George Robertson’s recent comments about the unleashing of ‘dark forces’ which would be associated with the break up of Britain have been widely ridiculed, and rightly so. Almost as soon as the word got out about the crassness of his language, social media was full of images of Darth Vader and the grim reaper, while even the No camp struggled to defend his ideas. Indeed, many well known commentators in the world of twitter seemed to side-step the issue completely.
But amongst the righteous ridicule, there is something important about his speech. It highlighted the warped priorities of proponents of the pro-war, hawkish disposition. His repeated references to the ‘value based’ West suggested the assertion of moral boundaries akin to the Bush era. His references to ‘forces of darkness’ seemed reminiscent of talk of there being an ‘arch of extremism’ ready to pounce upon, or swarm around, the civilised and freedom loving West. He saw Britain as a vital pivot in global power-play, a bulwark of Western power in general and of US dominance in particular. Throughout he invoked a ‘with or against us’ narrative, imploring other ally states to lobby against independence.
In essence he promoted a neo-con style foreign policy. But underneath the rhetoric, he and his friends in high places are following a failed strategy which has resulted in a split amongst the US establishment about the way forward.
The legacy of Iraq
After 9/11 the US state embarked on what they thought would be a long-term war. The ‘war on terror’ offered an all-encompassing Grand Strategy. It allowed for an intensification of state power domestically in terms of surveillance and the downgrading of constitutional rights and set the framework for a prolonged period of hard power dominance. The Project for a New American Century (PNAC) was developed as a blueprint for overt US dominance, especially but not limited to the Middle East. Bush talked of a 50 years war with Islamic radicalism. For discerning analysts it was always obvious that Afghanistan would not be the end. Iraq followed.
Across the globe images were beamed of huge explosions over Baghdad. The US coined the phrase ‘Shock and Awe’ to describe the opening scenes of what was to be a long war. It was not merely to shock Iraq with this huge display of American fire power, but the region and the world. But Iraq went wrong. The massive opposition at home coupled with long-term military entanglement was only the tip of the iceberg. The images of torture from Abu Ghraib, the mounting US/UK causalities, and the destruction of Iraqi infrastructure which led to a humanitarian crisis augmented the complexity of the Iraq situation. In fact the whole venture failed so badly that PNAC had to be ditched as a strategy.
The failure in Iraq sparked a debate amongst foreign policy circles in Washington. How could the US maintain its global dominance, but limit the blowback from its misadventures? Meanwhile in the UK – the key ally throughout the process – the war eventually destroyed Blair. Ed Miliband had to say they were wrong to go to war during his inaugural leadership address. Iraq did not decapitate US imperial power, but it precipitated a change of approach.
The argument about the direction of US power amongst the US establishment is not divided between pro-war hawks and peaceniks. Addressing the recovery, maintenance and intensification of US power is always the aim. Thus Obama has pursued a quite different strategy to Bush, Rumsfeld and Cheney. The current strategy for US dominance broadly follows three tactics. One is incorporation. This is the idea that only a progressive United States can save the world from itself, with a recognition that the all American cowboy state was not a helpful aesthetic. Secondly, they had to make conflict cleaner, and keep it under the radar. This has primarily taken place through Obama’s drone wars. No Shock and Awe for 24 hour news and Youtube. No boots on the ground or US casualties.
- Total reported killed: 2,518-3,239
- Civilians reported killed: 482-835
- Children reported killed: 175
- Total reported injured: 1,199-1,325
The rise in this method of warfare is statistically provable. Between 2004 and 2012, Of the 336 strikes that the US has carried out over Pakistan, Obama is responsible for 284. As the theatre of war moved away from Iraq, Obama has been steadily increasing drone strikes in other areas.
Thirdly, the US want to intervene into areas of unrest and in particular to re-shape the outcome of the revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East into a mould that suits US interests, a necessary change in approach given several of the dictators the US had armed and financed were being overthrown.
In short, the way in which American power is asserting itself has changed, while its imperial objectives remain.
Economic and social instability
The changes brought about by the failure in Iraq are only part of the ensuing global complexity. Robertson says:
‘The people of Scotland have to properly and soberly examine the impact of their decision on the stability of the world. And in that time the rest of the ordered world needs to tell us that it actually cares.’
What is meant here by ‘ordered world’ is important. He means the parts of the world with stable, Western establishments. He does not mean China, or India, or Brazil – competitors to Anglo-American power, with their own imperial dynamic.
