Since the earliest years of the cold war, in any mainstream discourse on British foreign policy, certain supposed truths have been treated as so self evident that to question them is treated either as infantile ignorance or deliberate hostility to Britain’s “national interest.” This has been particularly so in the case of the so-called “independent nuclear deterrent” and membership of NATO. A moment’s reflection by anyone with a mind unencumbered by official “defence” propaganda should call into question the need for either of these. But in any media discussion where the topic comes up, the suggestion that Britain should leave NATO and get rid of nuclear weapons is enough to consign the proponent of such a view to cloud-cuckoo land. Such are the constraints imposed by the parameters of “reasonable” or “balanced” opinion on such matters that sometimes those who challenge the official “deterrent” propaganda line in support of NATO and the renewal of the Trident missile system, come under great pressure to qualify their criticisms. This is evident in the media coverage of the contest for the leadership of the Labour party. The pressure on one candidate – Jeremy Corbyn – who has consistently argued for Britain’s nuclear disarmament and called into question the continued existence of NATO – is intense. He is depicted across the media as someone hell-bent on rendering the country defenceless in the face of untold threats from an amorphous array of enemies in an increasingly dangerous world. This is how he is treated in most of the press and it is echoed by the other three candidates in the leadership contest.
The case against Corbyn is never argued. Nothing approaching a serious discussion ever takes place. For example, concerning the supposed need for Britain to retain a nuclear “deterrent” which, at enormous and ever mounting cost, is supposed to be crucial to the country’s defence, a very obvious question is never asked: as no other European country apart from France finds it necessary to possess nuclear weapons for its defence, why is it essential that Britain retains hers? Concerning this country’s membership of NATO, and indeed the continued existence of the alliance (about which more below), why is it that when the Warsaw Pact was wound up in the early 1990s NATO wasn’t wound up too? These issues are seldom, if ever, discussed in the mainstream media and when they do arise no serious answers are ever given to such questions. It is simply taken for granted that NATO’s continued existence, its expansion and Britain’s membership are necessary for the country’s defence. The almost universal response of the British news media to the conflict in Ukraine has been to put the blame wholly on Russia and to attempt to justify the eastward expansion of NATO into the Baltic states bordering Russia, as a deterrent to a supposed Russian military threat. Thus the U.S. and its European allies have resurrected the old raison d’etre for the formation of the alliance in the 1940s as a supposed defensive shield to protect Western Europe from an alleged threat of Soviet military aggression. Now, the anti-Russian stance harks back even further to the early nineteenth century when British imperial policy was obsessed with the perceived Tsarist Russian threat to India through Afghanistan, and to the days of Disraeli’s support for the Ottoman Empire as a counterweight to Russian ambitions in the Mediterranean. In reactivating the Russian bogey they have resurrected the cold war.
In 1996 the 92 year old George F. Kennan, who really did know something about Russia and the cold war, said “Expanding NATO eastwards would be the most fateful error of American policy in the whole post-cold war era.” More recently, in 2010, Stephen F. Cohen, Professor of Russian history at New York University and one of America’s most outstanding academic authorities on Soviet and Russian history with first-hand experience going back more than 45 years, said in a lecture at the Carnegie Council “NATO expansion represents a profoundly broken promise to Russia, made by the first Bush, that in return for a united Germany in NATO, NATO would not expand eastwards. This is beyond any dispute. (My italics. M.F.) People say ‘we never signed a treaty.’ But a deal is a deal. The U.S. gives its word – unless we are shysters. We broke our word.”
But quite apart from this there remains the other question that is rarely, if ever, asked: why does NATO still exist? The alliance was established in 1949 ostensibly to resist a Soviet military threat to the West. The Warsaw Pact was only established in 1955 after West Germany was admitted to NATO. In his memoirs former Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko recounts how, at the 1955 Geneva summit meeting Khrushchev seriously suggested to Eisenhower, Eden and Faure that since NATO was supposed to be a defensive alliance, the Soviet Union wanted formally to apply to join. Gromyko records that “Eisenhower was speechless.” Needless to say, nothing came of the Soviet application. When the Soviet Union collapsed and the cold war officially came to an end, the Warsaw Pact ceased to exist. Why did NATO persist and, in breach of Bush’s promise to Gorbachev, expand to Russia’s borders? There may be those who would want to argue that after its outstanding successes in bringing freedom and democracy to Afghanistan and Libya, the reasons for its continued existence and expansion are self evident. But only morons would accept the argument. The only reasonable explanation for NATO’s continued existence is that it was from its foundation in 1949 based on a lie – the myth of an imminent Soviet military threat to Western Europe. If there had been such a threat it would have disappeared when the Soviet Union ceased to exist. NATO would have been wound up with the Warsaw Pact. NATO’s continued existence testifies to the motives of its founders and their successors. New “enemies” had to be found. It was and it remains an expansionist, essentially aggressive military alliance dominated by the United States and dedicated now, as at the beginning, to promoting and expanding the global reach of its founders and their subordinate allies. As has been recently remarked, its continued existence into the future is also made necessary in order to deal with the disastrous consequences of its continued existence.
It is possible – even probable –that Jeremy Corbyn may also see it this way. But in the spotlight of a hostile media fully locked into the mainstream nuclear defence and deterrence myths about NATO and Trident, he is under tremendous pressure to equivocate. For any leader of a major British political party to commit to withdrawing the U.K. from NATO would be quite sensational and bring down the full weight of the political establishment on him or her. Even the SNP has not taken that step despite their commitment to scrap Trident. Corbyn has already expressed some caution about whether he would take Britain out of NATO. He is obviously feeling the pressure.
