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The Special Relationship
However, in order to reach a comprehensive understanding of the nature of the so-called special relationship between both nations today, it is necessary to chart the history of those relations going all the way back to the aftermath of the First World War, when the Middle East’s vast oil reserves first became the subject of the inter-imperialist rivalry which has largely shaped global and historical events ever since.
It was in the aftermath of the ‘war to end all wars’ that the United States first began to emerge as a global power. The US had entered the war in late 1917, the point at which the European powers had fought themselves to a near standstill and their economies were exhausted. America’s entry on the side of the Allies ensured that the Axis powers could not conceivably continue what had become a war of attrition, and the victory of the Allies was cemented first with the signing of the Armistice in 1918, which ended the fighting, followed in 1919 by the infamous Treaty of Versailles, which set the terms of the peace. The glittering prize of the Allied victory was the former Ottoman Empire in the Middle East, duly carved up according to the provisions of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, a hitherto secret treaty between the French and British empires in 1916 that was made public by the Bolsheviks in the wake of the Russian Revolution in 1917, along with various other ‘secret’ treaties between the imperialist powers.
Under the terms of Sykes-Picot what were to become Lebanon and Syria were incorporated into the French Empire, while what was to become Jordan, Palestine and the two southern provinces of Iraq, Baghdad and Basra, were granted to the British. What couldn’t be agreed was who was to get Mosul in northern Iraq. Under the terms of Sykes-Picot it was accorded to the French, but with the huge and as yet undeveloped oil deposits that were known to be located there, the British were determined to have Mosul under their control and four days after the Turkish surrender in 1918 British troops moved in to create that very fact on the ground.
It was here that the United States saw an opportunity to further its own global economic and strategic ambitions. Indeed, one of the conditions of US entry into the war in 1917 was that its economic interests be taken into account in any postwar settlement. Just two years later, however, prominent members of the British establishment were already starting to grow worried about the extent of US designs on what they viewed as their possessions in the Middle East. Sir Arthur Hirtzel, a leading official in the then Colonial Office, warned his colleagues in 1919 that, “It should be borne in mind that the Standard Oil Company is very anxious to take over Iraq’.
In the face of British and French domination in the region, the US demanded an ‘open door policy’, allowing US oil companies to freely negotiate contracts with the new Iraqi government headed by King Faisal, whom the British had installed as a puppet monarchy over their new colonial acquisition.
The solution to the impasse over Mosul among the victorious allies was an equal division of Iraq’s oil among the relevant parties, with the British keeping the province as part of their new colonial possession.
The oil was split five ways - 23.75% each to Britain, France, Holland (Shell) and the US, with the remaining 5% going to the man who helped to negotiate the deal, Calouste Gulbenkian, an Armenian oil magnate.
Zero percent of Iraq’s oil was accorded to Iraq, which is how it stayed until the revolution of 1958.
In 1927, major oil exploration got underway and two years later the Iraqi Petroleum Company, comprised of Anglo-Iranian (today British Petroleum), Shell, Mobil and Standard Oil of New Jersey (Exxon), was set up to oversee Iraqi oil production.
During the same period, the al-Saud family conquered much of the neighbouring Arabian Peninsula. Saudi Arabia subsequently came into being in the 1930s and the US housed its first embassy Saudi Arabia in the headquarters of California-Arabian Standard Oil (later ARAMCO) in Riyadh in 1943.
The Second World War heralds US hegemony
However, the United States still wasn’t satisfied with the concessions it had won in the Middle East. In order to feed its growing economy, it desired complete control of the oil in the region, an objective which would entail displacing the British, who at that time were still the dominant force.
The opportunity to change this state of affairs came with the advent of the Second World War. Fought on a scale and with a destructive capacity which dwarfed the first, it exhausted the economies and/or destroyed the infrastructures of every one of the belligerent nations involved except one – the United States. In contrast to every other nation involved, the American economy emerged both completely unscathed and considerably stronger. In fact, out of the Second World War emerged the US war economy, which continues to this day as a major driver of US government-funded research and development, technological innovation, and exports.
