Future of British foreign policy

Published : Jun 01, 2007 00:00 IST

Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown at the launch of his campaign for Prime Minister, in London, on May 11.-SUZANNE PLUNKETT/BLOOMBERG NEWS

Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown at the launch of his campaign for Prime Minister, in London, on May 11.-SUZANNE PLUNKETT/BLOOMBERG NEWS

In an interview to ukwatch.net historian and author Mark Curtis describes Gordon Brown, the likely successor to Blair, as the ultimate liberalisation theologist.

What do you expect from a Brown premiership? Is British foreign policy likely to change at all?

There have been no public signs that foreign policy is likely to change. Brown has been four-square behind Blair on foreign policy, including, of course, Iraq, which he has financed as Chancellor and publicly defended when required. The real news about Brown succeeding Blair is that it means nothing in policy terms, but a simple fact like this cannot be reported and we can expect endless nonsensical musings on the `changeover' in the mainstream in the coming few weeks. Brown being an identikit to Blair is the only rational argument I can think of for not having a general election - any other argument is a total abuse of democracy, therefore to be expected from new Labour.

In terms of what we can expect from Gordon Brown's premiership, the most extraordinary feature of Brown's public positioning in the last 10 years, to me, has been his total support and defence of big business. This really is quite extraordinary and perhaps unprecedented in the post-war years. Virtually every speech for the last 10 years has been a reassurance to business that Labour is on its side and a defence of `free trade' and ensuring climates around the world favourable for British foreign investment, along with ongoing commitments to low corporation taxes and cutting business regulation.

Brown is the ultimate liberalisation theologist and every one of his policies has pushed in this direction. Brown (and indeed Blair) should be known for their (largely successful) imposition of neoliberal economics on Africa - instead they are hailed in the mainstream as the champions of Africa. The government's propaganda campaign on `development' has been if anything deeper than over Iraq, yet the mainstream media have reported it uncritically, with hardly any deviation. In reality, debt relief, aid and trade policy have all been geared to further liberalising and privatising economies in Africa and elsewhere, with deepening poverty the (well-documented) result. One outcome has been an extraordinary deepening of abuses committed by British and other private corporations around the world, especially in Africa. It is amazing to think this can go unnoticed, but it does.

Britain's fundamental goal in foreign policy is to ensure favourable investment climates for corporations globally, which is no secret and regularly invoked by Ministers (and regularly unreported by journalists) - as in Margaret Beckett's most recent comment on 18 April that the job of government is "to make sure that the rest of the world" is "safe and well-disposed for our businesses". This is the primary reason for the special relationship with the US, the power that can help Britain achieve this globally. This basic goal is more than safe in Brown's hands, his commitment to which reaches quite hysterical heights at times, as with his imploring the CBI last November to be "evangelists for globalisation" through which Britain will "find its destiny as a nation". Incidentally, it is also interesting to read how Brown sees climate change as providing new "opportunities" for British business - a major current theme of his speeches. One can expect therefore for this to remain the fundamental goal of UK foreign policy under Blair, with all this entails for the rest of the world.

What is Tony Blair's legacy? How do you imagine he will be viewed in the future?

I've no doubt that Blair will be seen in the mainstream as a `liberal interventionist' who started well (in Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan) and then overstepped the mark with Iraq, to the extent that he `mislead' the British public, but who was genuinely committed to the cause of Africa. This view is totally absurd and therefore can be expected to dominate discussions in the mainstream. It doesn't matter how much evidence emerges as to the reality of Kosovo in 1999 and the bombing of Yugoslavia to counter the mainstream view that Kosovo was all about defending human rights; I dealt with more plausible explanations in Web of Deceit and there are various other analyses.

Remember, though, we are dealing here with a very primitive mainstream political culture: it doesn't and cannot recognise obvious policies such as the extraordinary British support provided to the brutal regime in Colombia, the total backing of Russia's bloody onslaught against Chechnya (including the flattening of its capital city in 1999/2000), and of support for Indonesia's attacks on Aceh and West Papua (with British arms), to name but some, while it remains incapable of recognising British support under Blair (fairly unequivocal, actually) for Israel.

