Fewer boots on the ground, more nuclear warheads on missiles

Pax Americana Britannica

The defence review shows that ‘global’ Britain is totally subservient to the US, writes Eddie Ford

After much delay, last week saw the publication of the “integrated review” into the foreign, defence, security and international development policies of the British government. As is his wont, Boris Johnson enthused about it being “the largest review of its kind since the cold war”. This ‘world-beating’ document was followed on March 22 by a defence command paper, Defence in a competitive age - which is meant to be a five-year plan for the armed forces in response to the wider strategy supposedly outlined in the integrated review.

In reality, the 100-page review is made up of loads of empty bluster about the role of “global” Britain following its withdrawal from the European Union - making you suspect that it is an attempt to make up for the strategic damage caused by Brexit. It was written by professor John Bew, historian and author of Citizen Clem - a biography of Clement Atlee, father of Britain’s nuclear bomb, who committed millions to its development without any debate in parliament or the Labour Party. Britain needed to keep its place at the top table. It is the belief of Bew, and the review, that the preservation of the post-cold war, “rules-based” international system - which Attlee helped to construct with US imperialism after 1945 - is not enough. We read: “The international order is more fragmented, characterised by intensifying competition between states over interests, norms and values”. Therefore “a defence of the status quo is no longer sufficient for the decade ahead”.

This new context is defined as the “active threat” represented by Russia, China’s “increasing international assertiveness” against the US-policed, rules-based order, and the “growing importance” of the Indo-Pacific - plus the obligatory acknowledgment that climate change is the UK’s “highest international priority”. Actually, China is the recurrent theme in the document - stressing the need to invest in “China-facing capabilities” to “better understand and respond to the systemic challenge that China poses”, particularly when it comes to cybersecurity (or cyberwarfare).

The review does not make such an explicit commitment, of course, but it clearly has Beijing in its sights. Hence the talk of deploying the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier later this year to meet up with US forces in the South China Sea, where China claims territorial waters. More generally, the review says, the UK will also “pursue deeper engagements in the Indo-Pacific” region, and more regularly deploy the armed forces overseas, as well as bolster efforts to detect, deter and respond to “state threats” - by which it mainly means China.

Exciting some, the review also talked about the creation of a sort of super-SAS - transforming the Royal Marines into a new Future Commando Force that takes on many of the traditional tasks of special forces like the SAS and the Special Boat Service. There are also plans to test jetpacks in Portsmouth harbour later this year. This follows on from enthusiastic comments last year by Boris Johnson that advances in technology would make ammunition “redundant” and new “energy weapons” will be able to destroy targets “with inexhaustible lasers”.

But what really hit the headlines about the review, of course, is that the cap on Trident nuclear warheads is to rise from 180 to 260, which at the very least goes against the spirit of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and ends 30 years of very gradual US-Russian disarmament. So why did Boris Johnson make this announcement? The likely explanation comes from an ex-minister: “This is all about appearing to have a new direction after Brexit and adding in things which look significant" - even if they are not. An exercise in smoke and mirrors. Still, responding to a cyber attack by unleashing nuclear warheads seems crazy. But perhaps not so crazy if the real purpose is to please US contractors and ingratiate yourself with the Biden administration - signalling that, following Brexit, Britain is still a useful ally.

As for last week’s defence paper, what grabbed attention was that the army, navy and RAF are all to be cut back - despite Johnson’s pre-election pledge not to cut armed services “in any form”. The army will be cut by 9,500 to 72,500 by 2025, its lowest level since 1714. Meanwhile, the number of navy frigates and destroyers will drop from 19 to 17 in the next 18 months. A third of the army’s Challenger tanks will be scrapped, while 148 will be upgraded, at a cost of £1.3 billion. A string of ageing RAF planes and helicopters will also be withdrawn in the next couple of years.


In the end, you can only conclude that the “integrated review” is more of a post-Brexit political manifesto than a strategic overview - hence the contradictions. You even have the reappearance of phrases not heard for decades like freedom of navigation” and a British return to “east of Suez”.

‘Global’ Britain is actually about being as close to the US as possible - Pax Americana Britannica. Maybe at the last night of the Proms they should sing ‘Britons always, always, always shall be slaves’ … to America. Frankly, the idea of Britain doing anything decisive with regards to China without the assent of the US is risible. OK, the UK is to have an aircraft carrier plonked out there in the South China Sea. If you are the Chinese military, what would you target first - an American carrier or a British one? The answer is fairly obvious. It is one thing pulling the tail of the US: you expect to get bitten hard. But what does Britain do if its carrier is holed by a drone or mine - unleash nuclear weapons or retake Hong Kong? Britain is just pretending to be a great power in the Indo-Pacific, South China Sea or anywhere else for that matter - pure (and pathetic) posturing.

