The economics of conquest

Only a reinvigorated United Nations can bring the world's aggressors to heel

The other day I heard John Bolton - who lately resigned his post as US representative designate to the United Nations - saying how unforgivably evil it was of the Syrians to (allegedly) assassinate certain Lebanese politicians who were thought to be obstructing Syria’s ambition to gain political control of Lebanon. If true, that is certainly a despicable thing to do, definitely not the sort of behaviour we expect from a member of the community of nations.

Then, later, I heard that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had affirmed that the US expenditure of materials and human lives on a war intended to obtain political control of Iraq and bring to it US-style democracy is - and has been - as she put it, "a worthwhile investment".

Comparing these two projects, one can see that, although basically similar in purpose, the (alleged) Syrian investment is, in purely arithmetical terms, far more economical in outlay than the US one, in that only one or two lives were lost and little physical damage occurred, rather than the half-million or so lives that are thought to have been lost in the massive destruction unleashed by the invasion of Iraq by the US and its allies.

Also, it is worth noting that neither of the projects can really be said to have been cost-effective. Syria has not obtained political control of Lebanon, and, if it ever had it, the US has long since lost political control of Iraq.

Arithmetic aside, we have to ask what has happened to the human race that these appalling projects should ever have been considered in the first place. The first key lies, I suspect, in the plastic weasel-phrase: “Regime-change”.

When one nation adopts the policy which is now called "regime-change", it implicitly arrogates to itself the right to remove by force the government of another nation, just because it, itself, doesn’t happen to approve of what that nation does.

When that happens, it follows that however virtuous its original intent, the nation which chose that policy has, by so doing, created a precedent which any other nation or group - however vile its intent - can legitimately consider itself entitled to emulate.

So now anybody and everybody can follow suit and have a go at the regime-change of their choice. While the world stands aghast at the piecemeal proliferation of random murder-projects that are destroying the once-civilized nation of Iraq, there is nothing anybody can do to stop it because it is all being done, inspired by the US example, in the name of regime-change, or in this case perhaps "regime-destruction".

The fact that Saddam Hussein was a complete despot does not alter the fact that to go to war and stamp on Iraq in order to get rid of him was, and still is, a piece of out-of-date pseudo-imperialist stupidity. Nor can it be regarded as having been cost-effective, because life for the surviving Iraqis is little better, often far worse and always infinitely more dangerous than it was in his time. American-style democracy doesn’t seem to take, perhaps because when you are dodging bombs and bullets, security seems more immediately necessary than enfranchisement.

Conquest?

There is nothing new about war and conquest and international power-politics. The Roman Empire was built on a programme of regime-change. So was the British Empire. So why can’t the American Empire manage it?

There are probably many reasons, but the main one is that old-style conquest just doesn’t work any more. The natives don’t have spears, they have Kalashnikovs. The world is now so awash with munitions that however swiftly the Abrams tank can sweep across the land and apparently conquer it, once the tank has arrived there, the soldiers inside it can’t get out, except in heavily-armed sorties from pre-fortified compounds.

The invaders can destroy the infrastructure of the country and disband its social systems, its police, its public services, but they can’t replace them because they are constantly, literally, under fire, not only from the people of the country, but from anybody in neighbouring countries who doesn’t happen to want the conquerors to be there, doesn’t want them to succeed in their objectives and sees, in the maintenance of chaos by random destruction, a way to keep them bogged down, leaving the world open for their own particular infiltrative brand of regime destruction.

God knows when or how that festering sore can be salved. The process cannot begin until the initial mistake is fully acknowledged and the outraged dragons of vengeance are no longer being nourished by brave gung-ho lies and glib posturings. If that day should one day come to Iraq, perhaps we can also hope that the innate internecine hostilities of its passionate people will burn out in a weariness with death, hatred and vain dominance, and let them walk in their streets again.

Civilization?

But again we have to ask the underlying question: What has happened to the human race that after thousands of years of civilization we are still unable to live in peace with our neighbours?

As individuals, in this country, we can, up to a point, manage to do this. In the square where I lived there were people of many types and colours living in different houses. If we didn’t like them we didn’t have a lot to do with them, but we didn’t shoot them, and certainly we didn’t buy an anti-tank gun and blow them up, house and family, and then take possession of their property. We put up with it or, as a last resort, we complained to the council or called the police, who dealt with it impersonally according to the law.

So why does this not happen in the big round square where nations live? The obvious reason has always been: because there isn’t any council with a real police force backed by impersonal law. This lack has been obvious for many decades. I have seen both the League of Nations, and later the United Nations, rise in hope and strength, and watched the former wither away in impotence and disdain, as the nations which had created the organisation and placed it in authority, shrugged it aside because they could not impose their will on it.

It has become fashionable to dismiss the United Nations as a complete waste of time and money because it is so cumbersome, slow to act and poorly supported, but the simple truth is that it has been deliberately betrayed by its own creators.

Today, now that international violence has finally been shown to be a self-destructive rather than a cost-effective option, the basic arithmetic of international relationships has to change; this time for good.

Now we have to realise that if the human race hopes to avoid committing mass suicide in the ecstasy of "regime changes" and doomed excursions into conquest that will otherwise result from the effects of climate change, nations must put together a proper United Nations, a supra-national body with fully independent dedicated members which is armed and empowered to act impersonally in the interests of the world as a whole, according to international law, rather than on behalf of any particular faction.

Perhaps, in 2007, we could allow ourselves to hope that Ban Ki-moon, successor to the unfortunate Kofi Annan as Secretary General of the UN, will have the courage - and at last be given the strength - to bring the dogs of hubris to heel.

Oliver Postgate was the creator of Bagpuss, the Clangers, Ivor the Engine and Noggin the Nog. His autobiography depicts his passage from grinning show-off to grisly old git, a journey that included not only a prison sentence but also a thirty-year period working with Peter Firmin in cow-shed and pig-sty, making small films. Oliver died on 8 December, 2008
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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear