In Iraq and Syria Britain condemns the advance of the Islamic State while insisting it will not take part in any military intervention; in Gaza it supports Israel’s right to self-defence while freezing export licences for military equipment in protest at the growing slaughter; while in the Ukraine it supports sanctions against Russia so long as the impact on its financial sector is not too great. Such apparent contradictions are often seen in the opaque and convoluted manoeuvres of participants in the ‘international community’. However, for the British state today they express not just the usual twists and turns of imperialist tactics but a growing incoherence at the level of imperialist strategy. This has its roots in the growing fragmentation and barbarism that has come to dominate the international situation since 1989 and in the long term decline of British power.
The decline of a global power
The decline of British imperialism from global domination to a distrusted second rate power has often been analysed. Nonetheless, it is worth recalling that before the First World War the British Empire encircled the globe and its military power, especially naval, was superior to its nearest rivals. Even then, however, the economic dominance that this was based on had already been eroded by the rise of rivals headed by Germany and America. The ‘Great War’ revealed this weakness to the world, perhaps with the exception of the British ruling class. The inter-war period was one of turbulence and uncertainty, above all because the revolutionary threat posed by the international working class meant that the reshaping of the imperialist world order was effectively interrupted.
In this sense, the Second World War can be seen as a completion of the First, in that it confirmed America’s dominance and Britain’s demotion to the second rank. However, the division of the world into the two blocs that emerged from the ruins of the war created an unprecedented situation, characterised on the one hand by a confrontation which if unleashed could have destroyed the planet and, on the other, by a certain level of stability as the lesser powers curbed their ambitions in exchange for the protection of the bloc leaders. This in no way meant that this was some kind of peaceful balance of power; on the contrary, it was marked by endless and bloody proxy wars as the two blocs probed each other and sought to gain the upper hand. Nor, indeed, did it mean peace and harmony within the blocs: ambitions were curbed, not abandoned.
The British ruling class generally recognised that its interests were best served by staying close to the US. This both reflected the existence of real common interests against the Russian Bloc and acquiescence to a situation it could no longer challenge – as the US had made clear in the 1950s when it slapped down Britain’s attempt to act independently over Suez. One consequence of this was that Britain effectively maintained a position in the global order that its own economic strength no longer warranted. The unravelling of the Western Bloc that followed the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in 1989 changed this irrevocably.
British imperialism in the new world order
For many states this situation presented them with new possibilities. Old vassals of the USSR turned towards the US and Europe, others such as Germany and Japan that had been constrained after their defeat in the war began to stretch their muscles. The failure of American attempts to hold the line through the first Gulf War and beyond emboldened lesser powers, such as Israel and Iran, to assert themselves regionally.
For Britain however, this was less an opportunity than a threat because it was once again confronted by the full reality of its decline and the legacy of its past global swagger that had sown hatred and distrust amongst allies and enemies alike. At the same time, its ruling class not only had the imperialist ambitions common to all ruling classes, but also the pretensions of its past power and glory. In the new world order, the British state found itself caught between a US that was struggling to maintain its old authority and which was increasingly drowning parts of the world in blood in its attempts to do so, and a Europe that was increasingly dominated by a resurgent Germany. In our press we have charted British imperialism’s efforts to steer an independent line over the last quarter of a century and analysed the development of factions within the ruling class arguing for differing imperialist strategies. In the last decade we have shown the impasse into which the Blair government drove British imperialist strategy as a result of the turn towards the US that followed 9/11 and the disastrous interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Cameron came to power with an idea of breaking out of this impasse by reaching beyond its parameters to new powers such as India, Pakistan, Turkey, Brazil and China, but this vision also foundered in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan. Today it seems that every move Britain makes backfires. The intervention in Libya in 2011 to help the rebellion against Gaddafi was hailed a success at the time because it achieved its aim rapidly and with no loss of British military personnel. Today, the country is torn apart by a myriad factions of former ‘freedom fighters’ and the British embassy has been closed and its staff have fled. As we show in other articles in this issue, barbarism is spreading in many parts of the world, being particularly concentrated in those places where the US has led efforts to defeat ‘extremism’ and restore ‘order’ and where its former protégés and pawns have gone freelance.
