Seumas Milne rides to battle against the United States
It must be a slow news day, because Seumas Milne has taken to his Guardian column to denounce the presence of US military bases on British soil. You might think that resuscitating a dusty old left-wing fall-back piece like this might at least warrant some new angle on the story, or at least be based on some recent newsworthy transgression by the American military that we host here. You might think so, but you would be disappointed. Milne apparently just got out of bed feeling vaguely smug and anti-American, and decided to repeat the same predictable talking points, namely:
1. They came to help fight Nazi Germany in 1942 and the war ended a long time ago, so what can they possibly still be doing here?
2. America has dragged us into unnecessary and failed wars (Iraq was clearly a calamitous mistake, but why this warrants booting 10,000 US servicemen from our shores is never explained by Milne, unless it is supposed to simply be an act of vengeance) but we can absolve ourselves of these sins by closing down their bases here.
3. The British security elite are desperate to maintain a lopsided special relationship with the US, and only tolerate their bases on our soil as the price of achieving this goal.
4. Being so chummy with the Americans makes us less safe. Rather than being proud of our alliance with a country that symbolises democracy and individual freedom (however self-tarnished this image is becoming as a result of the unconstitutional activities of their national security complex), we should actively disown them to curry favour with fundamentalist theocracies who foment terrorism.
The column is not worth quoting at length, but here is an excerpt:
But whose interests are actually served by such a role? No doubt arms contractors are delighted, but it’s hard to argue that it benefits the British people – let alone those on the receiving end of the US and British military. Politicians and securocrats claim it gives them influence over US policy, but they struggle to produce the evidence on the rare occasions they’re asked to explain how. “The foreign policy elite still have a strong idea,” as the Chatham House analyst James de Waal puts it, that intervention based on “values” is an “innate part of what the UK is all about”. In fact, what successive governments have done is mortgaged Britain’s security and independence to a foreign power – and placed its armed forces, territory and weaponry at the disposal of a system of global domination and privilege, now clearly past its peak.
Milne wonders what the Americans would think if we had a military base on their home soil. Aside from the fact that British officers and military personnel routinely serve alongside their American counterparts both at home and in the field, I think that the Americans would be only too happy to see British military spending increased to such a level where we could afford more overseasbases (though whether this itself would be desirable is another matter). The reason for the lack of RAF bases in North Dakota is not that the British are the victims of some one-sided game in which the US gets to play and we have to sit on the sidelines, but everything to do with the fact that we choose to deprioritise defence in sacrifice for other goals, and all the other things that our caring government does for us. And look how that’s working out.
But this is where Milne really reveals his argument for what it is:
Britain’s fake patriots who bleat about the power of the European Commission are more than happy to subordinate the country’s foreign policy to the Pentagon and allow its forces permanent bases on British soil.
Firstly, our foreign policy clearly is not subordinate to the whims of the Pentagon, as the British parliamentary vote against taking military action in Syria made abundantly clear. Try as he might to build a convincing narrative of the British being led by the nose, two conflicts (Afghanistan and Iraq) over thirteen years are not enough to establish the damaging precedent that he wants to portray.
And secondly, I strenuously object to being labelled a fake patriot by Milne, but so bankrupt is his argument that insults are likely the only weapon left in his arsenal. Fake in relation to what, Milne’s more enlightened, cerebral left-wing patriotism? What Milne carefully chooses not to see is the fact that British government policy and the day-to-day experience of British life are influenced far more by the goings-on in the corrupt, undemocratic European Commission than they are by the garrisons of American military personnel on our soil – troops, incidentally, who are there to underwrite our common security objectives. If anything, it is an indictment of the European Union that Milne slavishly and unquestioningly adores that they punch more weight in this country by undemocratic diktat than do the “hostile American occupiers” against whom he childishly rages.
I’m sure that Milne thinks himself terribly persuasive in his closing paragraph:
But the withdrawal of British troops from Germany and this year’s planned renewal of the US-British defence agreement offer a chance to have a real debate on the US military relationship – and demand some transparency and accountability in the process. There is no case for maintaining foreign military bases to defend the country against a non-existent enemy. They should be closed. Instead of a craven “partnership” with a still powerful, but declining empire, Britain could start to have an independent relationship with the rest of the world.
But why should these two things be mutually exclusive? In Milne’s crazed imagination, the fact that we enjoy such a close alliance with a great country like America is shutting us off from good relations with other countries, or, as he puts it, having an “independent relationship with the rest of the world. This would probably come as a great surprise to the British ambassadors representing our country in foreign capitals across the globe, and to everyone working at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in London toward the same ends. Exactly what relationship with the rest of the world does Milne think we are missing out on by failing to snub and humiliate our closest ally in the way that he proposes? Which are the countries in whose bad graces we currently dwell, who will suddenly warm to us if we send the Americans packing? North Korea? Venezuela? Iran?
I propose to Seumas Milne that he is trying to make an argument in reverse. He is clearly upset about British-American military cooperation and about our alliance in general. He would doubtless prefer to see us much closer to Europe, and have us actively working to further undermine American hegemony. But the American military bases and other visible manifestations of our close alliance are not a cause but an effect. In the case of Britain and America, an alliance such as ours is what you inevitably see when two countries, one larger and one smaller, have so much in common in terms of culture, economic ties and global interests. If Milne wants the US bases to close, he is making the wrong argument. Rather than bleating about Iraq and Afghanistan, he needs to begin convincing us that we are a different country than the one we think we are.
I don’t fancy his chances.