Yes, the China Research Group might want an old-style cold war against China. But the difference between China and the USSR is quite obvious. The Soviet Union, whatever its particular GDP statistics and relative backwardness, had the world communist movement at its service. True, as time progressed, this movement became more and more reformist - but it was real. In that sense, the Soviet Union punched politically way above its actual economic weight. Yes, the US could exclude it when it came to high technology - keep it on the margins. But, when it came to political stability in western Europe, elections in France and May 1968, the Hot Autumn in Italy, the Portuguese Revolution, the post-Franco transition in Spain, etc, the ‘official communist’ parties mattered. They had social weight. The same goes for the third world. Look at the ex-Portuguese empire in Mozambique, Angola and Guinea-Bissau - with Cuba’s role in defeating South African military forces. Then there was Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, etc.

Therefore for imperialism the Soviet Union really was a deadly enemy. Its mere existence posed a threat. The October Revolution in 1917 showed that capitalism was not immortal. Of course, the Communist Party in the USA was not on the verge of winning a national election and nor was the Soviet Union about to invade. But in Europe and large parts of the so-called third world the Soviet Union represented an ideological alternative for many millions. On the other hand, China - though it tried to copy Stalin’s USSR - does not pose the same challenge. Apart from a tiny few, who looks now to China for revolutionary inspiration? Turning it into an existential menace is pretty unconvincing. No, what we have is the global hegemon attempting, with the help of allies, to hem in, block, halt the rise of a regional rival. In other words, big-power politics.

Dean Acheson, secretary of state under the 1949-53 Truman presidency, famously observed that “Britain had lost an empire, but not yet found a role”. Similarly, Britain has lost its role in the EU - an entirely self-inflicted wound. But the idea that it could find a new role as global policeman is laughable - rather it is desperate to remain the USA’s key ally. As the defence review shows, the only way it can imagine retaining this status is by being utterly subservient to America and its interests. The notion that Britain can pursue an independent foreign policy is a joke.

But the problem, as any general will tell you, is that you do not know what the next war is going to be. You can plan for nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union, but instead you are confronted by an Iraq. Of course, the Baghdad regime collapsed within days. Yet afterwards, with fairly minimal resistance, allied forces were soon confined to their bases - a humiliating experience for a world power. Then Islamic State came in, with no air power or tank divisions, and took over a third of the country. Of course, you can understand the game that the US is playing in relation to its allies - make them sweat now and again - but the idea that capitalist Britain will ever do anything other than what the US tells it to do is for the birds.

So why is the US going after China? Because, in a nutshell, China is capable of playing the role analogous to that of Germany in relation to Britain between 1900 and 1914. Up until the 1890s, Britain had been more or less in alliance with Germany - but turned towards a policy of containment and active suppression of its former ally. British imperialism justified its aggression against Germany on the grounds that - if it did not take pre-emptive action - in 20 years’ time it would be too difficult to do so, as Germany would have grown too strong. This is pretty clearly the reasoning in Washington - hence its policy re China.

Trumpism was certainly a crude representation of this way of thinking, but the reality of the situation in the US is that its own constitutional order is under constant threat, because it has aggressively deindustrialised - creating a massive ‘underclass’ in the former industrial areas of the mid-west. A lot of the industries it does have, especially the arms industry, have moved into places where there is a large resentment arising out of the defeat of the Confederacy. Indeed, GOP politicians have been building up this resentment, going back decades. Then add the fact that the US has seen a substantial amount of production offshored, including to China. The US needs an external enemy precisely because the policy it has been pursuing for the last 40 years endangers the stability of the state itself and therefore its global hegemony.

This does not make China a potential substitute hegemon. That would have to be something like a European Union remade as a centralised state by some sort of Bismarckian unification. Indeed, the US is safe, as far as the EU is concerned, just as Britain was safe with Germany till the 1870s, because its countless petty divisions and rivalries allowed the UK to exercise control. But it does mean that it is in the interests of the US to force China into overt and explicit subordination by trying to deny it independent access to the rest of the world - such as not allowing Beijing to trade with Iran, Venezuela, etc. Now, as part of this overall policy, China is being condemned for rolling back democracy in Hong Kong, committing genocide in Xinjiang, threatening Taiwan with invasion and taking aggressive action against India (when if anything the aggression is the other way round).

The hypocrisy of US administrations, Trump’s and Biden’s alike, knows no limits.