The result within the British ruling class has been to increase its divisions and to force them into the open. This was seen most explicitly a year ago when the attempt to sanction military intervention in Syria was defeated in the House of Commons (see “Syria intervention vote: Impasse of British imperialism” in WR 362, September/October 2013). The impasse that now exists within the ruling class means that it has been unable to develop a coherent imperialist policy in the last 12 months and it is this, rather than tactical oscillations, that lie behind the apparent contradictions noted at the start of this article.
The growing incoherence of British imperialism
In Iraq and Syria, Britain has joined the condemnation of the Islamic State but has been hesitant in getting involved. Nonetheless, there has been a gradual move from initially only providing ‘humanitarian’ aid, to agreeing to transport weapons to the Kurds supplied by others and then to declaring its willingness to supply British military equipment. The fighter aircraft originally deployed to aid the humanitarian mission are now carrying out military surveillance while ministers repeatedly state there will be no ‘boots on the ground’. Divisions have already come into the open, with military figures, such as Lord Dannatt, calling not only for armed intervention, but also for direct talks with President Assad of Syria. He has been joined by the former Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind who said Britain had to be “harshly realistic” and likened working with Assad to the wartime alliance with Stalin, arguing that “history judged them right in coming to that difficult but necessary judgement” (Guardian 22/08/14).
There have also been demands for Parliament to be recalled, which Cameron has resisted on the grounds that the intervention in response to the humanitarian crisis does not require an emergency debate. Most recently, the possibility of joining the US air strikes has been raised in a report in the New York Times (26/08/14), which quoted unnamed US officials saying they expected that Britain and Australia would be willing to participate. Britain’s position does not exclude this possibility since ministers have only ruled out the use of ground troops. Thus it is possible that Cameron is trying to move towards intervention gradually, testing out the level of opposition as he goes in order to avoid a repeat of the humiliation over Syria. The execution of the journalist James Foley, because it may have been carried out by a British member of the Islamic State, could help to provide a pretext, although Cameron did not immediately take this opportunity.
During the latest violence in Gaza the British Government has condemned the rocket attacks by Hamas and reiterated its position that Israel has a right to defend itself, while gradually increasing its criticism of Israel over the number of civilian deaths and the attacks on UN buildings. There have been divisions across the political parties, coming to a head with the resignation of Baroness Warsi who condemned her government’s policy as “morally indefensible” and claimed that it was no longer acting as an ‘honest broker’ in the region. She was attacked by some fellow Tories, including the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, for over-reacting, suggesting that it was more a matter of pique over her demotion in the recent cabinet reshuffle than of principle as she claimed. There have also been tensions in the coalition over military exports to Israel, with Vince Cable, the Lib Dem Trade Minister stating that exports would be suspended if violence resumed.
Turning to the Ukraine, Britain supported its move towards Europe as part of its long-term support of the expansion of the European Union as a way of counter-balancing Germany’s position. Thus it supported the protestors in Kiev, playing down the fascist sympathies of many of the organisations involved in it, and has been happy to portray Russia as causing the current conflict for its own territorial ambitions. It has also supported the imposition of sanctions, suggesting that the restrictions on the movements and financial transactions of various senior figures in Russia would somehow have a real impact. However, it was far less willing to impose effective financial sanctions because of the possible impact on Britain’s financial sector, which remains one of the few profitable parts of the economy.
The confusion and indecision currently evident should not be seen as implying any lessening of Britain’s imperialist ambitions. The challenge is over precisely what those ambitions are and how to achieve them. So, intervention, whether in Iraq, Syria or elsewhere should not be ruled out. Nor should further attempts to develop new relationships amongst all the competing powers. But the historic decline of British imperialism cannot be reversed and the impasse it has reached remains. On paper, Britain remains a strong military power, ranked sixth in the world in terms of expenditure. Despite recent cuts, the current level of spending at 2.3% of GDP is only slightly lower than a decade before when it was 2.4% (“Trends in world military expenditure, 2013”, SIPRI 2014). But this reveals the real problem for Britain: the disorder and uncertainty of the international situation and its own history means that it faces the possibility of under-performing, of punching below its weight.
Just as Britain has ordered aircraft carriers without aircraft to carry, so today it has imperialist ambitions without a coherent strategy to realise them.