British imperialism: the difficulties of maintaining an independent role

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The last few months have seen no let up in the violence and chaos ravaging many parts of the world. In Iraq the civil war kills and maims hundreds every week. In Afghanistan the worst fighting since the war has shown that large parts of the country remain beyond the control of the central state. In the midst of this stand the world’s greatest powers, with the US, as the greatest of them all, at the very centre. Bush junior’s ‘war on terror’ is now mired in blood and destruction, just as Bush senior’s ‘new world order’ before it resulted in bloody disorder and helped to spread terror around the world. “Today we can measure the effectiveness of this ‘intransigent struggle’ against the ‘scourge of terrorism’ and for ‘peace and freedom’ waged by the great powers with the US to the fore. Never has there been such an explosion of warlike tensions, of military conflicts, of blind terrorist attacks, in short of barbarism from Africa to Asia via the Middle East” (WR 294, ‘Capitalism plunges into barbarity’).

British imperialism tries to take the initiative

This situation does not diminish imperialist rivalry in any way; rather it stimulates it as each power tries to seize any opportunity to advance its interests at the expense of its rivals. One power’s difficulty is always another’s opportunity. While the US seeks once again to reassert itself, the second and third-rate powers try to exploit every opportunity the situation offers them.

This is the case with Britain today. The current difficulties of the US have allowed Britain to consolidate its strategy and to gain some breathing space. This follows the intense pressure it has been subjected to in recent years as it sought to chart an independent course between the US and Europe. In Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq it has recently been able to assert its interests to a limited extent after a long period in which it has had to run before the storm stirred up by Washington’s offensive.

A significant feature of Britain’s strategy is its pretence that it is based on the defence of human rights, democracy and international order. The ‘ethical foreign policy’ announced when New Labour came to power was subsequently obscured by the reality of military intervention in Iraq, Yugoslavia and Afghanistan, but it was never abandoned. For example, before the second Gulf war Britain pushed for a second resolution at the UN prior to the start of fighting, but at that time the US was forging ahead with its ‘war on terror’ and was dismissive of the UN. Of course it is true that all countries claim the moral high ground: the dominant power to mask the reality that its domination is based on violence, and the lesser powers to try and compensate for their lack of such dominance. The current difficulties of the US have required it to make more supportive noises about the UN and international co-operation. Washington’s ambassador to the UN, who once said that its headquarters in New York would benefit from having a few storeys removed, has adopted a more conciliatory tone despite the fact that the USA’s reform proposals have been defeated. This has made it easier for Britain to resume its ‘multilateral’ theme, most recently with Blair using a speech during a trip to the US to call for changes in various international bodies to “fashion an international community that both embodies and acts in pursuit of global values – liberty, democracy, tolerance, justice”. He called specifically for the expansion of the UN Security Council to 25 members, including countries such as India, Japan, and Germany as well as representatives from Latin America and Africa. Such a step would favour the secondary powers by diluting the influence of the US. It would also allow Britain to play its favoured role as loyal ally of the US and honest broker, safe in the knowledge that other powers more openly opposed to the US will be at work. In short, it is trying once again to forge its independent path, in particular by playing one power off against another. British initiatives in Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq clearly show this.

Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq

Throughout the developing crisis over Iranian nuclear ambitions Britain has played a double game. On the one hand it has condemned Iran’s nuclear programme and played an active part in taking it to the UN, and has expressed support for a resolution to the UN that could open the door to the use of force. On the other it has remained part of the EU negotiating team that recently revived its offer to provide Iran with a nuclear power plant, and the materials to run it, in exchange for the cessation of its uranium enrichment programme.

In fact, Britain currently has to do very little to benefit from the situation, since it can be confident that China and Russia will continue to frustrate US efforts. This tends to support the suggestion that Jack Straw was dismissed as Foreign Secretary in the reshuffle in May because he opposed the idea of military action too vocally, labelling the idea “unthinkable”, even “nuts”. Certainly his successor, Margaret Beckett, has been cautious about making similar statements. As we have argued before, Britain wants to see Iran reigned in and to end the offensive Tehran has been able to mount in the face of the situation in Iraq where, on the one hand, its old rival no longer poses a threat and, on the other, the US is struggling to maintain any kind of order. Britain has no interest in seeing a disproportionately powerful Iran in the Middle East; but equally it does not wish to see it removed from the equation by US action.

