By Lindsey German
These are sometimes confusing times for anti war and peace campaigners, such is the myriad of wars, threats of wars and cold war rhetoric spreading across the Middle east, south and east Asia and Russia.
It is often hard to keep up with Donald Trump’s foreign policy, not least when sworn enemy and potential target North Korea suddenly becomes a country with whom he can negotiate - at least for now. But Trump’s unceremonial sacking of his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and replacement of him with Mike Pompeo, the head of the CIA, might give us a clue. Pompeo is a loyal Trump ally who has, since appointed to the CIA not much more than a year ago, got close to the Saudis, giving its then Crown Prince a CIA medal. He has refused to allow his subordinates to testify in congressional investigations, and has argued for the CIA to be able to launch its own drone strikes in Afghanistan. In turn the proposed new head of the CIA, Gina Haspel, - hailed by Trump as an exemplar of equality and diversity - actually ran a torture operation for the agency in Thailand.
If the Washington state department looks increasingly bent on more aggressive policies, what are we to make of events back home, where the Russian Bear is being goaded by the prime minister and where the outline of a new Cold War looms on the horizon?
Indeed the relative stability of the old Cold War, when a ‘balance of terror’ prevented the two superpowers from using their piles of nuclear weapons, seems to belong to a bygone era as remote as free school milk, full employment in 9 to 5 jobs and red phone boxes on every corner.
In truth the situation in the world today is the most dangerous that it has been since the periods which led to the two world wars. The inter power rivalry which marked the decade or more up to 1914 was marked by huge levels of arms spending and growing tensions between the powers. Today, we are again seeing record levels of arms spending which fuel a number of wars across the Middle East and beyond. We are also seeing tensions between China and the US, and between the western powers and Russia. The Russophobia displayed in parliament and the media mirrors the anti German propaganda which was such a hallmark of British cultural and political life before 1914.
The period before the Second World War was again marked by great power rivalry, and a series of wars which presaged the full conflict which began in 1939. Hitler and Mussolini intervened on the side of the fascist Franco in Spain’s civil war. Mussolini attacked Abyssinia (now known as Ethiopia) in a brutal imperialist war. China and Japan fought in Manchuria.
While there are many differences between those periods and now, they are all marked by a sense of crisis, not least economic, by record levels of arms spending, and by a desire of the major powers to seize land and resources in furtherance of their aims.
The end of the Cold War was supposed to herald a new era of peace and stability. It did the opposite. The 1990s were marked at their beginning by the first Gulf War, the conflict with Saddam Hussein over Kuwait. Their end saw the Kosovo war in 1999, which marked a decisive military intervention in Europe by the US, UK and its allies for the first time since the end of the Second World War. The policies developed in that decade - the increased use of sanctions as a prelude to war, the doctrine of ‘humanitarian intervention’ argued for strongly by Tony Blair in his Chicago speech in 1999, the designation of certain countries as ‘rogue states’ - all set the scene for the series of catastrophic wars which have marked the present century.
The failure of these wars is rarely acknowledged but it is incontrovertible that nearly two decades on from the events of 9/11 not a single one of these wars can be called a success in terms of the situation of the particular country, or in terms of fostering wider stability. The stated aim of these wars, to defeat terrorism, is one of their biggest failures, since terrorism across the world is much more widespread and pervasive than it was in 2001.
Yet this failure of military solutions and the various imperial rivalries that they have helped to create has led to a vicious circle. The involvement in endless wars only leads to more such involvement, and helps to exacerbate inter state rivalry. This is particularly true over the Syrian war where a plethora of states are intervening, all of them reluctant to give ground or see an end to the war for fear of giving their competitors an advantage. So, like Germany’s Thirty Years War in the 17th century, these wars continue because none of the major powers have an interest in ending them.
Worse, there is every sign that we will face worse conflict across the Middle East. Already the battle lines are drawn up in Syria, with Russia, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah on one side and Saudi Arabia, the US, UK and Israel on the other. In Yemen, where Saudi bombing has turned the country into a hell for the civilian population, the war is being fought against the Houthis, seen as a proxy for Iran. Trump is abandoning the nuclear agreement with Iran, to the despair even of his traditional allies such as the EU. The likelihood of an actual war involving some or all of these protagonists is real. The continuing oppression of the Palestinians and the promotion of illegal settlements on Palestinian land by the Israeli government is also leading to greater tension. Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem in defiance of international agreements is only adding to that tension.
Trump is trying to manage the economic and political decline of what was christened the only superpower in the 1990s following the collapse of the Russian bloc. So far he has alternated between protectionism and anti migrant rhetoric - both issues which can lead to hot war as well as cold - with threatening all out war, against at various times Iran and North Korea. His lack of consistency is not just a personal trait, although it is undoubtedly that, but a product of the difficulty the US faces in dealing with its relative decline. It is also a product of the great instability which exists - an instability with the Middle East wars at its centre, but which spreads to other issues and other conflicts.
This instability makes for unpredictable politics. We have seen this from the beginning of the year alone, which opened with what seemed like worsening conflict in the Korean peninsula, conflict defused in large part by the Koreans themselves, who reached agreement over joint participation in the winter Olympics, this in turn leading to Trump agreeing to talks with North Korea.
Then there is the Russia question looming once more. For the avoidance of any doubt, opposition to the growing clamour against Russia does not and should not imply any support for Vladimir Putin or his policies, which are anti democratic and repressive at home and support bombing in Syria. It is impossible for lay people to know what actually happened in the Skripal case, but even putting the worst construction, it cannot be described as an act of war - or even a warlike act, as the Tory MP Tom Tugendhat put it. It was a horrible crime whose perpetrators should be brought to justice, not a causus belli.
But, as we know only too well from history, such acts can lead to major wars. The atmosphere around parliament and in the media over this question has been frankly irrational, with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn castigated for merely asking that there should be evidence of Russian involvement. One might have thought that after the Iraq war experience and the lack of existence of WMD there might be some scepticism over government demands for uncritical backing, but unfortunately not - at least not among most MPs, the BBC and national print media.
This is particularly dangerous and reckless. Russia is one of the world’s major military powers and possesses nuclear weapons. Any war with Russia would have worldwide consequences - which is why even Boris Johnson is keen to reassure that none of this sabre rattling will lead to war. It also fails to recognise what is actually happening with Russia. In fact what has happened over the past three decades is that Russia’s power has declined, not grown. It controls less territory than probably at any time since the 18th century, is relatively isolated internationally, and has seen its traditional Cold War foe, NATO, expand right up to Russian borders, now with the regular stationing of Nato troops (including British) in the Baltic states and elsewhere in eastern Europe.
It is now widely accepted that Hitler gained support in part because the western powers pushed Germany so hard for reparations after the First World War under the Treaty of Versailles. It is clear that Putin gains rather than loses political support from all this by saying that he stands up for Russian interests against the west.
The need has never been more urgent than now to push for an anti war government, and with Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader there is at least a good chance of one. This would mark a historic but necessary break from the abysmal record of previous British governments, and would make a major difference to international politics. It would mean in particular an end to the ‘special relationship’ with US presidents and would make clear our opposition to Trump and all he stands for.
The anti war movement in the era of Trump has to be able to fight on many fronts: campaigning for such a government, in addition to opposing existing wars and potential new ones, and dealing with the growing anti Muslim sentiment which has been in large part caused as a consequences of these conflicts. Foreign policy issues continue to be central to British politics.