The figures for US industrial output during WWII are truly staggering: 296,000 aircraft; 102,000 tanks; 372,000 artillery pieces; 20 million small arms; and 2.5 million trucks. Taken altogether, this constituted 50 percent of the world’s total industrial output over the period concerned. In effect, the US became the world’s leading armaments manufacturer and exporter, which remains the case.
In contradistinction to the huge impetus Second World War gave to the US economy, it left the British economy on its knees. The loss of key colonies, such as India in 1948, was a direct result of Britain’s inability to maintain them. This comes as no surprise when we consider that in the early stages of the war, 1939-42, it wasn’t even certain that Britain could survive. Indeed, without US entry into the war in late 1941, with its massive input of resources and desperately needed materiel, there is no reason to believe she would have. By 1944, even though the tide had turned and an Allied victory was more or less certain, it was clear that Britain would never recover her former dominance on the world stage among the capitalist powers in the war’s aftermath, such was the state of her economy.
The Lend-Lease Agreement between the US and Britain, by which Britain received vital supplies and equipment, loaned for the duration of hostilities, in exchange for the leasing of military bases to the US in Newfoundland, Bermuda, and the British West Indies, was abruptly ended by the Truman administration after the war. This left Britain in a vulnerable state, as in order to protect its strategic and economic interests around the globe in the postwar world, it needed to retain the military equipment that had been supplied by the US. The solution to the crisis came in the shape of an Anglo-American loan from the US Treasury.
The necessity of such a loan was self evident. Britain had been forced to run up huge debts to support the war effort, borrowing heavily from the United States and also from Commonwealth and imperial holders of sterling. Additionally, vital reserves of gold and foreign currency had been run down to finance imports of food, oil, and the raw materials necessary to support its own production of armaments
John Maynard Keynes was appointed to head the British delegation during the negotiation of the US loan and its terms and conditions. He estimated that Britain would need £1 billion (approx $4 billion) to finance her external payments in the first year of peace, and a further $8 billion over the next three to five years. At the time British gold and dollar reserves stood at less than $500 million.
Keynes' attempt to negotiate an interest-free grant of $5 billion was rejected by the Americans, who were keen to force the British to turn sterling from a fixed to a convertible currency and to dismantle the so-called ‘sterling area’ of countries holding substantial reserves of sterling in their foreign exchange accounts to facilitate trade with Britain. The Americans were determined to gain access to these markets on behalf of US banks and manufacturers and this was their opportunity. There was also the added US motivation of making life difficult for a newly elected Labour government with, in their view, dangerous socialist leanings towards a welfare state and the trade union movement.
In the end, the British delegation had little choice other than to accept American terms of a $5 billion loan with interest payable at 2 percent after five years. These terms were more generous than could have been found at commercial rates, however combined with American insistence of the convertibility of sterling (introduced in 1947) it was an arrangement which ultimately damaged the British economy.
But this was no surprise, for in the latter stages of the war, both the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, dominated by big banking, oil and other corporate interests, were determined to restructure the post-war world so as to ensure the dominant position of the United States.
The key elements in their strategy was US military superiority in nuclear and conventional weaponry; US-economic hegemony using the newly created International Monetary Fund and World Bank, with the emergence of the dollar as the dominant international reserve currency; and control of the world’s natural resources, in particular oil. Indeed, with the war still raging, a struggle for economic hegemony in the postwar world was already unfolding between the allies. The extent of the imperialist rivalry between them is revealed in a message sent to President Roosevelt by Churchill just a few months before D-Day in 1944.
“Thank you very much for your assurances about no sheep’s eyes on our oilfields in Iran and Iraq,” Churchill wrote to the president. “Let me reciprocate by giving you the fullest assurance that we have no thought of trying to horn in upon your interests or property in Saudi Arabia. My position in this as in all-matters is that Great Britain seeks no advantage, territorial or otherwise, as a result of this war. On the other hand she will not be deprived of anything which rightly belongs to her after having given her best services to the good cause - at least not so long as your humble servant is entrusted with the conduct of her affairs.”
Be that as it may, Churchill and the British ruling class were unable to deny the new reality of US hegemony in the postwar world, and therefore decided that Britain’s imperial interests would be best served in maintaining as close a relationship with the United States as possible. Indeed, it was Churchill who coined the term ‘special relationship’, during his famous Iron Curtain speech of March 1946 in Fulton, Missouri.
