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Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Foreign Affairs Committee and the Death of the Special Relationship?

According to a recent report of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee (FASC) of the House of Commons, Britain should draw back from or downgrade her 'special relationship' with the United States. The press has seized upon a few quotes from the FASC's press release and declared the Anglo-American relationship 'dead'. While this blog rejects that idea, it is interesting that a recent MoD report (see earlier blogs for more details) also makes reference to the increasing importance of the EU's role in Britain's international relationships. That, coupled with another report "Obama's Lukewarm Start With Europe," National Journal, 13 March 2010) on American President Barack Obama's failure significantly to alter his country's general view of Europe - much derided during the Bush era - as not "pulling its weight" in international conflicts, especially Afghanistan, does suggest it is worth keeping an eye on possible, though subtle, shifts in Anglo-American relations. None of this is to deny the continuing and fundamental character of the Anglo-American alliance and relationship in general. Britain's nuclear capacity is profoundly tied into that relationship: for example, Britain does not even own or control all the data necessary in the computer software that would permit it to train its missiles on targets other than those already determined by the US. For example, the UK could not train its missiles on the United States (not, of course, a course of action this blog would recommend). The point is that Britain's 'independent' nuclear deterrent is completely dependent on the US. This is not news: it has been pointed out in report after report since, in my own experience, at least the 1970s. But the popular and other press hardly concerns itself with such uncomfortable facts. This blog congratulates Professor Norman Dombey (Sussex University) for his written evidence to the FASC which has not been given very much, if any serious coverage: do see it at: (If this does not work, Google Foreign Affairs Select Committee and you should get there).

Of course, Britain's military forces are almost entirely integrated into US-dominated NATO forces. According to Professor Dombey, the exclusive character of US-UK nuclear relations means that Britain would be violating agreements made with the US, during the cold war, by sharing nuclear information with its EU partners.

FASC chairman, Mike Gapes MP, argues, in his 'rejection' of excessive deference towards the US, that Britain ought to take a leaf out of President Obama's book and be more 'pragmatic'. There is no hint of the irony implied by such a statement. Gapes also says that "The UK needs to adopt a more hard-headed political approach towards our relationship with the US with a realistic sense of our own limits and our national interests.

"Certainly the UK must continue to position itself closely alongside the US but there is a need to be less deferential and more willing to say no where our interests diverge. In a sense, the UK foreign policy approach this Committee is advocating is in many ways similar to the more pragmatic tone which President Obama has adopted towards the UK.

"The UK and US have a close and valuable relationship not only in terms of intelligence and security but also in terms of our profound and historic cultural and trading links and commitment to freedom, democracy and the rule of law. But the use of the phrase 'the special relationship' in its historical sense, to describe the totality of the ever-evolving UK-US relationship, is potentially misleading, and we recommend that its use should be avoided."

Interestingly, Gapes then suggests that: "Yes, we have a special relationship with the US, but we must remember that so too do other countries including regional neighbours, strategic allies and partners. British and European politicians have been guilty of over-optimism about the extent of influence they have over the US. We must be realistic and accept that globalisation, structural changes and shifts in geopolitical power will inevitably affect the UK-US relationship. It is entirely logical for the US to pursue relationships with other partners who can provide support that the UK cannot. Having said that, recent minor disagreements between the UK and US do not threaten the relationship. Rather they highlight a need for better understanding between our governments to maintain its strength."

This hardly reads as a rejection of the special relationship, a term that needs considerable unpacking in any case.

In addition to the military alliance with the US, Britain and America are almost inextricably bound up with each other. I am not referring here to linguistic, cultural, and political-historical connections: those factors are profoundly important if difficult to tease out in regard to their political significance.

Here, I am referring to what has been pointed out by Robert Worcester: Britain and the US are each other's largest foreign investor; thousands of US public servants and officials visit their UK counterparts each year, dwarfing the levels of such exchanges with any other nation.

And, although globalisation may be changing the world in myriad ways, Britain and the United States are the two major driving forces behind the entire process. Recall, the MoD's attachment to Britain's role in defending global flows - of people, ideas, money, trade, and so on.