TRIDENT – The Dependent Nuclear Non-deterrent
Trident is rather different. Only two European countries possess nuclear weapons – France and Britain. According to the warped and delusionary view that members of any national state should be proud that their governments possess such weapons, it may be a matter of some importance whether these weapons of mass destruction are “independent” – that is, whether they have been developed by the countries that possess them. Of the nine states that do possess them, eight have independent nuclear weapons. Britain is the only country that has a dependent nuclear weapon. Trident is doubly misnamed as Britain’s Independent Nuclear Deterrent, in that it is neither independent nor a deterrent. The replacement and maintenance of Trident will cost over £100bn. The Vanguard submarines that carry the missiles are made by the British armaments manufacturer BAE Systems but the missiles are supplied by the U.S. manufacturers Lockhead Martin. They are maintained by the U.S. Navy at King’s Bay, Georgia, together with Trident missiles for the U.S. It is inconceivable that a British prime minister would or could press the codes for launching Trident missiles without the authorization of the U.S. President.
All U.K. governments since the Second World War have, despite the occasional mild disagreement, acted as junior partners of the U.S. while pretending that they had equal status in a “special relationship.” We can go back to the early post-war years. In 1946 Labour foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, apparently returning after being humiliated in Washington, told his cabinet colleagues in the Attlee government, who were against Britain developing an atomic bomb, that “We have got to have the thing over here whatever it costs – we’ve got to have the bloody Union Jack on top of it.” Bevin had his way. Every government since has defended Britain’s “nuclear deterrent” despite its dependence on the U.S. It is a matter of British status and prestige and maintaining the pretence of the “special relationship.” In 1960 when Labour was in opposition, the party conference voted in favour of unilateral nuclear disarmament. Party leader Gaitskell threw down the gauntlet to the party declaring that he would “fight, fight and fight again” to reverse the decision at the next conference. He succeeded in doing so. More recently Tony Blair admitted that the only purpose of replacing Trident was to give Britain status. It has nothing to do with defence or deterrence. Which “enemy” is it supposed to deter? The Taliban? Al Qaeda? Isis? Russia? Are they among the putative targets of the ocean-roving Vanguard subs ready to launch Trident missiles eight times more destructive than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima?
Jeremy Corbyn provides hope for change
The three centrist candidates for the leadership of the Labour party, Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham, support Britain’s membership of NATO and the upgrading of Trident. Both are official Labour party policy. Corbyn’s opposition to both is dismissed as part of the “far left” agenda that in their view, and that of almost all the mainstream media, will make Labour under his leadership unelectable. And yet, all the indications are that he will be elected leader of the party. For months he has been addressing overflow meetings. His candidature has in recent months boosted the party’s membership to over 600.000. Among younger people – those who have been alienated from Westminster politics and politicians – there has been an almost unprecedented surge of enthusiasm, comparable only to the support for the SNP which has pretty much wiped out the other parties in Scotland. The smug certainties of Corbyn’s detractors are presented as unassailable expressions of objective professional judgment by knowledgeable experts in matters of defence and foreign policy. Commitment to “multilateral nuclear disarmament” (which has failed to make any headway at all since the signing of the non-proliferation treaty in 1963) is regarded as reasonable and realistic; “unilateral nuclear disarmament” is dismissed as an irresponsible pipe-dream.
But things are changing at an unprecedented rate and in ways that were unimaginable less than ten years ago. One need only mention a few of the intractable crises that have exploded on the world since the turn of the present century to see that there is no room for the complacent belief that in five years time things will be much the same as they are now. They will not.
Among the direct and indirect consequences of the U.S.-British invasion of Iraq in 2003 may be numbered the deaths of up to one million people in the assault and its immediate aftermath; the irreparable destabilization and destruction of the country; the collapse into sectarianism and the rise Isis, a virulent fascistic form of fanatical Sunni fundamentalism posing a threat to all who stand in its way. Further destabilization indirectly resulting from the imperialist invasion of Iraq is evident in the tragic failure of the “Arab revolutions” in Egypt and Syria and in the chaotic breakdown following the U.S.-Franco-British NATO intervention in Libya to bring about regime change. The ongoing destruction of Syria and the internecine chaos in Libya have been two of the main contributory factors in the current mass movement of refugees from North Africa and the Middle East into Europe. And in Europe itself the consequences of the financial crash of 2008 and the Great Recession are still keenly felt – not least in Britain. There has been no retreat from neo-liberal austerity, and, as the Greek debacle and the refugee crisis have shown, the Euro-zone is at breaking point and may very well not survive. If one couples this multi-faceted crisis with the impact on human habitations of ecological despoliation resulting from climate change driven by monopoly capitalism’s relentless drive for profit, it is no exaggeration to say that parts of the world face a coming whirlwind of incalculable proportions.
Faced with such a prospect it may seem that the election of a new leader for the British Labour party is small fry indeed. But one thing is certain. If we are to have any chance of overcoming the looming global crisis of finance monopoly capitalism, the system itself must be changed root and branch. The parties and politicians who have been the mainstay of the disastrous status quo are part of the problem and not part of the solution. The election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour party next week might – just might - be a decisive move in the right direction and help to activate in this corner of Europe the mass movements that will be needed to sweep away the old and help build an international people’s movementfor radical change in the direction of socialism.