Marshall Plan and Containment
The much vaunted Marshall Plan came in the wake of the formulation of the Truman Doctrine, outlined in a speech by the then US President to Congress in 1947. In effect, it pledged that the US would resist the advance of communism throughout the world in a policy of ‘containment’ devised by State Department official and Kremlinologist, George Kennan. In concrete terms, containment set in place a belligerent and confrontational stance against the West’s former ally in the war against fascism, with Truman’s speech marking the beginning of the Cold War.
Officially, the Marshall Plan was implemented to provide economic aid to help in the rebuilding of the infrastructures and economies of European nations destroyed as a result of the war. In truth, it was introduced in order to lessen the influence and appeal of communism and communist ideas throughout Western Europe among peoples who’d emerged from the cataclysm of the Second World War poverty-stricken and destitute. It was also implemented with the objective of creating markets for growing US exports and to keep Europe dependent on US economic aid. The aid itself was used more as a political weapon than as a way to ensure peace through prosperity in the war’s aftermath, evidenced in the priority given to those nations, France, Greece and Italy, in which strong and popular communist movements posed a genuine threat to the status quo.
NATO was formed in 1949 with the stated purpose of countering the threat of Soviet expansionism, ensuring a permanent US military presence in Europe which continues to this day. However, the stated purpose of NATO’s formation was at odds with the truth, described succinctly by Cold War historian, Melvyn Leffler, who wrote
“The Truman administration supported the Atlantic Alliance primarily because it was indispensable to the promotion of European stability through German integration.” Leffler went on to state that whilst preparing for the key meeting at which NATO was established, US officials “became convinced that the Soviets might really be interested in striking a deal, unifying Germany, and ending the division of Europe.”
Leffler’s assertion is confirmed by George Kennan, who said of the US policy in Europe at the time:
“The trend of our thinking means that we do not want to see Germany reunified at this time, and that there are no conditions on which we would really find such a solution satisfactory.”
While this was taking place, British society was going through one of the most major and historic transformations in its history. The wartime government headed by Winston Churchill and the Tories suffered a major and humiliating defeat in the 1945 general election, which came just a few months after the allied victory over the Nazis. Labour romped home with a 173-seat majority, having fought the election on a manifesto inspired by the 1942 Beveridge Report into poverty and the extent of the social and economic injustice that had long bedeviled British society. ‘Freedom from Want’ was Labour’s short but very effective slogan, tapping into the mood of the returning troops from the war and working class communities the length and breadth of the country.
Such a major shift to the left had the US establishment worried. Indeed, many within the US government feared it presaged Britain turning communist altogether.
There was little reason to fear. The newly installed Labour government, under Clement Attlee, was every bit as committed to the Atlantic Alliance as its predecessor - unsurprisingly given the reliance of the British economy on US largesse. Moreover, the reforms that were instituted at home were to be financed in large part by the exploitation of Britain’s remaining colonies being intensified, which had the effect of giving added impetus to the various anti-colonial struggles which had erupted throughout the Empire in the postwar period.
Perhaps most significant was the fact that the introduction of the welfare state, nationalisation, and government investment to bolster demand, nullified any real threat of a working class revolt inspired by the spread of communism throughout Europe, as the Americans feared. In this the dictum of ‘take away man’s need for bread and you take away his need for revolution’ was perfectly illustrated.
Suez and the rise of Arab nationalism
Though the British ruling class had been forced to accept the new postwar reality of the emergence of the US as the dominant global capitalist power (the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944 had put in place a global economic system which reflected US domination over markets, currency, and industrial output), in strategic terms there still remained a significant section of the British establishment which refused to acknowledge or accede to Britain’s status as a diminishing power.
This was illustrated by the Suez Crisis of 1956, when Britain, under a Conservative government led by Anthony Eden, entered into a secret military pact with France and the Israelis to seize back control of the newly nationalized Suez Canal from Egypt and in the process topple popular Egyptian President, Gamal Abdel Nasser, from power and put in his place a pliant alternative.
