“This means signing up for the US-led drive to isolate & contain China, whose rise to a position of great power in the world is more than official Washington, be it Democrat or Republican, can bear. To this end, one of the country’s two new aircraft carriers (albeit carrying only US-supplied aircraft) is to be deployed in the Far East, as an earnest of our commitment.”Andrew Murray.
The withdrawal of British military commitments “east of Suez” in the early 1970s was seen as a landmark in the retreat of British imperialism. It was a strategic move that always meant less than it appeared, but any pretence of Britain sticking to its own back yard has now been abandoned.
The ten years-plus of Tory rule have been marked by increasingly interventionist rhetoric and actions both east and west of the Suez Canal. First, Cameron picked up where Blair left off by bombing Libya to bring down the Gadhafi government, with predictably disastrous consequences. Then there was covert and overt military action in Syria, again designed to effect regime change, while maintaining a military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, Britain emerged as one of the sworn enemies of the democratic promise of the Arab Spring – it supported the repression of the democracy movement in Bahrain, for example, following up by establishing a permanent naval base there, an explicit and permanent return to “east of Suez” military commitments. And Britain’s military, political and diplomatic support for the Saudi/UAE war in Yemen has led to the greatest humanitarian catastrophe in the world today.
The new foreign and defence strategy published by the government last month takes this further. It seeks to give British “interests” an “Indo-Pacific” tilt. In military practice, this means signing up for the US-led drive to isolate and contain China, whose rise to a position of great power in the world is more than official Washington, be it Democrat or Republican, can bear. To this end, one of the country’s two new aircraft carriers (albeit carrying only US-supplied aircraft) is to be deployed in the Far East, as an earnest of our commitment.
The new strategy also commits to continuing confrontation with Russia. Already British troops are deployed on the Russian border as part of the headlong eastward expansion of NATO since the end of the first Cold War. Britain is clearly being positioned as a key player alongside the USA in the unfolding second Cold War, aimed at both China and Russia. Whatever view one takes of the regimes in Beijing and Moscow, it is very hard to argue that either constitute any kind of military threat to Britain.
The real thrust of this new policy is to maintain the “new world order” which emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, based on the unipolar hegemony of the USA and its closest allies, Britain first of all. In a sense the moment has already passed- China’s economic rise is irreversible, and nor is Russia likely to return to its basket case status of the 1990s. Nevertheless, Britain joins Washington in demanding the maintenance of a “rules-based international order” which sounds very benign until it is realised that it is the western powers more than any other which routinely disregard international law and multilateralism whenever their perceived interests appear to warrant it.
Britain has its own independent interests for wanting to prop up this order, beyond simply making nice to the White House. Our economy is more deeply entwined with capitalist globalisation and the free flow of international finance than any other great power. Our big monopolies from energy to arms are big global players, and the City remains, despite Brexit, a pre-eminent centre of world capital. That mandates a foreign policy committed to keeping the system running in the interests of business in every corner of the globe.
Labour, alas, does not seem to be dissenting much from the new turn in British foreign policy. The only objection raised to the Tory document was that it allows for a reduction in the number of troops in uniform. As part of Starmer’s “embrace the union jack” strategy, the front bench seems to be turning its back on Corbyn’s popular attempt to refashion Labour’s policy around principles of peace, justice and conflict resolution. Defending the main lines of that policy is a vital part of any serious agenda for transforming Britain itself.
- Andrew Murray is a founder of the Stop the War Coalition and author of The Fall & Rise of the British Left.
- Hear Andrew at Labour Outlook’s forum on Why Socialists Are Anti-Imperialists on Saturday April 24 at 2pm. Register at https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/why-socialists-are-anti-imperialists-labour-outlook-forum-tickets-141532931809
- Threats of War: Britain’s New Global Role – Conference with the Stop the War Coalition. Saturday April 17. 2pm with Jeremy Corbyn, Tariq Ali and more. Register at https://actionnetwork.org/events/threats-of-war-britains-new-global-role