Are Britain’s self-proclaimed ‘centrists’ now to the right of the president of the United States on foreign policy? That’s how it has felt watching their reaction to events in Afghanistan in recent days.
Joe Biden’s withdrawal, however calamitously executed, was what he promised the American electorate last year. In fact, it was one thing that Biden and Donald Trump agreed upon: whoever won the election, remaining US forces should leave Afghanistan before the symbolically important date of 11 September.
Biden made that commitment because there was no political alternative. Trump’s Taliban deal, signed last February, had support from not only an overwhelming majority of Republican voters but 60% of Democrats too. The deal’s popularity explains the White House’s rationale for withdrawal – and its fidelity to an impossibly short time frame. It also underpins a brazen revisionism about why the US was there in the first place.
By Tuesday, Biden had told the electorate – in a manner reminiscent of Trump – that US troops could no longer participate in a war Afghans themselves were unwilling to fight. Tens of thousands of Afghan soldiers have died defending their government, but denying this in order to build a case for leaving will likely play well with the American public, who Biden is relying on for re-election. Trump’s presidency, if nothing else, captured a growing anti-war sentiment among the electorate, and in response shifted the parameters of US foreign policy towards greater isolationism.
Meanwhile in Europe, after months of eulogising ‘Bidenism’, moderates are reacting to his withdrawal from Afghanistan with stupefaction and quiet rage. Among Britain’s political and media establishment, such feelings are particularly intense. Not only because the last week confirms the Afghan debacle was a needless waste of life and resources, but because the entire basis of Britain’s foreign policy – essentially ‘look to Washington and hope for the best’ – now lies in tatters. A country increasingly uncertain of its place in the world, post-Iraq, post-2008 and post-Brexit, looks even more directionless.
Proximity to the US has furnished Britain’s politicians with an inflated sense of strength and geopolitical profile for decades. Despite the rhetoric of Theresa May and others in parliament on Wednesday, it has not had an independent foreign policy since at least 1963 – when it purchased the Polaris nuclear weapons system from the US. It has become a running joke that Polaris’s successor system, “Britain’s independent deterrent” Trident, is, in actuality, neither British nor independent (the missiles are manufactured by Lockheed Martin and are maintained by the US Navy at Kings Bay, Georgia).
You could go further back, to 1958, the aftermath of the Suez Crisis or even the Lend-Lease policy, under which the United States supplied Britain and other allies with resources during the Second World War, but the detail is academic – what has remained the case for decades is that Britain is not independent of Washington. Until a week ago if you criticised such a state of affairs, or said that the Nato alliance was an extension of American power over Europe (it is), you ran the risk of being labelled a Stalinist or simply called ignorant. Not anymore.
Britain, without America.
The immediate response to Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan – quite predictably – has been chaotic and absurd, with some Tory and Labour MPs arguing Britain should have remained in the country without the United States (despite the initial basis for its presence there being retribution for attacks on the US mainland). From Lisa Nandy to Tom Tugenhadt and Tobias Ellwood, a number of MPs appear to think a coalition led by Britain could defend Kabul – and all while refusing to work with regional powers such as China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan. This is the kind of fantasy one would expect from a grasping child, not politicians whose decisions mean literal life-and-death for others.
Meanwhile, both Keir Starmer and Boris Johnson have said the Taliban should not be recognised as Afghanistan’s government – contradicting not only Biden, but also the British military. Perhaps they would prefer working with former president Ashraf Ghani, alleged to be snuggling up to $170 million in the Persian Gulf? Would they really risk the lives of British military personnel for such a man?
One suspects such hyperbolic nonsense is the immediate reflex and that, in the weeks and months ahead, the political establishment will begin to digest the catastrophic failure that was the war on terror. In reality, it has little choice. There is no guiding orthodoxy for foreign and security policy at play anymore – this disintegrated as the chinooks and Boeing C-17s took off from Kabul on Saturday. Coming to terms with failure will take many years, but perhaps now it can finally begin.
An ideology in demise.
For more than two decades a national ideology was ruthlessly enforced by the Conservatives, the Labour right and the billionaire-owned press. This ideology labelled any opposition to war, no matter how informed, as demonstrating a lack of patriotism. Don’t think we should have gone to Iraq or Afghanistan in the first place? You’re just soft on terror like the Britain-hater Jeremy Corbyn. Have a problem with occupying two countries half the world away at the behest of George Bush and Dick Cheney? No wonder the left is unelectable. Rather spend £35bn on helping people, at home and abroad, than on a war whose most tangible consequence is higher opium production? Why do you hate Britain so much?
This ideology, used to police dissenting views at home in a period of geopolitical overreach, is now finally on the ropes. With its demise, new questions of identity and social purpose may quickly emerge. If America doesn’t exist to be the world’s policeman, then why should it maintain such an extraordinarily large and expensive military? And if it is only capable of becoming embroiled in costly, and ultimately unsuccessful missions like Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Libya, then why should Britain continue to cling to its coattails? Why should we impose sanctions on Iran simply because the Trump presidency said so? Why allow Washington to determine which companies build us national infrastructure like 5G (be they Chinese or otherwise)? For decades the answer has been ‘because America is always right’. Is it?
Suddenly the truth is no longer forbidden: of course you can’t bomb a country into democracy and freedom. Not a single nation from the Global South has successfully adopted democratic politics as the result of military occupation by a foreign power. Instead, and almost universally, such features emerge from campaigns of national liberation and anti-colonialism – the very struggles despised and mocked by Westminster and subverted by Washington. Mohammad Mossadegh, Jacobo Arbenz, Salvador Allende, João Goulart, Patrice Lumumba – the list goes on. All yearned for liberty and democracy and paid the ultimate price.
The sometimes farcical spectacle in the House of Commons on Wednesday is what happens when a post-imperial power denies its empire has gone, its coping strategy being to avoid any mention of decline or, better yet, to live through the vicarious martial glories of Uncle Sam. But Britain’s empire has gone and, in an increasingly multipolar world, US alliances in south and east Asia are just as special, if not more so, than its relationship with the UK. In this respect, we are being offered a long-overdue opportunity to re-examine our role in the world.
Britain’s centrists are attacking a US President, from his right, for a reason. Because, from the wreckage of the failed war on terror, a different kind of foreign policy may emerge; one which dispenses with previous certainties and the comforting delusion of a benevolent USA. We often hear of a ‘rules-based international order’. Given the great security risks of the 21st century, from pandemics to climate change, perhaps it’s time to finally build one.