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Why Britain should end the special relationship with the US

Gratitude for past US military assistance should not stop Britain from pursuing its own interests today.

Is the “special relationship” between Britain and the United States fundamentally flawed? It’s an alliance based on shared histories and values, one that has become the cornerstone of British foreign policy after two world wars. But does it serve Britain’s interests as it once did? Could the UK gain from a little more independence of mind and a greater readiness to “play it alone”, à la France?

Gratitude for past US military assistance should not stop Britain from pursuing its own interests today. After all, Washington seldom trumpets its relationship with Britain as “special”. The US considers itself as having “special relationships” with Canada, Mexico, Russia and Germany – to name but a few. If anything, it seems increasingly eager to establish a rapport with the EU as a whole, rather than any individual member state.

Although Britain may benefit from privileged access to US intelligence and weapons, by adhering to US policies around the globe it has forsaken old relationships. This is borne out in the Middle East, where Britain has, in its uncritical deference to the US, sacrificed trading, commercial and diplomatic ties with Libya, Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Afghanistan.

Increased independence also becomes appealing when an alternative European option may offer the same, if not greater, economic and political attractions. British exports to the EU are worth £187bn a year at present and are predicted to rise to £277bn by 2030. European markets for transport, energy and digital services, combined with global trade deals, could add a further £58bn, and many thousands of jobs, to that total.

More urgently, the global political environment has altered dramatically since 1945. Radicalisation at home, and terrorism and the migration crisis, can be countered effectively only through collaboration between neighbouring states.

The US-UK relationship has also harmed Britain’s standing among international bodies such as the United Nations. Take US policy on Bosnia. The UN mandate during the Bosnian War was predicated on the need to keep the peace. To this end, the UN imposed Operation Deny Flight, and Nato was tasked with policing a no-fly zone over Bosnia – a task that was assigned to the United States. But the US had a different agenda.

Washington responded by imposing a policy of “lift and strike” that in effect led to the rearming of Bosnian Muslims and Croats, and then the mass bombing of Serbs. When the Croats proved reluctant to arm the Bosnian army with sophisticated weapons, the Americans took it upon themselves to send arms to the Bosnian Muslim army, making air drops beyond the limits of Operation Deny Flight.

In other words, the US pursued its own agenda in tandem with Nato and its allies when it suited Washington, but was equally prepared to deceive its allies and pursue a unilateral policy in the Balkans. The US showed a readiness to ignore policies agreed with Britain and other countries that should not be too quickly forgotten.

The US action helped cause many of the 15,000 deaths and create 600,000 refugees in the Balkans. It led to a diplomatic backlash, the result being that the US suspended sharing intelligence information with Britain. Later, the UK tried to hedge its bets, first with the Anglo-French St Malo Declaration and later with the so-called “Euro army”.

So far, the sceptics’ case for leaving Europe has been based entirely on nostalgia. Co-operation with America forms part of that delusion. Sovereignty is being wrongly exploited to undermine British interests and security. Instead, a judicious and flexible “special relationship” with Europe should be sought. After all, the United States has expressed a wish for Britain to remain a part of the Union. In this instance, it might be wise to heed the Americans’ advice. 

This article first appeared in the 17 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Spring double issue

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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