Nasser was the inspiration behind the spread of Arab nationalism, which verily swept through the Middle East in the fifties and sixties and succeeded in uniting a significant and growing proportion of the Arab world. With Soviet influence becoming more of a factor in the region as well, Britain, France, Israel, and the United States had reason to be worried. By exerting control of the Canal, Nasser had de facto control of the shipping which passed through it and therefore the Canal’s role as a vital oil transportation route was threatened. Britain’s access to what remained of its empire was also placed under pressure by the takeover, while the French were increasingly concerned over Nasser’s role in supporting the Algerian national liberation struggle that was gathering steam and threatening its ability to maintain its status as a colonial power, especially in the wake of having been forced out of Indo-China by the Vietnamese. As for the Israelis, they saw such an operation as a vital to weakening the strategic threat which Nasser posed to their southern border.
An idea of the potency of the threat to the West which Nasser and Arab nationalism constituted during this period can be garnered from the following quotes from his speech to the Egyptian people announcing the nationalisation of the Suez Canal:
“This, O citizens, is the battle in which we are now involved. It is a battle against imperialism and the methods and tactics of imperialism, and a battle against Israel, the vanguard of imperialism . . . ”
“Arab nationalism progresses. Arab nationalism triumphs. Arab nationalism marches forward; it knows its road and it knows it strength. Arab nationalism knows who are its enemies and who are its friends.”
Prior to the operation to take back control of the Canal, and in response to Nasser’s growing influence, the Americans had been the inspiration and driving force behind the formation of the Baghdad Pact – or Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO) – in 1955. It was a military agreement drawn up between the US, Britain, Turkey, Pakistan, and Iraq, designed to counter the possibility of Soviet encroachment and the growing power of Nasser and the Arab nationalism he espoused.
The pact was immediately perceived as a threat by the Soviets. In response they issued the following statement through their Ministry of Foreign Affairs:
“Military blocs in the Near and Middle East are needed, not by the countries of that area, but by those aggressive American circles which are trying to establish domination there. They are also needed by those British circles which, by means of these blocs, are trying to retain and restore their shaken positions, in spite of the vital interests of the peoples of the Near and Middle East who have taken the road of independent national development.”
The military operation to wrest back control of the Suez Canal involved an Israeli invasion of the Sinai, designed to push the Egyptians as far back as possible, before the French and British intervened as ‘honest brokers’ to end hostilities, at which point they would demand that both sides withdraw to a distance of 16 km on either side of the Canal Zone. This in effect would mean the reoccupation of Suez, with anticipated negative consequences for Nasser’s credibility within Egypt and throughout the Arab world.
It was, however, a plan devised and implemented without any prior consultation with the United States, which in the end was to prove its undoing.
The Egyptians resisted what was obviously a plan to seize control of the Canal and refused the Anglo-French ultimatum to pull their forces back. In response Britain sent in bombers to attack Egyptian defensive positions preparatory to an invasion of the Canal Zone by French and British troops a few days later.
Though the military operation was a success, the British and French were forced to withdraw by the Americans. In fact the then US president, Dwight D Eisenhower, was incensed at the operation and immediately threatened to implement, through its Saudi proxy, an oil embargo against both the French and the British, in addition to financial sanctions against the British by selling off substantial amounts of sterling held by the US Treasury.
The following statement by Eisenhower reveals his motivation in taking the action he did, along with the extent of the inter-imperialist rivalry which obtained between the US and its so-called allies in the West:
“How could we possibly support Britain and France, if in doing so we lose the whole Arab world?”
The interesting aspect to the denouement of the crisis was the different ways in which France and Britain reacted to their humiliating retreat. France refused to acquiesce to US domination and thereafter sought closer ties with its European neighbours, in particular Germany, with the objective of forging Western Europe into an economic and strategic rival to the US. As for Britain, its reaction was a study in venality and pusillanimity. Eschewing the French example of resistance to US domination, Britain instead actively subordinated itself to the United States, deciding, once and for all, that its interests were best served in deferring to its larger imperial rival and taking on the role of junior partner.
