The American bourgeoisie has exploited the catastrophe of 11 September to try and reassert its imperialist power on an unprecedented scale. The British bourgeoisie has also not missed the opportunity to play its own imperialist game, to advance its own military, diplomatic and political position on the world arena at the expense of its rivals, cynically exploiting sympathy for its ‘own’ victims in the terrorist attacks.
Of course the British bourgeoisie, like most of the rest of the world bourgeoisie, rushed to denounce the terrorist attacks, to solidarise with the United States, to support the declaration of democratic war on terrorism, and invoke, along with other major powers, the ‘mutual defence’ article of NATO’s constitution. But, beyond that ‘solidarity’, even more than during the Gulf War or the wars in the Balkans, the differences between the major powers remain - particularly their resistance to the US, the one super-power among them. Britain, despite appearing to be the US’s poodle, is no exception.
The massive riposte planned by the US following the terrorist outrages is precisely aimed. Its target is not just Osama bin Laden’s network, an even feebler foe than Iraq was in 1991, but at the pretensions of other capitalist states, in particular the other major powers, that, since 1989, have begun to oppose and resist US world hegemony.
Britain, like France and Germany, in various parts of the world, but particularly the Balkans, have been trying to defend their own imperialist interests now that the threat of the Soviet Union no longer forces them to cower behind the United States. The planned European army, first proposed by Whitehall, is a barely disguised threat to the hegemony of US-led NATO in Europe. According to Henry Kissinger’s recent book, Does America need a foreign policy?, the most troubling threats to US dominance in the world are precisely ‘European developments’.(1) Conversely, Britain has much to lose in terms of world stature by an overwhelming display of US military force in the Middle East.
Why Britain proclaims its loyalty
American imperialism is well aware of what British imperialism is up to. “Tony Blair was not the first European leader to visit President Bush. But he was the most fervent in expressing unreserved support and in trying to rally round the other Europeans. In this he is simply following half a century of tradition. Virtually every British prime minister since Churchill has leapt at an opportunity of reviving his partnership with the president of the United States. It plays well electorally and gives a sense of world leadership.” (International Herald Tribune, 26.09.01.)
The British bourgeoisie is hoping, by running alongside the American military juggernaut, to limit the scope of the latter’s impact on its own imperialist prestige and grab for itself more of the kudos out of the coming carnage than rivals like France and Germany. That’s why, shortly after his Washington visit, Blair informed a meeting of Labour MPs that the object of British foreign policy was to ‘restrain’ America. Much of the British bourgeois media has echoed this theme.
The reason that the ruling class in Britain sustains the illusion of a ‘special relationship’ between the UK and US is to disguise the existence of imperialist and nationalist divisions and use internationally-shared ‘democratic values’ to try and mobilise the population for the sacrifices to come .
But Britain’s characteristically perfidious strategy on the world arena is fraught with danger.
Despite Britain’s diplomatic experience on the world scale as a former ‘superpower’, especially in the middle East, it will be destined for disappointment if it hopes to cash in without the underlying military force.
Foreign secretary Jack Straw has made the first high level British diplomatic visit to Iran since 1979, ostensibly to galvanise support for action against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. He met with Yasser Arafat for the same purpose. But his trip was also a pitch to be, in the words of the 1997 October Labour Party conference, the ‘best’, if not the ‘biggest’ imperialist power. But, if you are going to ‘punch above your weight’, be prepared for a black eye. Straw’s visit turned into a fiasco as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon initially cancelled a meeting with him because of his “anger, outrage and disappointment” at an article written by Straw for an Iranian newspaper which was taken as support for the Palestinian cause. Bush, speaking from the position of US strength, subsequently told the world that a Palestinian state was always part of the US “vision”, hitting back at Sharon when he compared US behaviour to 1930s appeasement of Nazi Germany.
British imperialism will receive more diplomatic humiliations as a result of the gap between its pretensions and its relative military impotence on the world arena.
The British military has sent an armada to Oman of comparable size to that used in the Falklands War. It’s officially on an exercise, but conveniently placed to intervene in Afghanistan. But the British military is far from integrated into the strategic plans of the Pentagon, as the assistant US Defence Secretary made clear at the recent NATO summit. The ‘allies’ will be called upon only when summoned by the United States. Despite its relative importance in comparison with the military strength of other European powers, the British armed forces are destined to be proved puny in comparison with those of the United States in the coming offensive. Not that this will stop it contributing as much as it can to the escalation of military barbarism and the growing chaos of international relations.
If there is one level at which British imperialism is still the ‘envy of the world’ it is in its propaganda expertise. The British media, particularly its newspapers, were exemplary in adding to the terror of the attacks on the US by giving them every conceivable echo. This was not because of any real human sympathy, but to help reinforce the passivity, fear and perplexity of the population. In the name of humanitarian outrage, it led the world in drawing phoney lessons to reinforce all capitalist states, insisting that the world is faced with two fundamental alternatives: not socialism or barbarism, but democracy or terrorism, good or evil, for which no sacrifice is too great.
The US tells it straight
While President Bush has welcomed British ‘loyalty’, he’s also made clear US determination to make the ‘crusade against terrorism’ a one horse race. You are either for America or against it. Despite the talk of a ‘coalition’ of states, this will not be like the allied coalition in the Gulf War. This time round the only role for other states will be to obey the diktats from Washington.
As the Washington Post (20/9/01) made clear ...
“If Washington broadens the focus beyond bin Laden and perhaps Afghanistan, it will lose the support it needs to carry out the surgical plan effectively. This is the message Mr Bush will hear from President Jacques Chirac of France, Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, the Saudi foreign minister, Saud Faisal, and others this week��Listen to their concerns, Mr President, and be your affable, charming self. But leave your visitors in no doubt that America’s losses will be avenged and America’s vulnerabilities minimised � whether they ride in the posse or not”. Como 4/10/01
(1) When Bush targets those who harbour terrorists as much as the terrorists themselves, he is letting the European powers understand that he is not just talking about ‘rogue’ states in the middle East. The revelations of the ease with which anti-US terrorist networks operated in Britain and Germany, for example, show that the European powers are not the allies of the US they pretend to be.