It may be imprecise to call the relationship 'special': it is certainly too early to declare it dead.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Safe from external attack but be prepared for perpetual warfare: part 2

The MoD's Report, Adaptability and Partnership (see part 1 below for more details), suggests new investment is being considered for language and area studies programmes. This is, of course, curious or certainly betrays an Orwellian sense of the nature and purposes of scholarly research. Normally, university scholarship aims at generating new knowledge or insights into the world in which we live, contributing original thought to old or new issues, processes or problems. But, given the Report's failure to attribute any motivation for the behaviour of Britain's "enemies", and exhibit any interest in investigating such matters, yet noting the necessity of containing, deterring or defeating our "enemies", the assumption appears to be that such motivations are more or less irrelevant to policy-makers. What the latter want to know appears to be this: how can we embed more human intelligence sources, and gain such intelligence, close to our "enemies" such that we know what they're doing, thinking and planning? Given they are Forces of Evil while we are Forces for Good, all that is necessary is information that permits understanding of their likely mindsets and possible future (threatening) behaviours.

US, EU, NATO and the UN
The Report pays due homage to the fundamental relationship with the United States, while recognising the increasing importance of the European Union. In particular, France's return to the military command structure of NATO, is noted as an opportunity to be exploited in defeating the unspecificed enemy. NATO is lauded for its adaptation and expansion since the end of the Cold War/Soviet "threat" - the original apparent reason for NATO's existence since 1949. Today, NATO (which is an acronym for North ATLANTIC Treaty Orgaisation) is currently conducting military operations in Afghanistan; Japan, Australia and New Zealand are associate members. The world is, indeed, shrinking. Ivo Daalder, the current US ambassador to NATO, beleives that the idea of "in area" and "out of area" operations makes no sense for NATO in today's interdependent world: he's on record arguing that NATO should transform itself to become a "global alliance of democracies". A review of NATO's strategic concept is currenty underway, chaired by former US secretary of state, Madeleine Albright. A clue to where the new strategic concept might be headed may lie in NATO's recently-appointed secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen, former danish prime minister. Rasmussen supported the Iraq War with 500 Danish troops.

The United States remains Britain's fundamental global ally. On this question, general opinion suggests that Britain is America's "poodle". The MoD Report rejects this view, and I concur with the latter. Britain - or rather the British political elite - does not slavishly follow the United States because of it has swallowed the drug of dependence. It follows the US because its elite considers it in the best interests of Britain and the British state. Imperial delusion lies at the heart of this formulation. While this may publicly be manifest as canine behaviour, that is not its ultimate cause.

More later...

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Safe from external attack but be prepared for perpetual warfare

According to a recent report, a certain country is today safer than it has been for decades yet must be prepared for future conflicts arising from a myriad of “threats”. Those threats, including terrorism, climate change, failed states, among other things, require ever more knowledge of the world, and ever better technologies to deter, contain or defeat them. Constrained by the global economic crisis, this nation – a “Force for Good” in the world (in its own words; p.12) - has to be even better at getting more out of less, militarily engaged as it is in 100 separate operations worldwide. Unlike some countries, however, which choose to prepare against threats by securing their own defences at home, on their own territory, this country must remain a global military power, capable of meeting threats as they arise and, even better, of preventing threats from arising in the first place. At the core of this country’s strategy lies the unshakeable alliance with its cousin across the Atlantic over which the Report brooks no debate. The cousin states, with appropriate roles played by the EU and through NATO and the UN, preside over a rules-based global order, ensuring the free flow of goods, people, ideas, money, and services, upon which their economies depend. Anything that threatens those flows must be prevented and, failing that, defeated. This country, however, should not rely simply on military power: it should also maximise its “soft power” (p.26). It is through complex and sophisticated combinations of soft and hard power, carrots and sticks, scholarly knowledge and coercive action, that these countries will ensure world peace and stability, and the continuation of global flows.

You may think that the certain country referred to above is the world’s lone superpower but you would be mistaken: the Report is about Britain and was issued last month by the Ministry of Defence (MoD). It is entitled Adaptability and Partnership: Issues for the Strategic Defence Review (Cm. 7794, February 2010; available at The Report is based on consultations with opposition political parties, other departments of state, and some university academics. It probably commands broad support within the foreign policy elite. Hence, it provides a valuable insight into the official “mind” of that elite as we approach the next General Election, in which the two main parties will “clash” over who has the best plan as “Britain Must Be Defended”.

