"Humanitarian intervention" is the latest brand name for imperialism as it begins a return to respectability

In Newsweek last week Tony Blair described the "new moral crusade" that is to follow Nato's attack on Yugoslavia. "We now have a chance to build a new internationalism based on values and the rule of law," he wrote. George Robertson was more blunt. The "Rubicon has been crossed", he said, paving the way for the end of the UN charter that protects the sovereignty of nations. Robin Cook chimed in, making threats towards "governments using aggression against their own people". The warning did not apply to the government of Turkey, a Nato member, whose aggression against its own people has left 3,000 Kurdish villages ethnically cleansed, 30,000 people dead and three million refugees. Atrocities committed by the authorities in Indonesia, Israel, Colombia and other countries where western "interests" are in safe hands will also be exempt.

Those who recognise the standard hypocrisy will easily translate the euphemisms. In these days of political disorientation, translation is all important; for imperialism is not part of the modern lexicon in the west. In the best Stalinist tradition, it no longer exists. What western power does is always benevolent. Blair can spout his breathtaking drivel about internationalism and morality while zealously enforcing genocidal sanctions that kill 4,000 Iraqi infants every month, and the connection is seldom made. Nato's aggressive expansion into eastern Europe, the Balkans and the oil-rich Caucasus, attended by a $22 billion Anglo-American arms bazaar, is unworthy of mainstream discussion.

This is understandable. Since fascism expounded its notions of racial superiority, the imperial "civilising mission" has had a bad name. Since the end of the cold war, however, the economic and political crises in the developing world, precipitated by debt and the disarray of the liberation movements, have served as retrospective justification for imperialism. Although the word remains unspeakable, the old imperial project's return journey to respectability has begun. New brand names have been market tested. "Humanitarian intervention" is the latest to satisfy the criterion of doing what you like where you like, as long as you are strong enough. The killing or maiming of 10,000 innocent civilians in Serbia and Kosovo by a bombing machine representing two-thirds of the world's military power and the clear provocation of the "entirely predictable" Serb atrocities - all of it avoidable, since Slobodan Milosevic had agreed in effect to give up Kosovo six weeks before the bombing began - is called a "moral victory". George Orwell could not better it.

The ideological climate and disorientation among those on the liberal left, created by the western powers' hijacking of "human rights", is especially dangerous. The other day Mikhail Gorbachev sought to interrupt the victory celebrations with a speech in which he warned that Nato's assault on Yugoslavia had given impetus to a new global nuclear arms race. He said: "Smaller countries - among them 31 'threshold' states capable of developing nuclear weapons - are looking to their own security with growing trepidation. They are thinking they must have absolute weapons to be able to defend themselves, or to retaliate if they are subjected to similar treatment."

Under Blair's "internationalism" any country can be declared a "rogue state" and attacked by the US and Britain, with or without Nato. Read the Nato and US planning literature; it is all on the record. There is a Pentagon strategy called "offensive counter-proliferation", which means that, if the Americans cannot prevent a "rogue" country developing and building types of weapons of which they disapprove, they may well nuke it. North Korea is a likely candidate, allowing Washington to settle a historical score. The Russians fully understand the dangers. The defence ministry in Moscow has already announced plans to deploy new tactical nuclear weapons near Russia's western border. Russia's National Security Council has quietly dropped its long-standing doctrine of "no first use" of nuclear weapons. In the US, Clinton has sent to Congress a nuclear weapons rebuilding programme unmatched since the early Reagan years. If we are to speak of truly "rogue" powers, the US leads the pack.

Blair's reference to the new "rule of law" is quite obscene. One of the world's nuclear flashpoints is the Indian subcontinent, where India and Pakistan, both nuclear powers, are on the edge of all-out war over Kashmir. In the first year after coming to power, Blair and his government approved 500 licences for the export of weapons to the two countries - they also approved 92 licences for arms shipments to the Indonesian military, which is currently arming and training death squads to prevent East Timor achieving its independence.

New Labour's fake internationalism is part of "economic globalisation", a project as old as gunboats. The gathering assault on the principle of the sovereignty of nations, however, marks a new phase in the global war against democracy. Blair, essentially an opportunist, and his spinners trust that his cold-war-style belligerence will invoke the Thatcher factor and ensure him a long reign. There are important differences. In the midst of the 1982 Falklands war, Thatcher did well in local elections. In striking contrast, Blair has just been crushed in the Euro elections by a lame-duck Tory leader. More significant, Labour voters stayed at home in record numbers, just as they did in the Scottish and Welsh devolutionary polls. They are not apathetic, as reported. They are on to him at last; and their growing awareness is crucial as he aspires to lead us across the Rubicon.