Site Meter

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Michael Gove: Proud of the British Empire

Michael Gove, Britain's school's secretary, recently asked pro-British empire historians, Andrew Roberts and Niall Ferguson, to recast the history curriculum to provide a "narrative" centred around Britain's imperial glories in the context of the global domination of the West over the past 500 years. As Seumas Milne argues in his excellent column in The Guardian (10 June, 2010), this merely revives the imperial project that became popular among Anglo-American elites after 1989, and found enthusiastic support from New Labour.

New Labour leadership contest front-runner, David Miliband, is quoted in The Guardian today as saying "George Bush was the worst thing that happened to Tony Blair." Not for the first time, USBlog wonders what Miliband meant by that remark. Could it be that Miliband is suggesting that Blair was duped into following Bush into the global war on terror, into Afghanistan and Iraq? That, had it not been for Bush, Blair's approach to world politics would have been significantly different?

As Seumas Milne says, Gordon Brown once remarked that "Britain was not about to apologise for the Empire", and Blair's principal foreign policy adviser, Robert Cooper, published articles and books calling for a "new liberal imperialism" by "post-modern/modern states" against "pre-modern states" that lived by the laws of the jungle. Cooper's view was that, in dealings with pre-modern states, Britain, the US and EU need not concern themselves with truth, international law and diplomacy, as cruelty and deception was all that such states understood.

Tony Blair, on the advice of his former FCO 'minder' and future chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, had wanted to tell a Manchester audience in 1997, just ahead of the general election, that he, Blair, was "proud of the British empire". Blair drew back at the last minute and did not deliver that particular line of his speech. But Blair's liberal imperialism was not extinguished; it found new outlets as time wore on.

Blair told an American audience in 1999, ‘If we can establish and spread the values of liberty, the rule of law, human rights, and an open society then that is in our national interests too. The spread of our values makes us safer’. Blair, who was comfortable being compared with President Woodrow Wilson – who famously waged a war to ‘make the world safe for democracy’, was on a mission to re-make the world. His arguments for military intervention for halting humanitarian crises and promoting democracy despite the inevitable violation of national sovereignty this necessitated were central to his imperial outlook.

Summed up, an imperial tendency emerged as a powerful force in Anglo-American foreign affairs, reminiscent of an earlier age. 'Democratic peace theory' (whose central claim is that democracies don't fight wars against each other) was its ideological higher truth, Britain and America the powers chosen by destiny to impose it on selected parts of the world. This is a twenty-first century version of the imperial civilising mission and of manifest destiny, welcomed by some and rejected by others as hubris. American-style political and economic capitalist democracy is declared suitable for export in a globalising world, another self-evident truth. The mission relies on the former colonial world forgetting Britain’s record of imperial domination, and amnesia about America’s post-1945 record of military interventions against leftist-nationalist governments and installation of right-wing military juntas.

Blair's Christianity was central to his sense of mission. Such belief has its radical, critical side - it questions the way things are, demands change and improvement. As Blair wrote in an article in the Daily Telegraph in 1996, being a Christian means ‘you see the need for change around you and accept your duty to do something.’ To Blair, Christianity is also ‘a very tough religion… It places a duty, an imperative on us to reach our better self and to care about creating a better community to live in…. It is judgemental. There is right and wrong. There is good and bad…[although] it has become fashionable to be uncomfortable about such language. But when we look at our world today and how much needs to be done, we should not hesitate to make such judgements. And then follow them with determined action. That would be Christian socialism.' Blair's references to the utility of Jesus in every day life suggest something of the southern US evangelical protestant.

There is also, of course, a strong strain of Gladstonian moralism in Blair’s global outlook. That combined well with the rising centre-left sentiment favouring humanitarian interventionism during the 1990s, especially with reference to events in the Balkans. Activist writers like David Rieff and the International Commission on Interventionism and State Sovereignty – of which the-now Harvard scholar, Michael Ignatieff, was a member, championed the cause of people suffering from the brutal excesses within states, beyond the reach of international law and the United Nations. According to Rieff, such tendencies, however, were appropriated by political forces – such as the American neo-conservatives in the Bush administration and by Tony Blair - that were far more imperialistic in their outlook and used the rhetoric of humanitarian intervention in a range of cases – such as Kosovo and Iraq – that fell beyond the original thinking behind the strategy.