“We conclude that there is currently no major conventional threat to the UK and its NATO allies and no single, overwhelming threat against which we should shape our Armed Forces. But the development of a number of major trends will produce a wider range of potential threats to stability than we have previously faced, many of them transnational in nature. It will be harder to predict which threats will emerge as the most significant, leading to a future international context characterised by uncertainty” (p.15). This paragraph unwittingly says a great deal that undermines current discussions about threats to Britain. Basically, the defence establishment – out in the world defending global flows – is searching for monsters to destroy or pre-emptively to abort. And billions of pounds will be expended in the process which, at this time, the country can ill afford.

On the previous page, the Report reiterates that “In the foreseeable future, no state will have both the intent and the capability to threaten the independence and the integrity of the UK.” It then goes on to argue that such threats may “re-emerge” so Britain must be prepared to face down potential “hostile states”.

Interestingly, neither the behaviour, motivation nor provenance of “hostile states”, “terrorists”, and other “non-state actors” that threaten Britain are discussed or even mentioned in passing. They have no cause as such – for example freedom, nationalist aspirations, etc… for which they might struggle. The conclusion is implicit: since Britain is a Force for Good, its “enemies” must be Forces of Evil. This sounds eerily like the language of George W. Bush’s National Security Strategy of 2002 – a Manichean division of the world into friends and foes, the language of the wild west law-man.

Yet, the Report calls for greater study of potential threats and the “drivers of conflict” – including expanding academic study of the subject – as well as of the peoples of various regions and zones of turmoil. This suggests even greater and deeper levels of intervention and penetration of other nations and societies, something which has already backfired in the case of embedded anthropologists in the US military in Afghanistan.

More later…

Friday, 19 March 2010

Obama as a Soft Power President?

President Barack Obama's foreign policy is sometimes touted as driven by "Soft Power" - the power of attraction in world affairs, as opposed to coercion. The book described below, just published, dissects the multiple meanings of "soft power", including interrogating the underlying assumptions of the concept. The author of the concept of soft power, Harvard's Professor Joseph Nye, provides two new chapters that further develop and refine the idea, one of which is a frank and engaging response to his (many) critics in this volume. My own view, inevitably biased though it is, is that the book provides a thorough critical analysis that will help anyone interested in US power get a better 'feel' for the character of the world's lone superpower in an age of crisis. Comments, of course, on the quality of the arguments pursued are very welcome.

Soft Power and US Foreign Policy
Theoretical, Historical and Contemporary Perspectives

Edited by Inderjeet Parmar, Michael Cox

Series: Routledge Studies in US Foreign Policy

* ISBN: 978-0-415-49204-1
* Binding: Paperback (also available in Hardback)
* Published by: Routledge

About the Book

The rise of widespread negative attitudes towards US foreign policy, especially due to the war of aggression against Iraq and the subsequent military occupation of the country – has brought new attention to the meaning and instruments of soft power. In this edited collection, an outstanding line up of contributors provides the most extensive discussion of soft power to date. Soft power is the use of attraction and persuasion rather than the use of coercion or force in foreign policy. It arises from the attractiveness of a country's culture, political ideals and policies, whereas hard power develops out of a country's military or economic might.

Soft Power has become part of popular political discourse since it was coined by Harvard’s Joseph Nye, and this volume features a brand new chapter by Nye outlining his views on soft, hard and smart power and offers a critique of the Bush administration’s inadequacies. He then goes on to examine the challenges for the incoming US president. The other contributions to the volume respond to Nye's views from a range of theoretical, historical and policy perspectives giving new insights in to both soft power and the concept of power itself.

This is the most comprehensive and up-to-date analysis of this key concept in foreign affairs and is essential reading for scholars of US foreign policy, public diplomacy, international relations and foreign policy analysis.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Obama continues war on terror

The latest issue of Amnesty Magazine (March/April 2010) points up the following facts that indicate that President Obama's administration continues to operate within the framework of the 'war on terror', a term allegedly 'banned' within the White House: 188 prisoners remain detained without charge or trial at the notorious Guantanamo Bay detention camp facility which Obama had promised to close by January 2010. Despite secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, stating that human rights violators should be held to account, no criminal investigations have been opened into torture allegations. In addition, the administration continues to defend detention without trial, tries to keep classified information on torture techniques, and has resisted disclosing information on the treatment of detainees in CIA 'secret' prisons. Needless to say, no apologies have been proferred to former inmates of the various detention camps, let alone compensation.