One day, you never know, the BBC might mention Britain's extraordinary abuse of the legal system to prevent the Chagos islanders returning to even the outlying islands in the archipelago, let alone Diego Garcia - but this is admittedly very unlikely. Or perhaps mention might be made that while Blair and Brown profess their support for `democracy' in the Middle East, their closest ally is Oman - whose despot was installed in a British coup 37 years ago!

The official theology has it that Zimbabwe is the only repressive regime in Africa - since it is an official enemy, it is the subject of endless media articles while Mugabe is (correctly) seen as a total despot. Nigeria, on the other hand, is a key ally and oil-rich state which our companies benefit from - therefore it wouldn't be right to mention obvious facts such as that the military in Nigeria is complicit in far more deaths in recent years than even Zimbabwe's.

Blair should be remembered as a war criminal who has made the world a more dangerous place. I can think of no other British Prime Minister who has been so contemptuous of human rights as Blair, the one possible exception being Harold Wilson's government of 1964-70, which covertly supported the bloodbath in Indonesia in 1965, removed the Chagos islanders, provided a mountain of weaponry to the Nigerian government to wipe out three million people in Biafra, armed Baghdad as it began major operations against the Kurds and offered significant private support to the US attack on Vietnam. I think it is very clear that the world has been made more dangerous as a direct result of British foreign policy, not only since Iraq but before.

For example, it would be entirely rational for Iran to develop nuclear weapons - it has been repeatedly threatened with invasion. Indeed, there is a much stronger rational case for Iran to have these weapons than Britain. The UK faces no conceivable military threat and is not surrounded by enemies. It is simply a rational insurance policy for any regime to have nuclear weapons these days since you might end up on the receiving end of a cruise missile attack or carpet bombing on some flimsy pretext or other from the wackos in the White House and Number 10. We should also bear in mind why the UK has `decided' to retain nuclear weapons (there never was a decision; having nuclear weapons is in the blood of Whitehall mandarins who crave a world role and could not conceivably give them up): again, it cannot be stated in the mainstream, but these weapons are useful in delivering threats to recalcitrant states (as over the Falklands and against Iraq) as well as upholding British power, notably with the US.

I would also make mention of possibly the most extraordinary planning document of the Blair years - the December 2003 `Defence white paper', which outlined a major new phase of British military intervention around the world - "expeditionary operations" and "power projection", complete with a new generation of cruise missiles and aircraft carriers. Geoff Hoon, the Defence Minister at the time, was talking of one operation a year. This document was deemed so important that I remember seeing one article in The Guardian.

No doubt it would, though, have been noticed by various governments' `defence' departments. In other ways too, the world has become more dangerous. The constant flouting of international law by Bush and Blair (not only over the 2003 invasion but before) means it will be much more difficult to invoke international law in future crises - and China and Russia, along with the US and Britain, are worrying in this regard. One should also not underestimate the extent of British arms exports around the world under Blair - arming (modernising) key states such as Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and Israel - heaven knows how these might be used in the future. I've just done some research on UK arms exports - at least 45 billion worth has been sold by Britain over the past 10 years, an incredible legacy. In all this light, if it is possible to think of some positive features of foreign policy under Blair - they pale in comparison with the big picture.

How do you interpret the Iran "hostage" crisis? What are its implications in terms of the likelihood of an American assault on Iran?

I suppose its most important aspect, in the wider scheme of things, was the public humiliation of the UK by an independent nationalist regime. Something similar is currently happening in Venezuela, where Chavez has the weird idea of using national resources for the purposes of national development rather than international companies - for which he has incurred the wrath of the UK and US governments, and their media of course. (In the real world, one might judge the UK's commitment to development by its stance towards Venezuela - that is, total opposition to a government which, while far from angelic, has an essentially pro-poor agenda.) But on Iran, I doubt the crisis has made much difference to the prospect of a US assault, or the possible British role in that, though if anything, it probably undermines the case for war by showing that the Iranians can be negotiated with. I am presuming that the British elite is opposed to, and extremely worried by, the prospect of a US attack on Iran.

For one thing, the military is totally opposed - they already want to pull out of Iraq without getting bogged down against a much more powerful opponent. For another, the incoming Gordon Brown would barely survive politically a UK role in a US attack on Iran given that the British public is likely to be overwhelmingly opposed.

Whitehall has no doubt drawn up contingencies of its possible reactions to a US attack. I would imagine the only serious possibilities are some kind of UK logistical support for the US (eg, use of UK air bases) or, as a maximum, some kind of other military/intelligence support roles. An actual UK role in war-fighting is, I think, inconceivable at this time. I do think, though, that a US attack is less likely than likely, again at the current time - if it were simply a question of bombing Iran's nuclear plants, this is doable militarily, but WMD [weapons of mass destruction] is again the public pretext for action rather than the major concern and Iran presents a much bigger problem, not least in Iraq, and targeted strikes on the country without toppling the leadership are likely to strengthen the regime. Rationally, it would backfire - not, of course, that we can rely on the rationality of those in the White House.

No doubt, the UK and the US are using all their available assets to covertly incite unrest within Iran, as some reports suggest. This of course was a feature of the 1953 overthrow and is entirely to be expected now. UK planners must be extremely worried about the prospect of rising Iranian influence in southern Iraq, a majority Shia area, together with perennial ongoing concerns about the majority Shia areas in the other major oil state, Saudi Arabia.

What is the significance of Britain's troop reduction in Iraq? Why is Britain reducing its presence in an area central to Anglo-American concern, Iraq, and increasing its presence in Afghanistan - a nation of peripheral importance to the imperial states?

The British elite is of course now faced with a massive dilemma in Iraq - faced with complete chaos and rising atrocities (which every Whitehall planner and Minister is perfectly aware of, while they constantly lie in public about things improving) alongside massive public opposition, the UK cannot simply withdraw troops without (a) incurring the wrath of Washington, (b) being seen to fail abjectly, another humiliation akin to the invasion of Egypt in 1956 and (c) failing to establish in Iraq a government that can guarantee Western control over the country's and region's oil, the reason for intervening in the first place. I think the 2003 invasion was intended to ensure that at least one of the three major oil producers - Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia - was made a pure Western bastion and `stable', given an enemy government in Iran and ongoing major uncertainty in Saudi Arabia. The government's concerns about `energy security' were clearly outlined in a February 2003 document, released just weeks before the invasion, which stated that the UK would soon become dependent on imported oil and gas and that key relations needed to be developed with the world's leading energy suppliers.

The document was again ignored in the mainstream press, who helped maintain the pretext that the invasion could not possibly have anything to do with oil. The point is that from an elite point of view, things are looking even shakier now than before. `Energy security' has been a major theme of Blair's speeches and recent government documents - another worrying trend and a further good argument for ending dependence on fossil fuels. Why Afghanistan? I think first the official explanation of preventing the resurgence of terrorist bases has some truth. The major issue, though, is that the key base for global terrorist operations currently is not in Afghanistan but in the border areas in Pakistan, where [Pakistan President Pervez] Musharraf has long delayed acting against terrorist groups, in fact has de facto supported them, along with elements in Pakistan's ISI. This is Pakistan our ally, to whom Britain has just doubled aid and signed various other cooperation agreements.

But I think the major reason now for the increased British presence in Afghanistan may well actually be the same as in Kosovo in 1999 - credibility. Most NATO countries have categorically refused to commit or increase their troop presence in Afghanistan, leaving Britain the choice of seeing the rise of the Taliban and/or the prospect of an independent government in Kabul, or else commit itself.

Given the calamity in Iraq, a total failure in Afghanistan could have tremendous impacts on the Western ability to impose order around the world. If even a weak state with a reluctant army and hated dictator (Iraq) cannot be controlled, and neither can a failed state with no formal army (Afghanistan), what hope does the Anglo-American alliance have of continuing to shape the world in its interests? I think there is a lot at stake here for the UK/US elite, especially at a time of a rising China threatening the established world order and with energy resources far from under the full control of the US/UK alliance.

What is your view of the Iraq "surge"? What do you imagine the likely consequences of the surge will be?

The surge is surely an act of desperation, an acknowledgement that even with a massive number of troops, the country cannot be controlled and organised to White House demands. The outcome is likely to be more violence and deaths, which indeed, seems to have occurred if the recent figures are anything to go by. Given that the US and the UK are responsible - either directly or indirectly - for much of the violence in the country, the surge should have been reported as a further criminal act; instead, it was quite invariably regarded as an attempt to bring `security'.

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