The beginning of this month saw the sorry spectacle of Trump’s state visit to the United Kingdom. In spite of him hurling insults at London’s mayor and shamelessly intruding into British political affairs by endorsing Boris Johnson in the Conservative Party leadership race, the UK government nonetheless rolled out the red carpet and spared no expense in kissing his derrière. Though only two members of his immediate family have official positions within his administration, Trump brought the whole clan along for the festivities, including a four-course banquet hosted by the Queen, which the UK government didn’t hesitate to accommodate. This nauseating act of sycophancy was, of course, funded entirely by public money. This is no small matter in a country in which a significant proportion of its population, according to a recent United Nations report, has been subjected to “systematic immiseration” as a result of a decade-long austerity program enacted by successive Conservative governments.
But none of this seems to matter to the mainstream press on both sides of the Atlantic, which waxed lyrical about the so-called “Special Relationship” between the two nations. Odes were sung to (now former) Prime Minister Theresa May’s jubilant talk of an “enduring partnership” and Trump’s promise that his administration will work to forge a “phenomenal” trade deal with a post-Brexit UK. The coverage got particularly gushing when May harkened back to the two countries’ cooperation on D-day during the Second World War, which forms part of the Anglo-American mythology that it was “us,” rather than the Soviet Union, that defeated Hitler.
But for all the pomp and ceremony and lazy self-congratulation in the media, there’s one glaring problem: the “Special Relationship” is a complete farce. And as a historical analysis shows, the reality is that the alliance is one of utter subservience. It all began, ironically enough, after the Second World War. Though Britain was technically on the winning side, it turned out to be a pyrrhic victory. The conflict left the UK and the rest of Western Europe bankrupt. US defense spending soon began to dwarf that of Britain – and, indeed, that of the rest of the world. The bankruptcy also forced the UK to dispense with its remaining colonies – a process that Washington encouraged. Any lingering doubt about the end of its status as a world power was demolished a decade later in 1956 when it was humiliated during the Suez Crisis. After sending troops to the Sinai Peninsula in response to then-Egyptian President Gamal Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, the US successfully pressured Britain to withdraw its forces. Ever since, the UK has had no real foreign policy of its own – it simply follows orders from Washington.
As a result, successive post-war British governments have supported practically every major US foreign policy intervention since, often in spite of overwhelming public opposition. The February 2003 mobilization against the Iraq War in London, for instance, has been described as “the largest protest event in human history.” Yet Tony Blair, of the center-left Labour Party, supported George W. Bush’s invasion nonetheless. This followed a long-established historical pattern. The UK contributed British troops to the First Gulf War, launched by George H.W. Bush, in the early 1990s. Paradoxically, it also backed Ronald Reagan’s support for Iraq during its conflict with Iran in the 1980s – and, like the US, supplied then-President Saddam Hussein’s governments with weapons. A similar story played out during the Vietnam War. Though Britain did not contribute troops, historian Mark Curtis points out that Britain “gave important private backing to the US at every stage of military escalation.”
Of course, there are those who attempt to play down Britain’s subservience and argue that it is still an important country on the world stage in its own right. They point, for example, to the fact that Britain has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and an independent nuclear deterrent. But can anyone seriously imagine the UK casting a different vote at the Security Council from that of the US? As for the UK’s nuclear deterrent, known as “Trident,” it has been described by former UN weapons inspector Hans Blix as “more a question of sentimental status-seeking” than sensible policy. “I think it’s a tremendous cost, and I do not see that it really, perceptively adds to British security,” Blix said during an Al-Jazeera interview with Mehdi Hassan, adding that there was no particular enthusiasm for Trident in Washington.
Nonetheless, US neoconservatives have the gall to complain that the US contributes a disproportionately large sum to NATO’s budget. Trump himself repeated this mantra during the state visit. “The prime minister and I agree that our NATO allies must increase their defense spending, we’ve both been working very hard to that end,” he stated, adding:
We expect a growing number of nations to meet the minimum 2 percent of GDP requirement. To address today’s challenges, all members of the alliance must fulfil their obligations. They have no choice.
Here we get a glimpse into the incredible narcissism and psychopathy of US power. Make no mistake, Washington’s foreign policy is predicated on one thing and one thing alone – advancing its own geostrategic interests and those of its corporate masters, which neocons now literally make no secret of. The UK and Washington’s other European allies neither benefit from nor have any say over major foreign policy decisions – as was made crystal clear by Donald Rumsfeld and other Bush Jr. administration officials in the run-up to the Iraq War. So, the neocons essentially want Washington’s NATO allies to pay more while remaining completely impotent on the world stage. Large sections of the British public seem to have woken up to this fact, as evidenced by extensive polling data showing overwhelming opposition to UK support for US foreign military interventions and mass demonstrations such as the aforementioned march against the Iraq War.