Lest we think that the war on terror mentality operates only in the administration's foreign policy, CQ Weekly, the non-partisan publication of the US Congress, headlined the following in its 1 February 2010 edition: "Bush-Era Terrorism Law Gets Obama-Era Support". CQ reports that because of Democratic party control of Congress, many expected the quashing of the FBI's 'right' to get a court order for "any tangible thing", including a list of library books anyone might be reading, or DNA and bl0od samples, should they deem it necessary for a counter-terrorism or counter-intelligence investigation. The FBI need offer no evidence to back up their claim that such information is actually demanded by the known facts of the case. Despite a chance to change this when revising the PATRIOT Act, such powers were extended for a further period: they were due to expire in 2009. According to President Obama, the Patriot Act was not "the source of the worst civil liberties abuses by the Bush administration." Quite true, of course, but hardly a source of pride for the United States, and certainly worthy of immediate repeal.

The 'soft power' president - who's very face was identified as likely to enhance America's image in the world - has indeed managed to improve America's global approval ratings. Given the lack of substantial change in the war on terror mentality within the White House and the broader bureaucratic and political apparatus in the United States, however, the improved image is likely to suffer in the long run.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

There are plenty of Americans against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan

In case there are any misconceptions about the "American people", mostly as a result of mass media portrayals of Americans as predominantly gun-toting, aggressive and pro-war, please see below for evidence of growing popular opposition as the war in Afghanistan nears the end of its seventh year.

There is in the message below, however, a vain hope: that, should US forces withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan, the "savings" will go on domestic social programmes to help the unemployed, poor and those without health insurance. The same argument was made during the Vietnam War. But, in my view, that is not how it works: the US foreign policy establishment withdrew from Vietnam but did not pump billions into social programmes: in the medium to long-term, Americans saw the return of a "resurgent America" under Ronald Reagan, and the beginning of the second cold war, justified by growing global threats to "freedom", i.e., US power. That is the character of the American hegemon, the globe's policeman. Nevertheless, mass protest against war, allied with splits within the American political elite, may slow the war programme by bringing home to all the nature of the bloody wars being waged in which untold numbers of Iraqis and Afghans have been killed, and in which growing numbers of young Americans are falling victim.



March 20 marks the start of the 8th year since the invasion of Iraq and well into the 9th year of the occupation of Afghanistan.



People from all over the country are organizing to converge on Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Los Angeles for marches and rallies. Local actions may also take place in other cities. USLAW has endorsed these demonstrations and urges unions and their members to participate. Photo image from Voters for Peace

Get more information about the DC demonstration HERE. There will be coinciding mass marches on March 20 in San Francisco and Los Angeles. In San Francisco, several labor councils and unions will cosponsor a forum/speakout prior to the main demonstration. Click HERE for more information.

We will march together to call for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, no war against Iran, and to call for the billions of dollars now squandered on war to be used to restore vital social services, create jobs at living wages, get the economy back on track and protect our environment for future generations.

Not only are these wars wrong, they are bad for U.S. national security, undermine the economy, and weaken the rule of law and democracy. The United States cannot afford to borrow money to fund these wars. We cannot afford $1 million per year for each troop to be in Afghanistan when 19% of Americans are unemployed or underemployed, 45,000 die in the U.S. due to lack of health care, teachers and other public employees are being laid off, our states and cities are in a fiscal crisis, and we are seeing record bankruptcies and foreclosures as well as record personal and government debt.

Seven years after the U.S. illegally invaded Iraq, one million or more Iraqis have died. Tens of thousands of U.S. troops have lost their lives or been maimed, and continue to suffer a whole host of enduring problems from these terrible wars. Just last week the U.S. suffered its 1,000th death of a soldier in Afghanistan and other war theaters of "Operation Enduring Freedom" - just a few days after three busses of civilians were killed in an air strike ordered by the U.S. military.

It's time to put a halt to the slaughter, to the waste of resources, to support for a corrupt regime of warlords and drug lords. It's time for the people to assert our will. It's up to us to lead and for the politicians to follow (or get out of the way).

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