US moves to topple and undermine Labour governments
It is a policy which has underpinned British foreign policy ever since, apart from a brief interregnum during the years of the Heath government, by far the most Europhile of any British Government since the Second World War. However, in terms of Conservative governments, the one led by Heath was nothing more than an aberration in relation to the special relationship. In fact, up until the Labour Party’s transformation from a party of the millions to a party of the millionaires, in a process begun under Kinnock and completed with the emergence of Tony Blair as leader in 1994, it had always been Labour governments which the US establishment viewed with suspicion, even outright hostility.
The harsh loan terms imposed by the Americans on the postwar Labour government, led by Clement Attlee, have already been explored. But it is the possibility that the CIA, working in conjunction with MI5, set out to undermine the Labour government of Harold Wilson in the late sixties and early seventies, which best illustrates the machinations and connections between an ideologically driven US establishment and its British counterpart. Known as the ‘Wilson Plot’, it is alleged to have begun when the CIA passed information to MI5 to the effect that Harold Wilson was a Soviet agent. In response, MI5 are said to have placed the then prime minister and his closest aides under surveillance, breaking into their residences to plant listening devices, tapping their phones, as well as disseminating smear stories through their contacts in Fleet Street.
This isn’t as far fetched as it might seem given the paranoia which existed within the British establishment and its US counterpart during the Cold War. Add to this the power and rise of the trade union movement in Britain during this period, the industrial unrest which had afflicted the British economy, along with the potency of leftist ideas, and the resulting panic which this induced among the British ruling class was palpable. From their point of view it was also understandable.
Former MI5 agent, Peter Wright, alleged that such a campaign took place in his controversial expose of the intelligence services, Spycatcher. Harold Wilson himself believed he was the victim of a plot, which he discussed candidly in a 2006 documentary made by the BBC and unimaginatively titled ‘The Plot Against Harold Wilson’. Indeed, Wilson went further and alleged that a military coup was being planned to depose him with the support of members of the Royal Family, specifically Lord Mountbatten, whom, it is alleged, would have been installed as an interim Prime Minister in the immediate aftermath. And lest such assertions be discounted as delusional, in the documentary they are corroborated by other senior figures of the period.
In 1976 another attempt to destabilise a Labour-led British government at the instigation of the United States took place, this time under the auspices of the IMF.
The British economy had been suffering from hyper-inflation and a sterling crisis, both a result of global events impacting on the inherent contradictions that existed within the Keynesian model of managed capitalism that had obtained both in Britain and throughout the West since the end of the Second World War. The decision of OPEC to cut oil production in 1973, in protest at the West’s support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War, had sent energy prices rocketing. In conjunction with an already falling rate of profit as a consequence of the rise on the organic composition of capital, whereby wages were depressed in order to facilitate increased investment in new technology, machinery, etc., required by industry in order to survive in highly competitive global markets, the resulting inflationary pressure meant that wages and terms and conditions were attacked by employers in an attempt to maintain their profits. With a strong labour movement in place, this was resisted, with the result that capital investment dried up, precipitating a currency crisis as foreign investors looked elsewhere.
Facing economic collapse, the then Labour government, under Jim Callaghan, approached the IMF for a bailout loan. The IMF, though ostensibly an international institution, is in reality controlled by the United States. Its headquarters are in Washington and the US alone, of every one of the IMF member states, has the power of veto over the granting of loans and decisions made by its board. The terms and conditionality attached to IMF loans throughout its history has reflected a US agenda, both political and economic; and both the political and economic merged to ensure a deepening of industrial unrest and social strife in Britain in 1976 in return for an emergency loan to bail out the British economy.
The conditions attached to the loan included an immediate wage freeze and cuts in public spending. What ensued as a consequence was a huge battle as the organised working class fought to maintain its standard of living. The resulting political crisis ended in the arrival in Downing Street of the most committed, determined and ruthless class warrior in modern history – Margaret Thatcher.
Class war under Thatcher and Reagan
Thatcher’s reign coincided with that of another right wing zealot and class warrior in the White House, Ronald Reagan. Together they began the neoliberal structural readjustment of their respective domestic economies, with devastating impact on the poor and the working class. Indeed, such was the strength of her moral and personal dedication to the destruction of anything that even smacked of collectivism, much less socialism, Thatcher’s government enjoyed the most equal and influential relationship with its US counterpart than any other British government before or since. During the Falklands War in 1982, for example, despite its declared neutrality, the US supplied the British with satellite intelligence and fuel, supplied through the joint US and British military base on Ascension Island off the coast of Africa.