The foreign policy of (late 19th-early 20th century) 'New Liberals' that Tony Blair admired so much back in the 1990s- such as almost the entire leadership of the imperialist Round Table movement and of its offspring, Chatham House - was to strengthen the bonds of the British Empire through imperial reform and alliance (and even federation) with the United States. The underlying rationale was founded on a racialised world-view based on Anglo-Saxon biological and cultural superiority. By the Second World War, the desire among some sections of British and American elite opinion was for a Federal Union between Britain and its Dominions and the United States, and the Scandinavian democracies. This was proposed on the basis that Anglo-Saxons, and one or two Nordic nations, were uniquely suited to good government, economic development, and to protection of the rights of the individual. The missionary zeal that inspired domestic reform had its overseas counterpart in imperial reform and Anglo-Saxonism.

The point here relating to Tony Blair is that such ideas, in an evolved and more 'sophisticated' form, came back into circulation in the 1990s and remain significant in leading policy circles in Britain and the United States.

And this is where David Miliband comes in with his remark that George W Bush was the worst thing that happened to Blair. He should look at Blair's history: at the Lord Mayor's banquet in November 1997, when the White House was not even a twinkle in Bush's eye, Blair set out his vision – ‘the big picture’ - for Britain and the world, so that its ‘standing in the world … [would] grow and prosper.’ Britain's principal strength is/was its ability to use its historical alliances so that ‘others listen.’ ‘I value and honour our history enormously,’ Blair emphasised. The fact that we had an Empire - about which ‘a lot of rubbish [is] talked’ - should be cause of neither apology nor hand wringing; rather it must be used to further Britain's global influence - through the Commonwealth and through the power of the English language. Britain must look outward - we are the world's second largest importer and exporter of foreign investment. What goes on in the rest of the world is, therefore, of vital importance. Britain must rebuild the special relationship with the United States, which the Major government had wrecked, Blair argued. ‘When Britain and America work together on the international scene there is little we cannot achieve.’ ‘We must never forget the historic or continuing US role in defending the political and economic freedoms we take for granted…. they are a force for good in the world. They can always be relied on when the chips are down. The same should always be true of Britain’.

9-11 was, then, a perfect opportunity for Blairites to size the moment. As former Blair ally, Mark Leonard, noted, 9-11 offered a golden chance to rebuild the world order, to further the concept of international community and to promote "security".

Although the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and the economic-financial crsis, have dampened imperial ardour, they have yet to extinguish it. Not for nothing was the 'war on terror' re-named the 'long war' or the 'generational war': Anglo-American imperial hubris remains at large; and an imperial narrative in the school history curriculum, contested though it would be, would keep alive the flame of the British empire.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Obama's National Security Strategy: Israel

Without trying to be ironic, President Barack Obama's administration issued a helpful factsheet alongside the NSS, released at the end of May 2010. In the wake of Israel's recent illegal attack on civilian ships carrying aid to the people of Gaza, whose misery resulting from Israel's war on them of 2008-09, and the subsequent and continuing blocakade, a collective punishment also in violation of international law, I reproduce below, in full, the Middle east and Israel sections of the helpful factsheet.

The excerpts highlight little other than Obama's continuation of support for Israel - regardless of the claims of various neo-cons - Israeli, American and other - that Obama is at war with the Jewish state.

Here are the excerpts:

"Efforts to bring about Middle East Peace: Against a difficult backdrop – recent war, no prospect of negotiations, and facing Israeli elections – the President began his term by immediately appointing Senator George Mitchell as full time Special Envoy to the Middle East [who has yet to set foot in Gaza; USBlog]. As the result of the concerted efforts of Special Envoy Mitchell and our diplomatic team, we have successfully completed two rounds of proximity talks, where Senator Mitchell conducted meetings with both Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Abbas and discussed serious and substantive core issues. We have also convinced both parties about the importance of a return to direct negotiations. The Administration continues to support the improvement of Palestinian security efforts and institutional reforms under President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad, and continues to secure increased Arab financial support for the Palestinian Authority.

"Continued Commitment to Israel’s Security: Our commitment to Israel’s security is unshakable and our defense relationship is stronger than ever, to the mutual benefit of both nations. In a signal of just how strong our commitment is to Israeli security, the President has asked Congress to authorize $205 million to support the production of an Israeli-developed short range rocket defense system called Iron Dome. This funding will allow Israel to expand and accelerate Iron Dome production and deployment to provide timely improvements to their multi-tiered defense, to protect against the rockets used by Hamas and Hizballah. This step is one in a series – which includes our annual $3 billion military assistance package, extensive consultations with Israel to ensure its qualitative military edge, and joint exercise on missile defense, that demonstrates the strength of our mutual defense relationship."

