Socialist Worker

Britain's sordid role in the world: Interview with author Mark Curtis

Mark Curtis is the author of Web of Deceit: Britain's Real Role in the World-one of the most popular books in the anti-war movement. He will also be speaking at the Stop the War Coalition's People's Assembly in London on 30 August.

Issue No. 1865

Your book gives a devastating account of Blair's previous wars in Kosovo and Afghanistan. What would you say to those who claim they were a success?

The two big myths surrounding both those wars is that, first of all, they were undertaken for humanitarian reasons and, secondly, that they had good outcomes. The conventional view put forward by the Blair government that Kosovo was done for human rights purposes just cannot be true. States don't go to war for humanitarian purposes. The NATO intervention exacerbated the humanitarian crisis. Afghanistan was even more remarkable. As I argue in the book, we killed more people than they did.

The latest authoritative estimate of the number we killed is 7,000. Even that may be low. The Guardian did an investigation and said that up to 30,000 people might have been killed.

Even if you take the 7,000 figure it is twice as many as were killed on 11 September. Those two things-that we exacerbated the humanitarian situation in Kosovo and that we killed more people than they did in Afghanistan-should be the two things that come through in reporting on those conflicts. But that isn't the case of course.

What comes through in the media is that Blair is wondrously devoted to humanitarianism-what's been politely called a 'liberal imperialism'-but which to me is a moral rehabilitation of imperialism as a concept.

Do you think the Blair government has been worse than previous British governments?

Never before has the British government committed itself to so many military interventions in such a short space of time as under Blair. In the 80s even Margaret Thatcher did not commit British troops to Central America to support Reagan. She did not commit UK jets to help bomb Libya in 1986. Thatcher was sceptical of the US invasion of Grenada in 1983.

Now Blair is supporting the US in Kosovo, in Afghanistan, in Iraq and so on. There are two other areas where foreign policy under Blair is worse. One is support for Israel. They try to say they are being even-handed between the Palestinians and the Israelis. I think a lot of people have bought that line, including many NGOs (non-governmental organisations).

But Britain is still supplying arms to Israel. Britain has been the lead nation in blocking European Union moves to pressure Israel. Blair has acted as Israel's de facto apologist more than any other EU nation. That is going beyond Thatcher. Under Thatcher the Foreign Office was always quite sceptical about committing itself in public to Israel for fear of upsetting 'our' Arab despots.

The other area where New Labour is even worse is to do with globalisation and its fanatical support for trade liberalisation. These people are completely committed to trade liberalisation. That is in the face of all the evidence about the impact free trade has.

I know about that from having worked inside an NGO at Christian Aid. NGOs have poured out information about the huge human effect of free trade and the British government has paid not a blind bit of notice.

Their agenda is very clear-support corporations, allow corporations to get access to overseas markets. That's the fundamental goal of British foreign policy.

What link do you see between war and militarisation on the one hand and globalisation on the other?

There are two fundamental goals of British foreign policy. One is economic, the other political. The economic is to ensure that the world is safe for Western corporations. That explains a lot about British foreign policy-it's about access to markets, ensuring favourable investment climates for our multinationals.

The US and Britain are the two states, and maybe you can add Japan in recent years, where the world's big transnational corporations are based. BP, Shell, Rio Tinto, British American Tobacco-these are British companies. This explains why Britain has such an interventionist foreign policy compared to, say, Italy or Sweden.

Then there is a political goal, that British elites want to maintain their political standing in the world. They are not the great power they were in 1938. But they've never been satisfied with the role of a third-rank power. They want Britain to be up there punching above its weight, up there with the US.

The role of Britain in the world is just never addressed in mainstream academic circles. The assumptions are usually that Britain is keen on promoting human rights, security, peace, democracy. The fact that there is no evidence for it whatsoever is frankly neither here nor there for most mainstream academics.

Why do you think that Blair is so subservient to Bush?

Partly it's the basic strategic calculation that the US is Britain's main ally, because the alliance with the world's most powerful state gives British elites more clout-political and economic.

The other reason is even more frightening. It's that they believe it themselves. The British elites believe the same things as the US. Nothing infuriates me more than the cosy liberal view in this country that we don't have blood on our hands like the US does.

This is the view in liberal circles and even some left circles-that the US is always the bad guy and we are always more liberal and more humanitarian. The truth is in some areas of policy we've gone beyond even the US. Trade liberalisation is an example where Britain is probably even more committed to that agenda than the US.

Your book shows a continuity between British foreign policy now and its bloody interventions in the past.

Usually the assumption is made that British imperialism in the 1940s and 50s belongs to a completely different era. All my research shows continuity. The policies are very similar. Certainly the impact on human beings is similar-widespread deaths at the hands of the British military. The public justifications for what they did then and what they are doing now are very similar.

If you take Kenya in the 1950s, around 150,000 Africans died as the result of British policy. The intervention was portrayed by British leaders of the time as a noble humanitarian act-we were fighting terrorists.

The Mau Mau movement were described as terrorists, in largely the same way as Saddam Hussein was depicted as having links with Al Qaida. The reason for the intervention in Kenya, and also in Malaya and British Guyana, was fundamentally economic.

It was land in Kenya, preserving white control of the land, protecting rubber and tin interests in the Malayan war, and protecting bauxite and sugar interests in the case of intervention in British Guyana. Now it's oil. It's a different commodity each time, but the goal is the same.

Political and strategic interests are there as well. One of the clear reasons that British elites gave for their interventions around the world in the 1950s and 60s was what they then called 'prestige'. Now it's called 'demonstrating our power'.

US leaders were clear about that in Afghanistan and Iraq. It was shock and awe-we are demonstrating how powerful we really are. And it's a message to other leaders-if you step out of line and disobey the orders from Washington, you are going to get pummelled. British leaders said the same thing in the 40s and 50s-in order to uphold British prestige and discourage other people from challenging British power we will have to resort to military intervention. Some of the language may have changed, but the arguments are very similar.

What do you think people in the anti-war movement should do?

Although the war was not stopped, people should take encouragement from the fact that they were successful in many ways. For a start two million people is an unprecedented public mobilisation. And it raised the costs to the British government of going to war.

If more MPs had followed their constituents, more MPs would have voted against Blair and then Blair would have been vulnerable. The mobilisations sent a signal to future governments that they can't simply do what they like and the public will be quiescent. They know that the public is concerned about pummelling foreign countries, and they are going to have major costs to bear.

This explains why now you have an unprecedented state propaganda campaign taking place, I call it psychological warfare against the public. Elites know they have to resort to that. They know the public is a threat to their policy making. I've given recent talks to stop the war groups across the country. There's a lot of interest in continuing that sort of mobilisation. People want to keep it going and to maybe look more broadly at other issues.

Iraq has served to politicise people, which is important in itself, and hopefully it might serve to politicise a whole new generation of people in the way that Nicaragua or apartheid did in the 80s. The biggest challenge facing all left groups is to find a common platform that is genuinely radical, and that doesn't get co-opted by the more mainstream agenda of the more liberal NGOs, that keeps away from them.

We need to unite anti-war groups, the more radical environment groups, the traditional left groups behind a new programme of social change. The anti-globalisation movement is an international version of that, but we're still searching for a really solid common platform.

Web of Deceit: Britain's Real Role in the World is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, at £7.99 plus postage. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

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Sat 23 Aug 2003, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1865
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