Even so, regardless of the affection and esteem in which Reagan undoubtedly held the Iron Lady, US interests – strategic, economic, or otherwise - continued to be placed above any personal considerations when it came to the special relationship.
This was demonstrated in 1983 when US armed forces invaded the tiny island nation of Grenada in the Caribbean, doing so in response to the presence of Cuban engineers and construction workers on the island, engaged in the expansion of the island’s airport. A British colony up until it was given its independence in 1974, Grenada continued with the Queen as its head of state thereafter, making it part of the Commonwealth. However, any such constitutional niceties were ignored by the Reagan administration, which ordered the invasion without either prior consultation or indeed notification being given to its British counterpart.
Three years later, in 1986, Thatcher still allowed the use of RAF bases in a US air strike on Libya with the aim of killing Libyan President, Colonel Muammar Gadaffi. This was in retaliation for the earlier bombing of a Berlin nightclub frequented by US military personnel, an attack which the US blamed on the Libyans. Britain was the only European country to cooperate with the subsequent US military operation, which failed to kill the Libyan President but did kill his infant daughter, injure two of his sons, and is thought to have killed around 40 others.
More importantly, Thatcher proved a vital US ally in Europe by maintaining a pro active stance towards the Soviet Union, as well as keeping Europe weakened and divided by consistently standing in the way of attempts by France and Germany to foment closer European integration as a counterweight to US economic and political hegemony. Her success in doing so can be measured in the years it took for Britain to join the ERM; and when it did in 1990 it was motivated by desperation in response to rampant inflation and a recession which had seriously undermined the value of sterling. Even so, Thatcher still attempted to prevent the establishment of a single European currency, though she failed to get her way.
An interesting insight into Thatcher’s view of Europe vis-à-vis the United States is revealed in a speech she gave to The Hague in 1992. The title of the speech was ‘Europe’s Political Architecture’. In it she said:
“Mr Chairman, in world affairs for most of this century Europe has offered problems, not solutions. The founders of the European Community were consciously trying to change that. Democracy and prosperity in Europe were to be an example to other peoples in other continents.
“Sometimes this view took an over-ambitious turn with talk of Europe as a third force brokering between two superpowers of East and West.
“This approach was always based upon a disastrous illusion — that Western Europe could at some future date dispense with the military defence offered by the United States.
“Now that the forces of Communism have retreated and the threat which Soviet tanks and missiles levelled at the heart of Europe has gone, there is a risk that the old tendency towards de-coupling Europe from the United States may again emerge.
“This is something against which Europeans themselves must guard — and of which the United States must be aware.”
Thatcher’s demise and the emergence of New Labour
As Thatcher herself affirmed, her most significant achievement was the creation of New Labour, in effect an end to the Labour Party as the political expression of collectivist ideas within British society and the advent of Britain, following the example of the US, as a one party state with two right wings.
Indeed, when Tony Blair took political centre stage, he did so as the capitalist embodiment of the aphorism: ‘Cometh the hour. Cometh the man’.
The free market fundamentalism of the Thatcher-Reagan era had succeeded in defeating and de-clawing the organised working class in both countries. It also brought into being the conscious underdevelopment of the southern hemisphere as the condition for the super profits of the northern, in line with the prerogatives of that extreme variant of capitalism, neoliberalism, which reflected the global economic, military, and political dominance of the United States in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
While Thatcher’s nakedly anti-working class and anti-trade union policies, which manifested in the unleashing of a class war, may have succeeded in leaving the organised British beleagured and demoralized, they also led to her eventual undoing when, imbued with the arrogance of victory, she made the mistake of implementing the Poll Tax. It was a tax so draconian and iniquitous it rejuvenated and united a class whose defeat had largely been the result of Thatcher’s prior policy of taking it on a section at a time.
But by the time of her eventual defeat and ousting from Downing Street in 1990, when she was replaced by a less than able successor in the shape of John Major, the ideological battle with the Labour Party had been won. Blair completed the party’s rightward shift with the abandonment of Clause IV, a refusal to pledge to repeal Thatcher’s anti-union laws, and a commitment to privatization and the needs of big business and the City, manifested most obviously in the handing over of the control of interest rates to the Bank of England.