The deployment of 3,300 British troops to Afghanistan is taking place under the banner of NATO and is part of the wider plan for the ‘international community’ to replace the ‘coalition’. This is a strategically important deployment for Britain given the position of Afghanistan between the Indian sub-continent, Asia and the Middle East. While this can be seen as the US getting others to do its work now that its focus has moved on (as was certainly the case in the immediate aftermath of the war when the US still firmly held the initiative), in the present context it tends to work the other way by emphasising the necessity for the US to take note of the ‘international community’, in other words of the necessity to reign in its ambitions.

In Iraq Britain has recently announced that it will hand over one of the areas it controls to the Iraqis in July and a second shortly afterwards, allowing it to reduce the number of troops from 8,000 to 5,000 by the end of the year. This has helped to maintain the fiction that its military forces are uniquely skilled at building peace.

One consequence of these developments has been to reduce the immediate pressure on Blair, since he is clearly defending the position of the dominant part of ruling class. The replacement of Straw by Beckett has not been widely criticised and the reports on the July 7th bombings exonerated the security forces of any serious errors, and, by implication, the government too. While some on the left of the ruling class have suggested that this means Blair is kow-towing to the US again, it really shows that he has the confidence of the British ruling class. However, there is still pressure for an orderly transition to Brown, in part because Blair is so entangled in the lies surrounding the war in Iraq. Blair has been forced to concede that he will leave in time for Brown to prepare for the next election.

Towards new difficulties

The easing of the pressures on British imperialism is fundamentally a consequence of developments outside Britain’s control – its skill lies in being able to exploit these opportunities when they arise. The fundamental contradiction of British imperialism remains and the overall development of the international situation suggests that the sharpening of that contradiction will continue.

The areas where Britain can be said to have had some success are all very fragile. In Iraq, despite the planned departure of some troops, the prospect is that a force of some kind will stay for another five or even ten years. The recent violence in Basra, where the local Iraqi authority declared a state of emergency on 31st May, gives the lie to claims of British superiority at ‘peacemaking’. In fact British losses are proportionate to American ones given the difference in numbers and the evidence suggests that hostility in the British-controlled areas continues to grow. There are also reports of an increase in desertion and of mental health problems in British troops who have served in Iraq. The denunciation of Iranian involvement in the insurgency in Basra shows the bourgeoisie’s awareness of the volatility of the situation.

The province of Helmand in Afghanistan, where the British forces are going, is one of the most violent in the country. Recent months have seen the worst violence since the war and in Helmand the very announcement of the arrival of British troops seems to have stimulated resistance. While there are grand plans to restore the infrastructure of the area no action is intended against the opium trade and the warlords who dominate it. Here too Britain seems to be facing the opposition of a regional power in the shape of Pakistan, whose alleged backing of the resurgent Taliban has been denounced by British military personnel.

A decision by the US to attack Iran, either itself or, as has been suggested, by allowing Israel to do the job, would cut the ground from underneath Britain since it would be forced again to take sides. While it is not possible to predict with certainty that Iran will be attacked – although a recent US government report branded Iran the most active sponsor of state terror in the world – the tendency that has been seen several times in recent years is for the US, when under pressure, to try and regain the initiative and to do this through the use of military force, where it still retains the advantage globally. Each time this has happened the impact on British imperialist policy has been greater and greater as the contradiction of its position has become sharper. After 9/11 the tensions that exist within the British ruling class over imperialist strategy emerged a little. The worsening of its position may push this further. Thus despite its best efforts, British imperialist policy cannot escape the crisis it finds itself in: any easing of its situation, let alone any advances it makes, can only be short-lived, and may well be counter-productive since they will certainly provoke responses from its rivals. In this, Britain is but a specific example of the general tendency for imperialist tensions to worsen, giving rise to ever-greater instability and violence.  North 1/6/06