
Importantly, under Britain's parliamentary system, this would have an effect even if he won the Labor leadership but never became prime minister. Having been stung by his failed Syria vote in 2013, British Prime Minister David Cameron is unlikely to push for intervention unless he has the backing of his parliamentary rivals, which Corbyn seems exceptionally unlikely to give. Corbyn has also pledged to oppose a renewal of Britain's submarine-based Trident nuclear weapons system, suggested that Britain should leave NATO and appeared agnostic about his country's continuing membership in the European Union.
This means a very different perception of U.S. foreign policy, too
Although the British politician no doubt meant that he supported Allende's political legacy (he was also heavily involved in the campaign for Allende's successor, Gen. Augusto Pinochet, to face trial), it's not hard to see how his support for the Chilean leader fits into a broader skepticism about American power. It's worth noting that in addition to his opposition to the Iraq war, he was the leader of the Stop the War Coalition two years earlier, opposing the war in Afghanistan when much of the rest of the world offered support.
Corbyn is quite happy to oppose the U.S. line. He has courted controversy by showing signs of support for the Palestinian militant group Hamas and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah and cultivating ties with Islamists in London. He has also opposed intervention in Ukraine and said NATO's "attempt to encircle Russia" was "one of the big threats of our time." This all fits into a broader pattern of supporting the underdog that has sometimes seen him on the right side of history (for example, in his early opposition to apartheid) but more often placed him at odds with his peers (for example, his 'sympathy' for the IRA or praise for Venezuela's Hugo Chávez). It would certainly place him at odds with Washington.
His anti-austerity economics either look good...
Perhaps more important within Britain is Corbyn's notably anti-austerity economic plan. Branded "Corbynomics," this plan would include measures to stop the privatization of British public services, a crackdown on tax avoidance, and more state investment. Corbyn has even called for a debate about once more nationalizing British industry and services.
Some economists, including a number who don't support Corbyn personally, recently wrote a letter of broad support for the candidate's economic policies. "His opposition to austerity is actually mainstream economics, even backed by the conservative IMF," a letter signed by more than 40 economists said. "He aims to boost growth and prosperity." American economists, including Paul Krugman, also have indicated support.
Given the anti-austerity sentiment across Europe, a Corbyn win could have big ripple effects. He seems well aware of the international aspect of his economic policy: In June, he called on the British government to cancel Greece's debt as a “signal to the banks and financiers that we won’t keep bailing them out for reckless lending."
...or disastrous, depending on whom you ask.
Of course, not everyone agrees.
The Telegraph recently declared that Corbyn's plan for a “People’s QE” — effectively printing money to finance infrastructure spending — would turn Britain into Zimbabwe. Jeremy Warner wrote:
Of all Mr Corbyn’s crackpot policies, “People’s QE” is by far the most dangerous, for if implemented unchecked it would almost inevitably lead to a collapse in the currency and eventually the kind of hyper-inflation that engulfed Weimar Germany. More recent examples include such notable paragons of economic success as Zimbabwe and Argentina.
This is just one example of an avalanche of criticism directed against Corbyn from some sections of the news media. Regardless of whether his economic policies are a success (at the moment it remains unlikely that he will ever get to actually implement them), if he is elected Labor leader, expect the debate about the West's economic orthodoxy to become even more heated.
He's really, really not your standard politician
A few months ago, few would have expected Corbyn to be the front-runner for the leadership of the Labor Party. In fact, many within his own party don't seem to support him, and he was nominated only in a bid to appease party activists (under new rules, the party leadership is chosen in a vote by members and affiliated supporters; potential candidates require the support of at least 35 members of Parliament from the party to become a candidate). Even those members of Parliament who nominated him are now ruing their decision: One describes herself as a "moron" for doing so.
Corbyn's meteoric rise has taken everyone by surprise. He really, really doesn't seem like your standard party leader, not just because of his policies, but also because he has regularly rebelled against his own party's votes (500 times, according to the New Statesman), which leads to inevitable questions about how he would enforce party discipline. He's a man so ideologically rigid that he reportedly split with his wife of 12 years after she wanted to send their son to a school that required passing a test to attend, rather than an ordinary local school.
Perhaps just as important is the way he presents himself. In an era in which British leaders are often relatively young and appear as pampered as possible — think Savile Row suits, £90 haircuts — the 66-year-old Corbyn looks more like a geography teacher nearing retirement. You get the sense that Corbyn is bemused by the attention heaped on him in the 24-hour-news cycle, social-media driven age. Consider this moment documented by a reporter from the Independent at a recent Corbyn news conference:
"In what appears to be a momentary lapse in concentration, [Corbyn] puts his hand into his trouser pocket, pulls out a £5 note, stares at it with a look of surprise that is neither excited nor disappointed, and puts it back."
Corbyn's relaxed, even bemused demeanor stands in distinct contrast to his predecessor, Ed Miliband, a man who clearly found the limelight uncomfortable and was branded "weird" as a result. Corbyn makes Bernie Sanders, a U.S. presidential candidate who identifies as a socialist, look impossibly slick and centrist in comparison.
Ultimately, the world should pay attention to Corbyn because he taps into substantial global concerns about military power, foreign policy, economics and history. His message finds kinship in foreign political forces as wide-ranging as Sanders and Greece's Syriza party. His policies may be very Britain-centric, but his message resonates in America and elsewhere in the world.
If nothing else, Corbynmania will be fascinating to watch — even if it's not quite clear whether he represents Britain's future or its past.