Monday, 4 August 2014

Lights Out for the Territory

The suggestion that we should all turn the lights out between 10 and 11 this evening, as a commemoration of the centenary of the start of World War One, is annoyingly sentimental and likely to be largely ignored. A cynic might suggest that it is merely an encouragement to gather round the glow of the TV, as the BBC broadcasts a candlelit service from Westminster Abbey, or to fire up Jeremy Deller's specially-commissioned app. I'm sure the latter will be worth watching (social commemoration is Deller's forté), but the former looks way too earnest (over two hours of Huw Edwards' downbeat tones as po-faced clerics snuff out candles) and likely to prove poor competition up against Death in Paradise and Tulisa: The Price of Fame.

The lights out theme (which also made me think of Iain Sinclair and Mark Twain) is meant to evoke Edward Grey's famous words, spoken on the eve of war, that "The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time". This is one of those portentous sayings that has acquired resonance due to subsequent history (not least that he died in 1933). Had the war really all been over by Christmas, as many politicians thought, we'd probably never have heard of the phrase (Grey only published it, and then on the basis of a friend's memory, in 1925). It also hints at the coming of aerial warfare and the blackouts of WW2, not to mention the destructive impact on Europe of what would eventually amount to over three decades of conflict. Prescient stuff.

The centenary has had the effect of obscuring and confusing current conflicts, as we look for echoes of the past and worry about an incipient global crisis. The conflicts in the Middle East (Syria, Iraq and Palestine) are all refracted through vague memories of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire (in the commentariat market the Sykes-Picot Agreement is up, the Balfour Declaration down), while Ukraine is increasingly cast as a murderous Balkan affair that risks dragging in the Great Powers. Even victory in the World Cup is seen as evidence of the final rehabilitation of Germany (for Germans that meant 1954, for Brits it appears we've only just got used to the idea).

Grey's words, dripping elite nostalgia (you can picture the scene, as the Foreign Secretary in his frockcoat gazes from his office out over St James' Park), have naturally appealed to American conservatives fearful that the US is losing its dominant role in the face of rising powers abroad and perceived weakness at home. This is a continuation of the pro-empire polemic undertaken by neocons since 2001, where the assumed errors of British policy (insufficiently interventionist before 1914 and too entangled in Europe afterwards) and the consequent cycle of decline are held up as warnings to the current global hegemon. In essence, the US should whack its assumed enemies wherever and whenever they appear, regardless of territorial integrity and collateral damage, and should treat multilateralism with disdain ("We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality"). The plot of pretty much every action movie since Vietnam.

Despite the caution of the Obama administration, which is little more than an oscillation back from the over-reach of Bush Jr, US foreign policy has not turned to peace and love, and there is no prospect of it doing so any time soon. Hillary Clinton's defence of Israel over Gaza is not about appeasing the "Jewish lobby" ahead of a Presidential campaign, but a simple articulation of State Department policy in which Israel functions as a proxy for the US. If you harm us, we will whack you. Disproportionately. The non-intervention in Syria is not appeasement, it is acceptance that regional interests are best served by a grinding conflict that largely takes that country out of the game. Similarly, the "loss" of Crimea is of little consequence compared to the advance of NATO to Russia's borders.

Such pragmatic calculation is the way of the world, but as Iraq and Afghanistan have shown, it is easy for delusion and prejudice to cause those calculations to backfire. The two fundamental errors the British made in 1914 were thinking that they could restrict their military contribution to naval domination and a small expeditionary force, while France and Russia provided the land armies (and the bulk of casualties), and that the cost of financing the war (including loans to their allies) would be manageable because it would be short. In effect, a repeat of the episodic conflicts of the Napoleonic era, with a similar byproduct of additional imperial possessions picked up on the cheap (I suspect the bicentenary of the start of the Congress of Vienna will not be marked).

What US foreign policy shares with that of its British analogue of one hundred years ago is the strongly defined division between here and there, between home and abroad. Not just in the quotidian sense that foreign is a different country, but in the belief that normal laws and norms of behaviour do not apply "there", nor do they apply to "them" when they are here. The US-UK cooperation over torture and intelligence-gathering since the millennium are cases in point, as is the tolerance of Israel "mowing the lawn" in Gaza. This is the wider truth: despite the best attempts of apologists like Niall Ferguson, empire corrupts both ruler and ruled, and the lesson from Britain today is that the stink hangs around for a very long time. The "unsivilized" territory beyond the horizon that entices Huck Finn is also a site of genocide, but that crime and many others can be traced back to offices overlooking Foggy Bottom and St James' Park. What we need is more light, not less.

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