Donald Trump should be the final straw in the US-UK special relationship, particularly on foreign policy argues Chris Nineham
The 'special relationship' between Britain and the US, announced by Winston Churchill soon after World War Two, has been toxic from the start. It is a collaboration that has always demanded unswerving support for US superpower aspirations. But the price keeps getting higher. Thatcher’s partnership with Ronald Reagan involved turning Britain into an offshore nuclear missile launchpad and provided a transatlantic power base for the neoliberal economics that has wreaked such havoc around the world. The Chilcot report made it official that Tony Blair’s ‘I will be with you whatever’ relationship with George Bush was a ‘determining factor’ in Britain’s lead role in the catastrophic war on Iraq.
Working closely with Donald Trump could be one step worse. Any hopes that, as president, Trump might dial down global tensions vanished weeks ago. His apparent commitment to isolationism is contradicted by warlike rhetoric against Iran and China and his promises to escalate against Isis. His commitment to US military hegemony is unambiguous: ‘our military dominance’ he insisted recently ‘must be unquestioned, and I mean unquestioned, by anybody and everybody’. Trump has it in for China in particular, and rails against what he regards as China’s economic robbery of the US, ‘we can’t continue to allow China to rape our country, because that is what they are doing. It is the greatest theft in the history of the world.’ Many commentators have written off such comments as election rhetoric.
But on top of his hawkish foreign affairs selections of personnel, his provocative phone call to the President of Taiwan has raised fears that this is a serious policy position. According to Bonnie Glaser at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, ‘that phone call was pivotal in their thinking about Trump, this is the most sensitive issue for the Chinese….Trump would like to have a more level playing field in the economic realm and most people expected to see tensions in the trade and economic aspects of the relationship, but increasingly it appears that there will be friction in other areas as well. And this has really unnerved the Chinese’.
There are deeper reasons to think that Trump’s stance reflects something more structural. In the run-up to the election the US foreign policy establishment was united in the belief that the Obama years of limited direct interventions and focus on drone attacks and proxy wars had been a failure. The message was the US needs to toughen up. This reflected the fact that the US faces the biggest threats to its global power since the Second World War.
The Dangers of Decline
US influence in the Middle East and North Africa is at a low point. The wars of the last fifteen years have all had disastrous outcomes. Iraq and Libya are failed states over which the US has diminishing control. Despite high levels of US covert intervention in Syria, and its avowed aim of regime change, the outcome has not been as it wished. Instead, Russia has intervened decisively in Syria and bolstered its position. The US has had to stand by and watch as talks between Turkey, Russia, the Syrian government and some sections of the opposition have taken place without it.
In the Asia Pacific, China is pushing for political influence commensurate with its economic position. In terms of purchasing power, China is now level with the US. In the words of Carol Gluck from Columbia University, ‘we are undergoing a shift in the shape of the world order...probably China will be the next dominant economic power.’ China is rearming rapidly and the the US foreign policy establishment generally is not in a mood to conciliate. Despite the changing balance of power, the US is still behaving as if China should not be allowed to assert itself.
Making Matters Worse
To compensate for setbacks elsewhere and to try and hem Russia in, the US and its allies have developed an aggressive posture in Eastern Europe. Britain has been at the forefront, despatching 800 troops to the Baltic states at the end of last year to join thousands of other NATO troops concentrating on Russia’s borders. But such a policy can only increase great power tension, contributing to a sense of global insecurity: As John Sawers, former MI6 chief puts it:
We have been living through a period since the Cold War when America has been the dominant power in the world…what we have seen in the last few years is a China that is a more assertive, a Russia which is much more prickly and unpredictable and finding that using its military power is advantageous to it. I think we are going back to the world of great power rivalry and that must give rise to the possibility of miscalculations, conflicts, clashes and conceivably war. So this is quite a dangerous moment.
Trump's pumped up bigotry and reactionary attitudes across the domestic policy spectrum are more than enough cause for concern. But to have someone as xenophobic and unpredictable as Donald Trump in the White House at such a time of tension can only add to anxiety. The anti war movement is joining and supporting the protests against Trump around inauguration day, but we should be going further. Collaboration or support for US foreign policy at this moment should be unthinkable. We need a concerted campaign to demand that our government finally ends its alliance with the US and that we start to forge a new foreign policy.
Unlinked quotes are from BBC Radio 4 programme New World: Axis of Power broadcast on Tuesday 4 December. Available here.
Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.
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