Tom Stevenson, Someone Else’s Empire: British Illusions and American Hegemony (Verso 2023), 272pp Tom Stevenson, Someone Else’s Empire: British Illusions and American Hegemony (Verso 2023), 272pp

The commitment of the British elite to serving US foreign policy is eviscerated in this wide-ranging, well written and incisive collection of essays, finds Chris Bambery

‘We must play Greece to their Rome,’ said future British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, in 1944 in regard to the relationship between Britain and the United States. Even in the closing stages of World War II, it was arrogance beyond what power Britain still retained. MacMillan knew Britain was reliant on America for its means to fight the war, right down to imported steel, and that as Allied armies landed in Normandy in June 1944, the Americans had greater numbers than the British, a gap which would grow and grow until the fall of the Third Reich. When Japan surrendered in August of that year, the British were effectively excluded from the formal surrender aboard USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay; the Pacific war was an American affair.

The Macmillan quotation came to mind as I was reading Tom Stevenson’s essay in this volume detailing the sheer debacle of the British occupation of Basra and Southern Iraq following the 2003 invasion. British commanders and politicians took great pride that, because of their experience in Northern Ireland, they were the experts in counterinsurgency, not their American cousins. It all went horribly wrong from the start, in large part because the British lacked numbers and material, as Stevenson explains:

‘British officers told the Americans that they knew what they were doing thanks to their exploits in Northern Ireland. Yet they failed either to pre-empt or recognize the emerging Shia resistance. The British army proved incapable of securing [Basra], and not for lack of trying. In September 2003 British forces arrested a group of men, including the hotel receptionist Baha Mousa, and took them to battalion headquarters. There . . . “Mousa died of his injuries” — one way to describe torturing a prisoner to death. Mousa was hooded and suffered ninety-three distinct injuries. Here were the skills acquired in Northern Ireland’ (p.31).

Stevenson is a contributing editor to the London Review of Books and this book comprises a series of essays he originally had published in it, looking at the harsh realities of the so-called ‘special relationship’ between the US and the UK, the legacy of the Bush-Blair War on Terror, and of the Arab Spring, which both states wanted quashed and the region returned to autocracy. The Middle East is a central concern for both states for strategic reasons and for control of oil, on which neither are dependent, but China, Japan and much of the rest of the world are.

It’s not an equal relationship, and never was. On Valentine’s Day 1945, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, fresh from meeting Stalin and Churchill in Yalta, met King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, on board the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal, and won his loyalty with a bigger bribe than Roosevelt’s British ally could afford. The British were effectively excluded from the Saudi oil fields.

The British would, by hanging onto America’s coat tails, become the second biggest arms supplier to the Saudis. Saudi princes attend Sandhurst, and the two monarchies are bosom buddies, but the relationship is of far less importance than the Saudi-US alliance.

It might have seemed Washington had downplayed the importance it attaches to the region with Barack Obama’s ‘pivot’ towards the Pacific and China, but Stevenson does not buy that: ‘If there are indeed such plans, it would suggest that recent US administrations are ignorant of the way the system over which they preside works’ (p.159).

Complicity with US violence

Stevenson can’t contain his anger over Britain’s involvement in Yemen. The British operate the deadly Saudi drones, which cannot be ‘targeted’ in the few seconds of footage available to them, and we train Saudi pilots at an RAF base in Shropshire. In fact, Stevenson cannot contain his anger over much else, writing about the disastrous outcome of Anglo-French regime change in Libya, the current state of Tunisia, the murderous el-Sisi dictatorship in Egypt and much else.

He discusses the Single Integrated Operational Plan, which American generals drew up in the 1960s, committing the USA to a first-strike nuclear policy. In a conventional war with the USSR and China, America would drop 3,423 warheads, destroying every city in China, the Soviet Union, and Eastern Europe with weapons that Stevenson reminds us, are, in terms of power, ‘4,000 times that of the bomb used on Hiroshima.’ Stevenson simply states that: ‘It would be hard to argue that any document in history contains greater evil; there is nothing in the Nazi archives that approaches it’ (p.126).

Returning to the US-UK ‘special relationship’, Stevenson is scathing about British fantasies regarding it. As British power and its economy declined relentlessly post-1945, the British, whether it was a Tory or Labour government, slavishly trotted along behind Washington, even when it treated them with contempt.

Brexit did not break the pattern of British foreign policy, it reinforced it, as Stevenson explains:

‘Arms procurement from the US has increased as British leaders double down on lieutenant status in a “global NATO”. New British aircraft carriers sail to the “Indo-Pacific” in accordance with American goals. Newly opened Persian Gulf bases are put to work by British military institutions working side by side with Saudi and Emirati forces engaged in the catastrophic Anglo-Saudi war on Yemen’ (p.4).

Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the British, via Nato, have worked their way back into the heart of European affairs, where Washington always wanted them, acting as the US’s tout.

Writing of British military intellectuals, he points out, in words which apply to the whole British elite, that: ‘Passionate Atlanticism proceeds on the assumption that the interests of American power are necessarily coterminous with those of Britain … The illusion of British “leadership in the world” as counsel to American violence is stubborn as well as vain’ (p.51).

On one point I would have liked more, which is the role of the 1945 Labour government in committing the UK to the Atlantic alliance. It has much to answer for. And as Sir Keir Starmer nears Downing Street, it’s worth knowing how deep Labour’s Atlanticist commitment is – and its historic support for Zionism.

As with any book of essays, many of which are book reviews, there are some that will interest readers more than others. But this is a well written and highly informative book which I enjoyed and recommend.

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.