US-UK relations

The general contours are pretty clear. The US effectively displaced Britain as world-dominant power during World War II, quite consciously — there were mini-wars going on right through the conflict, and they continued afterwards, often in ugly ways.

Britain had to make a choice as to whether to join the re-emerging European system, or to become a “junior partner” of the US, as a Foreign Office official put it. “Our lieutenant (the fashionable word is partner),” as a senior adviser of the Kennedy administration put it at a moment when England was being kicked in the face by the boss. The choice has largely been the second, despite plenty of conflicts, and often really contemptuous treatment of England, as during the missile crisis and Skybolt affair. Though a declining economic power (relative to others), England remains a pre-eminent military force, far beyond any of the new EU states, now or in the foreseeable future, hence a useful partner for US imperial ventures. The eminent British military historian John Keegan captured the essence succinctly during the first Gulf War: “The British are used to over 200 years of expeditionary forces going overseas, fighting the Africans, the Chinese, the Indians, the Arabs. It’s just something the British take for granted,” and the war in the Gulf “rings very, very familiar imperial bells with the British.” It was at a time when there was considerable distress that much-despised Italy had surpassed England as an industrial power, but the Brits still had their traditional values intact. In internal social policies, Britain is also poised between Europe and the US, competing with the US for lowest wages, worst working conditions, highest poverty, and other such prizes, while still keeping a national health service. Pretty much the same choices arise now for the “citizen-ranks.”

On [Jack] Straw, there was a case of survival that surprised me even more than the Zimbabwe affair. I happened to be in London in Dec. 2002 — the period of build-up to the war, when Straw-Blair were carrying out their task of providing “independent confirmation” of the most severe charges that could be imagined against Saddam, and wringing their hands with much passion about his terrible crimes back to the 1980s. Right then Mark Thomas published a startling article in the New Statesman, revealing that the leaders of New Labour, then in opposition, did not even sign the parliamentary protests about the gassing of Kurds and other atrocities in the late 80s. And more dramatically, that Straw, as Home Secretary in the year 2000, had rejected the asylum request of an Iraqi who had escaped from Saddam’s torture chambers, with a letter assuring the applicant that the Iraqi justice system was so credible and trustworthy that he could be assured of fair treatment if he was sent back to Iraq. I was sure that these revelations would have a devastating effect internally. I checked with Thomas and some other friends later, and they told me that the revelations sank like a stone — no reaction, so I was told. Apparently, I was far too naive.

Just for the record, mainstream French intellectuals are even worse in this regard. And to the limited extent I’ve looked elsewhere in Europe, it’s not much different. Europeans enjoy condemning the barbarians across the Atlantic, often rightly, but a look in the mirror is often quite helpful.

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