Sunday, September 26, 2004

Britain first

The idea that Britain is somehow going against its own interests in being too close to the US has been heard before, but here it is again in Niall Ferguson's article in The Spectator (registration required). I'm still not convinced.

The people who believe in the special relationship are 'a select number of professional elites' : military men, those in the intelligence services, city chaps  who work for 'the bulge bracket Wall Street firms', some academics 'especially (ahem) those recently lured away from Oxford and Cambridge by their more generously endowed Ivy League competitors', summarized as those 'flying on flatbeds across the Atlantic'. Well, I'm none of those things, more a beneficiary of European economic integration and interested in French culture and politics.

In contrast to '1917, when it seemed that Britain could not defeat Germany without American financial and military support', ' by the time of the second world war, it was a great deal less self-evident ... that the salvation of the British empire lay in the hands of the United States. On the contrary, Franklin Roosevelt made the break-up of our empire an explicit object of American policy...' Bizarrely, US intervention is seen as more welcome in 1917 than in 1941, when Britain's survival was at stake. Churchill was right to sleep soundly on the night after Pearl Harbour.

Anyway, we don't want our empire back, do we ? Ferguson speaks of the US in some instances being in competition against the waning British empire (as in Saudi Arabia and Egypt). But, in the 1980s large Saudi defence contracts went to the UK, as a sort of proxy for the US. As for Egypt, this is where the argument gets really hard to follow. Presumably, he is talking about the US block on British (and French and Israeli) actions over Suez, but equally Eden, who saw Nasser as another Hitler, could be seen as a forerunner of Bush and his attitude toward Saddam Hussein.

The interests of Britain (and Europe) surely converge in terms of values. I won't say democracy or freedom, but pluralism, or to put it more bluntly, belief in a system where people are not imprisoned or tortured or killed for their beliefs. This surely is more important than the distinction between Christian America and secular Europe that Ferguson dwells on. In more material terms,  Europe (and Japan etc) have an interest as much as the US in not seeing the Middle East (and its oil) controlled by a ruthless dictator.

Of course, we could just allow the US to defend the values and interests of the West. France and Spain do not suffer much from their positions. But then one is reminded irresistibly of Orwell, in his essay on Kipling, contrasting someone who 'at least tried to imagine what action and responsibility are like' with 'a permanent and pensioned oppostion' whose 'quality of thought deteriorates accordingly' and 'the one-eyed pacifism of the English..."making mock of uniforms that guard you while you sleep".'

In any case, Britain's foreign policy, apart from Iraq,  has remained aligned with that of the other major European countries. Mr Blair's address to Congress in July 2003,('a masterpiece of flattery that was ...nauseating to me') also contained these words : 'Iran and Syria, who give succour to the rejectionist men of violence, made to realise that the world will no longer countenance it, that the hand of friendship can only be offered them if they resile completely from this malice, but that if they do, that hand will be there for them and their people;the whole of region helped toward democracy. 

And to symbolise it all, the creation of an independent, viable and democratic Palestinian state side by side with the state of Israel. '

Aside from the developments with Libya, Britain has stayed within the position of the EU-3, along with France and Germany, on Iran, despite occasional attempts by writers in The Guardian to suggest that Blair has detached into a position of demanding 'regime-change'.

Staying on the subject of Iran, BBC WS reported that LibDem leader Charles Kennedy  has demanded that Tony Blair give a pledge at the next election that there should be no attack on Iran. I don't think any British Prime Minister could or should give any such assurance, not that I think there is much likelihood that there will be any attack involving the UK, or the US for that matter. Much more likely are Israeli air-strikes, with incalculable consequences, we are told.

Vladimir Putin said that Russia would ditch the Bushehr project should Iran breach any IAEA agreements (Reuters). It is not clear where Russia stands on the key issue of uranium enrichment. Iran cannot be forced to abandon this, but they might negotiate it, if the US (for example) showed sufficient respect for their sovereignty and dignity.

Update (27 Sep) Still in The Spectator, the career of Andrew Gilligan (diplomatic and defence editor)  is clearly flourishing post-Hutton. Funnily enough, Mr Blair yesterday again refused to apologize for removing Saddam Hussein.

Meanwhile, in the New Statesman there is an interview, or rather a John Kampfner opinion piece interspersed with an interview with Jack Straw (free when I accessed it).

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