What, then, explains successive UK governments’ loyalty to US foreign policy? The answer lies in the realm of economics. For one thing, UK economic and political elites benefit from the process of globalized capitalism that the US imperial system upholds. This largely explains why “Brexit” was led by figures such as Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nigel Farage – both of whom made fortunes in London through involvement in the kinds of work that have been made insanely lucrative by this system. Boris Johnson (who at the time of writing is poised to become the UK’s next prime minister), on the other hand, made his fortune propagandizing for it as a “journalist” at right-wing publications like The Spectator. These figures see the European Union as providing the last vestiges of those pesky regulations and social protections that, for all its imperfections, the EU does provide to some limited extent. To them, leaving the EU would free the UK from this counterbalance to US corporate power and allow full integration into the yoke of US world economic hegemony. This looming reality was on full display during Trump’s visit as he openly boasted about how a post-Brexit US-UK trade deal could lead to privatization of the National Health Service by US corporate interests. Given that proposing such a thing has long been considered political suicide since the institution was founded in 1948, it is clear just how great a threat US globalized capitalism is not just to such social democratic gains as public universal healthcare but to the very idea of democracy itself.
But what, then, explains Labour governments also falling in line with US foreign policy? In the case of Tony Blair, it was simply a matter of him being a right-wing infiltrator who hijacked the Labour Party to serve the same interests represented by the Conservative Party. But for previous Labour leaders, the answer to this question is a bit more complex. As both the sole remaining superpower and the largest economy in the world, the US has had huge economic as well as political influence over Europe since the end of the Second World War. The US’s huge import market has given it immense buying power that exerts enormous economic pressure on European exporters. They need their governments to be on friendly terms with the US government, which largely acts as the political wing of corporations and financial capital, in order to maintain access to the huge North American market. Furthermore, European governments have been subservient to Washington via its preferred international organizations, especially the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In 1976, for instance, the Labour government of James Callaghan was offered a loan from the IMF on the condition of enacting austerity measures. In spite of fierce opposition from the labor movement his party was founded to represent, he followed IMF dictates. (Ironically, this was the direct cause of the “Winter of Discontent” of the late 1970s – not, as is often falsely claimed, his initial (mildly) left-wing policies.) Washington has used this imbalanced economic relationship to demand obedience to its foreign policy. And European government have, for the most part, been too scared to ever test whether or not Washington is bluffing.
In short, successive UK governments have seen themselves as having two options vis-a-vis relations with the US – either to kowtow to Washington and stay afloat in the global economy or else sink. Whether the choice was actually this binary is, of course, somewhat of an academic question at this point. Perhaps it was a necessity of the power structure of the Cold War era or perhaps it was a case of an overly meek Labour Party failing to stand up to Washington. But either way, in the here and now there is a huge opportunity for a change of course. Though the Cold War is over, US power is also in decline. Any remaining lipstick on the ugly face of US neoliberal imperialism was washed away by the election of Donald Trump, who personifies the fascist trajectory that it had long been taking. Though the US has long been one of the most hated countries in the world, his presidency has plunged its image and reputation to new depths of acrimonious scorn across the globe. Furthermore, several developments in global affairs have brought the primacy of US power into question. From the failure of the US-instigated coup attempt in Venezuela (supposedly the US’s “backyard”) to the refusal of European governments to cooperate with the Iran nuclear deal withdrawal, there are growing signs that US power might be on the wane. Above all, the rise of Russia and China as major players on the world stage who are consistently willing to take an independent approach signals a seismic shift in global power relations. In Latin American and Africa, they have proven themselves as more neutral actors who, unlike the US, will happily invest without attaching political strings – as has so long been Washington’s modus operandi.
On the back of these developments, the UK along with the US’s other historic European allies have the opportunity to create a new non-aligned movement to challenge US global hegemony. Democratization and grassroots organizing has led to the UK Labour Party being led by an actual socialist for the first time since the early 1980s. It is currently the largest political party in Europe by membership. The election of Alexis Tsipras in Greece and the emergence of left-wing populist parties like Podemos in Spain and the Five Star Movement in Italy leaves open the possibility of a Europe-wide progressive movement that could resist US power.
In sum, the UK puts a lot into its alliance with the US and gets little in return. The ultimate irony of the “Special Relationship” is that the UK is not even the US’s number one ally; that distinction goes to Israel. The UK would do better to forge a more independent stance on foreign policy – even if doing so doesn’t ultimately affect US behavior on the international stage in the short- to medium-term. In the run up to the Iraq War, for instance, the French government of Jacque Chirac took a brave stand against Washington by refusing the back the UN resolution to intervene in Iraq. Even if the UK had done likewise, it probably wouldn’t have affected the outcome. But it would have at least underlined how the US was at core unilaterally launching an illegal war of aggression. But as life-long anti-imperialist George Galloway pointed out at the time, Tony Blair instead choose to become Bush’s poodle in order to preserve the “Special Relationship” – even though the price was British dignity.