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Obama's National Security Strategy: Made at Princeton

President Obama's National Security Strategy may echo that of his predecessor, George W. Bush, but it is also almost identical to that suggested by a large group of elite academics, military officials, businessmen, and former Clinton administration insiders brought together as the Princeton Project on National Security (PPNS) back in 2004-2006. The Princeton Project was led by Princeton academics Anne-Marie Slaughter and G. John Ikenberry, featured Reagan's secretary of state, George Schultz, and Clinton's national security adviser, Anthony Lake, as co-chairs. Francis Fukuyama, erstwhile neo-con, sat on the steering committee and was co-author of the Project's working paper on grand strategy. Henry Kissinger acted as adviser, as did Harvard's Joseph Nye, author of the concept of Soft Power, morphing more recently into Smart Power. PPNS represented a new cross-party consensus on how to 'correct' the excesses and reckless enthusiasm for American power of the Bush administration.

Several PPNS-ers were appointed to the Obama administration: Jim Steinberg to the state department, Michael McFaul and Samantha Power to the national security council, for example. Anne-Marie Slaughter heads up the state department's policy planning staff - the department's in-house think tank, the first director of which was Princeton's George F. Kennan, author of the concept that defined US policy in the cold war era: containment. PPNS was a self-conscious attempt to replicate Kennan's work and impact in the post-Bush era, in the wake of the 'war of choice' (then supported by numerous current Obama administration members) against Iraq.

So what?

The similarities of Obama's NSS to those of Bush and Princeton suggests that it will be 'business as usual', in the main. The main lines of US global behaviour - Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Israel - remain the same, with tactical and stylistic differences. Undoubtedly, Obama's rhetoric is less bellicose and less inflammatory than Bush's, but that was beginning in the final months of the previous administration in any case. The military surge in Afghanistan, the identification of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border as the focus of the war on terror, the military 'draw-down' in Iraq, were also processes begun under Bush. The attempts to close Guantanamo began under Bush, and continue, without success, today.

But Obama continues to back rendition, and is actively trying to prevent the extension of constitutional protections to inmates at Bagram and other lawless prisons holding uncharged terror suspects. He may be accused by some of declaring war on Israel, but you wouldn't know it from his total silence on Israel's war on Gaza or its recent illegal attack on a ship carrying aid for Israel's million-and-a-half victims in Gaza, not to mention the billions of dollars of US military and other aid to Israel.

Obama's mission - US leadership, military superiority, global reach, shaping the international order, making and enforcing global rules, spreading freedom and democracy, lauding postwar international institution-building under President Harry Truman (the golden age to both Bush and Obama, and PPNS-ers) - is of a piece with all post-1945 American administrations. The rhetoric and tactics vary with conditions within the US and in the world at large but the goals remain the same.

At this point in time, therefore, the US is suffering from military overstretch and economic crisis: it cannot physically fight, or financially afford, two wars at the levels of intensity required, and remains committed to a professional military rather than a conscripted one (which proved problematic during the Vietnam War). At home, there are rumblings about America's internal problems of unemployment and other social issues, as well as increasing scepticism about the nature and costs - financial and moral - of America's global interventionism. Hence, Obama has adopted a policy similar to British PM Cameron's 'big society': building alliances with non-governmental groups, think tanks, and foundations better to intervene in world affairs, especially in the governance of other societies designated as threats or potential threats to America's 'security'.

Subtle shifts in policy and rhetoric help in times such as these: and Obama's 'face' and 'voice' has worked wonders, up to now at least, across the world, just as Jimmy Carter's did in the wake of Vietnam (and Watergate). But the impacts of such insubstantial changes are usually temporary: the Muslim world never fully bought the Obama story; and Europeans are beginning to learn that Obama is no soft touch either as he presses them to send more troops to Afghanistan and be ready to support principles for which they claim to stand.

The things that do not change are the American foreign policy elite's strategic role in defining 'national' interests or the policies that flow from their definition: those are 'vital' interests the benefits of which are unequally distributed within the United States, maintaining social and economic inequality. And Obama's appointments to high office were drawn from the ranks of the American elite - Wall St. lawyers and bankers, ivy league university academics, and the ranks of the Bush and Clinton administrations.