Thus, the economic crisis has punctuated and exposed political tensions. The scramble amongst the world’s powers for resources and leverage, from currency wars to resource control, has shifted dramatically as a direct result of the global economic crisis, and the ongoing crisis of global financial markets and institutions. Competition between states is not always overt, and often unseen. For example, China is currently trading skills and building developments for raw materials, which does not register on its GDP. Indeed learning Chinese in swathes of Africa is an extremely lucrative skill. In March last year the Chinese state invested $10 Billion in building the biggest port in Africa, to be ready for 2017. Competition is in inherent to the world system, and intensified during the crisis.
Additionally, massive inequality is radicalising many millions of people globally, in different ways. Inequality on this scale – the 85 richest own more than the poorest 3 billion combined – is in itself a security matter for global power. Other developments including the internet and social media mean that the traditional transmitters of establishment ideology are threatened. When a big news story breaks, twitter is the place to go.
These issues are all directly connected with modern international relations. The world is changing, but it is changing within the framework of a global system which retains an inevitable competition between states, economically and militarily. All throughout this the global economy rests on the dollar, and therefore trust in the US state. That means the situation in totality is combustible and increasingly unstable, especially when you factor in the other major feature of our time, climate catastrophe and environmental degradation on a world historic scale.
Robertson versus a progressive Scottish foreign policy
These are some of the challenges facing powerful states and the global population. Robertson repeatedly talked about the importance of the ‘geo-strategic’ importance involved with the referendum. So scrapping Trident would indeed be a blow to the likes of Robertson. He wants to do more than uphold the current order, he wants to re-emphasise it. He sees the world as ordered and dis-ordered, conveniently translatable to dominant and oppressed. Instead of addressing the fundamental issues he favours stockpiling nuclear weapons, a centralised security state and the entrenchment of a system which has led to gargantuan inequality all in the name of some false ‘stability’.
It is easy to be against these things. But a Yes vote offers to platform for saying more than what we oppose. We have to ask what a Scottish foreign policy would look like and that should be bold. We should stand unequivocally with the Palestinians, we should promote the development of world class social security to contradict neoliberalism globally, we should refuse to be a staging post for the US military, we should incorporate publicly owned renewable energy into our foreign policy agenda. If we call Iraq an illegal war, we must favour the logical conclusion: Blair needs to be tried in the Hague. We have a chance to institutionalise the values of the anti-war and peace movements past and present, free from the shackles of British ‘empire.’
On the same day as Robertsons now infamous speech, Alex Salmond delivered an address in which he gave an outline of his approach to international relations post independence. His conclusions were as follows:
- We seek a Scotland where sustainable prosperity goes hand in hand with solidarity and fairness.
- We seek a Scotland which makes a positive contribution to the world, as an equal partner in the family of nations;
- We seek a Scotland whose importance is judged on its usefulness to the rest of humanity, not on fading imperial grandeur;
- We seek a Scotland which applies its ingenuity to mitigating and addressing the great environmental challenges of the world;
- We seek a Scotland known for helping others as well as promoting itself;
- We seek a Scotland guided by enlightened self-interest – in how we run our country, and how our country relates to the rest of the world
This, in rhetorical terms at least, is the antithesis of George Robertson’s claims. Robertson does not want to be an equal partner in a family of nations. Instead, proponents of his positions seek supremacy and ‘peace’ through superior fire power. Salmond shows an understanding of the wider, contextual elements involved in holistic international relations strategy: the environment, sustainable prosperity based on ‘fairness’ and being judged on usefulness, rather than being feared as a hegemon. And he wants rid of Trident. In this sense Salmond looks to escape the military and strategic entanglements bound up in empire building. Robertson called on the ‘ordered’ world to oppose this because it represents an alternative. He wants to force Scotland into a no vote on the basis of security, and with his powerful associates ensure that at the very least ensure that an independent Scotland falls into line.
But there is a further contradiction: the SNP has opted to join NATO. As the global situation develops it will become clear that it is not possible to have one foot in the US imperial super-structure and one foot out. We live in a polarised world where compromise means supporting directly or indirectly, the long-term dominance of the US State and a global system inherently driven towards conflict of one sort or another. Now is the time to be bold, and for Scotland to stand firm on these questions, unbowed to great power. It will lie with the capacity of the people to mobilise the demand that an effective foreign policy, is one that breaks with our role as client state to the Whitehouse. We already have a majority for this, who opposed the Iraq war, who want to scrap Trident, who are opposed to further wars and who associate progress with peace and a vigilant citizenry. We should break with Robertson et al completely and be the visionaries of a future where the onus is on supporting the oppressed, rather than the military industrial complex, the CIA, reaper drone command and other such dark forces. The stakes are high.
This article was originally published on the Open Democracy website