For the first time in its history the Labour Party turned it face away from the trade unions, in whose interests it was originally formed, and instead focused on attracting the support of a growing middle class, in line with the growth of Britain’s financial, property, and service sectors at the expense of manufacturing and industry.
The Third Way
In this, Blair and his coterie of New Labour acolytes were inspired by Bill Clinton and the so-called New Democrats over in the States. Young, fresh, and idealistic, at the beginning of the nineties they’d replaced a decade of government under Republican administrations which had left American society battered and bruised. The same was true of Britain at the time of Blair’s ascent to Downing Street in 1997. The common denominator behind the disintegration of both societies was the free market structural adjustment of their respective economies throughout the eighties, responsible for the biggest transfer of wealth from the poorest sectors of society to the wealthiest since the 19th century. Under the new incumbents this transfer of wealth was set to continue.
The intellectual foundation of this process, promoted utilising all of the slick marketing techniques associated with the promotion of a new range of cosmetics on the High Street, was the centrist doctrine known as the Third Way. It is a doctrine which claims to transcend left and right wing politics through a synthesis of the two, combining the supposed best of free market economic principals – innovation, risk-taking, competition, wealth creation – and those of social democracy – meritocracy, social justice denoted as equality of opportunity, emphasis on tackling poverty via introduction of work-related benefits such as tax incentives, increased decentralization, emphasis on community, and the contraction of welfare sold as a moral crusade to help the poor drag themselves up.
The universal and supposed ideology-free Third Way came to prominence in the mid to late 1990s in tandem with the ‘End of History’ era of globalisation, the benign-sounding name given to that extreme variant of laissez faire capitalism which, in its modern incarnation, evolved in response to the falling rate of profit throughout the industrialised world from the late sixties onwards and the outsourcing of industry to the developing world which followed.
Capital was given unfettered access to markets and investment opportunities around the world, wherever they may be, regardless of the impact on local economies, exports, and/or the deepening of poverty and poverty-related diseases on the local population. As mentioned it is an economic doctrine which reflects the economic hegemony of the United States, resulting in a mountain of cheap imports flooding the industrialised word, driven by hyperconsumerism which is funded by the increased availability of consumer credit. This consumer credit slowly but surely replaced real wages within both the US and Britain, with the resulting debt bubble spawning an era of unregulated and evermore complicated financial markets, before crashing in late 2007.
Tony Blair and New Labour were determined that Britain would follow America’s example in order to reap a seemingly endless seam of prosperity from that mystical phenomenon, the free market. The City of London was in effect handed complete control of the British economy, as it sought to match its Wall Street counterpart in risk and unfettered trading on the money markets.
The age of humanitarian intervention
In terms of the instability which inevitably resulted throughout the developing world due to the hyper-consumption of the West, creating downward pressure on production costs along with an explosion in demand for oil, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 left the US with a free hand to crack down on dissent via its military power and its ability to project that power on a global scale. The First Gulf War was notable for the ability of the first Bush administration to forge a grand coalition of both Western and Arab nations to expel Iraq from Kuwait, having first received the rubber stamp of a UN resolution.
It was a testament, not only to the skill of US diplomacy at the time, but more importantly to the priority given by the United States to securing the world’s energy supplies and to the power of the dollar in the region.
As for the Atlantic Alliance, Blair signalled his commitment by immediately and unequivocally pledging himself not only to supporting US economic dominance in the globalised world, but also to Britain’s support for that same economic system’s military component, which, following the best traditions of the Orwellian language employed by imperialists throughout history to justify the killing and slaughter of subject peoples and/or the pillaging of their resources, was rolled out under the rubric of ‘humanitarian intervention’. In this the British Prime Minister was merely carrying on the custom of that redoubtable and very British breed of Christian gentleman coloniser who, with a bible in one hand and a musket in the other, sets about the dirty but necessary task of civilising the world in his own image.
