ONE OF the most common questions that people ask me is, 'Why did Tony Blair go so far in backing George W Bush's war on Iraq?' It's not hard to tell a story about US interests, but what's in it for Britain? An important part of the answer lies in the long term strategy that the British ruling class has pursued ever since the Second World War. By attaching itself closely to the mighty US, Britain could continue play a role as a global power.
But this doesn't quite explain the self righteous zeal with which Blair has helped to prosecute the conquest and occupation of Iraq. The Breaking of Nations (Atlantic Books, £14.99), a new book by the diplomat Robert Cooper, gives an insight into the ideological vision that drives Blair on.
Cooper now works for Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, but he used to be a special adviser to Blair. He boasts that part of the book was 'originally intended to be a short note for the prime minister to read at Christmas'. A piece by Cooper in the Guardian last week under the headline 'Civilise or Die' offered a hint of his-and Blair's-worldview.
He argues that globalisation plus the spread of weapons of mass destruction represent a mortal threat to the Western liberal democracies. 'Our only defence against such a world is the spread of civilisation,' Cooper concludes. 'Thus we should all be in favour of regime change.'
This sounds very much like old-fashioned Victorian imperialism asserting its superiority in order to justify dominating the rest of the world. But Cooper claims to be offering a more modern, not to say 'postmodern', perspective.
He argues that the EU represents the most advanced case of a new 'postmodern' global order. Here national boundaries are becoming irrelevant and conflicts are settled, not by war, but through negotiations and even court cases pursued within the framework of 'transnational' institutions.
The trouble is that not everywhere is yet part of this new world. Regions such as the Middle East and East Asia are still dominated by 'modern' nation-states that compete and even wage war. And then there are 'pre-modern' societies such as large parts of Africa where the state has collapsed and chaos prevails.
The case for imperialism today is that 'the postmodern world' needs sometimes to use force to fend off the threats that come from the 'pre-modern' and 'modern' holdouts. The Afghan war was directed against a threat of the first kind, the conquest of Iraq against one of the second.
Though Cooper no doubt regards himself as a terrific intellectual, his thinking is typical of the Foreign Office. His book is clever, superficial (there are numerous minor errors), and fundamentally flawed. The US neo-conservative commentator Robert Kagan has put his finger on the fundamental flaw.
What he ironically calls the European 'paradise' has been constructed within the framework of the military and political domination of the US. Back in the early years of the Cold War, the US intervened to reconstruct liberal capitalism in Western Europe.
From the Marshall Plan of 1947 onwards Washington prodded the Europeans towards economic and political integration to build up an effective counterweight to the Soviet Union and its empire.
The US military presence in Europe and its leadership of NATO were a precondition of European integration. They provided the western European states with a security guarantee-not just against the East but also against a revival of German imperialism.
The situation remains fundamentally unchanged today. It was the Clinton administration, not the European Union, which used NATO to intervene in the Balkan Wars of the 1990s and reimpose a brutal and unjust kind of order on the area.
Cooper tiptoes around the gorilla on the sofa for most of his book. Towards the end, he acknowledges that there is huge military gap between the US and the EU. He argues that building up a 'common defence' in Europe would increase the influence of the EU in Washington.
This may help to explain why Blair has in the past few weeks lent his tentative support to proposals initially made by France, Germany and Belgium to build up a European military capability. But, for his pains, Blair has earned not the gratitude, but furious attacks from the Bush administration.
The US likes a united Europe only so long as it remains firmly under US leadership. Having split the EU in the lead-up the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration doesn't want its chief European vassal cosying up to France and Germany. The sun has yet to set on the American Empire.
Alex Callinicos is the author of An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto and The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx. Both are available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop-phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com