The by now legendary account of the briefing which Blair’s appointee to the post of British ambassador to the United States upon his election is illustrative of a relationship that came to be synonymous with illegal and immoral wars, the subversion of international law, and the slaughter of millions of innocent people, grotesquely justified as a necessary consequence of spreading freedom and democracy. The new ambassador, Christopher Meyer, was instructed to “…get up the arse of the White House and stay there.”
Over the next ten years, Britain’s foreign policy under New Labour did indeed resemble the kind of anatomical attachment to US strategic and geopolitical objectives so vividly outlined to the incoming British US ambassador.
Blair’s stated aim in ensuring that the bonhomie he’d enjoyed with Bill Clinton continued seamlessly with George W Bush, probably the most intellectually challenged president in American history, and by far the most mendacious, was to exert a steadying influence. The extent of Blair’s influence was tellingly revealed in the derogatory and condescending nature of Bush’s “Yo, Blair” greeting during an informal exchange at the G8 Summit in St Petersburg back in 2006.
9/11 spawns era of unilateralism
The events of 9/11 resounded throughout the world. But for the Bush administration they did so less as an opportunity for sober reflection on an increasing tide of anti-Americanism, and possible reasons why, and more as a starting pistol heralding the beginning of a imperialist assault on any and all recalcitrant nations and regimes that dare stand in the path of US hegemony.
The declared reasons for attacking and invading Afghanistan were firstly the destruction of Al Qaeda, responsible for 9/11 and who operated training camps and bases there, and secondly the removal of the Taliban from power as punishment for providing Bin Laden and his followers with a safe haven.
In truth, both Iraq and Afghanistan were wars fought to secure the control of oil production and transportation routes. Over the past 20 years US industrial output has steadily declined whilst that of emerging economies of China and India has grown. Indeed, were it not for the US dollar continuing to occupy the status of the world’s major international reserve currency, the United States would not be able to finance its massive national debt, currently standing at some $10 trillion, or just over 70 percent of GDP, and with it the ability to finance a stupendous military budget which guarantees its status as the world’s only superpower. By controlling Iraq’s massive oil reserves, second only to Saudi Arabia’s, the calculation was that the US could break OPEC control of oil prices and essentially hold a Chinese economy dependent on Middle Eastern oil to ransom.
Britain, under Blair, was only too eager to sign up to this mission, with the result that thousands of British troops remain in Afghanistan some 9 years later, struggling to contain a determined and growing resistance. The invasion of Iraq followed in 2003 with disastrous consequences at home and abroad. The blatant violation of international law involved in the decision to go to war has set global relations between the northern and southern hemispheres back generations. And this has refracted back to undermine civil liberties and social cohesion domestically, with Britain’s Muslim community in particular coming under sustained attack. Further, among the nations of the industrialised world both the US and Britain excel in the extent of the social and economic injustice which blights their respective societies, and an increasingly reactionary mainstream press has helped to polarise both along racial and socio-economic lines.
To sum up then, regardless of the interpersonal relationships between any given US President and British Prime Minister, and the claims by proponents of the so-called special relationship, the fact is that Britain has been less a strategic partner to the US and more a client state.
Specifically, with regard to Britain’s military relationship with the US, this is essentially that of a reliable Hessian augmenting US military power around the world. In so saying, however, it must be recognised that in terms of men and resources, Britain’s contribution is more important politically rather than militarily.
Out of the vast network of US military bases and installations around the world, seven are located in the UK. Additionally, Britain’s Trident nuclear capability, based at Faslane in Scotland, is controlled by a US delivery system, in effect integrating it as part of the US global nuclear deterrent and not an independent UK deterrent, as consistently claimed by its adherents within the British establishment.
Since 9/11, British and US intelligence agencies have forged a symbiotic relationship. This is illustrated in the fact that the head of the CIA station in London attends the weekly meeting of Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee. It’s also revealed in the extent of Britain’s participation in the US-declared War on Terror, involving in recent years British complicity in the torture of prisoners, along with complicity in so-called rendition flights: the transporting illegally abducted terror suspects to third-party countries for interrogation under torture.
Ultimately, however, the mountain of bodies left behind in Iraq and Afghanistan when American and British troops finally depart will be history’s testament to the intellectual, moral, and political bankruptcy of an alliance between two political elites who throughout history have excelled in practising statecraft like gangsters.
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