Where is the strategy?
Support for a ‘global ceasefire’ is acceptable, argues Paul Demarty, but not if it obscures the causes of war
Amid the urgent and horrifying problems unleashed by the Covid-19 pandemic, one particularly dismal prospect is its effects on the world’s multiplying war zones.
The secretary general of the United Nations, António Guterres, issued a call for a global ceasefire, to minimise the possibility of a gruesome ‘multiplier effect’. It has got the sort of response that all such calls get - a wave of pious hypocrisy, in which world leaders say, ‘Yes, it is very important that we have peace, which means that that lot over there should stop being so belligerent’ - without lifting a finger on matters that they themselves have the power to effect.
It is undoubtedly the case that only the purest of motives animated Guterres’s statement. He knows, as do we all, that the four horsemen of the Book of Revelation ride together. War, apart from combat deaths, brings with it enormous disruption to the economic infrastructure of society; famine and pestilence, to use the old language, are therefore never far behind. But, with a health crisis and corresponding economic slump already in train, the prospect is truly grim.
The British contribution to this misery is hardly insignificant, of course. Such was the motivation for an open letter from Labour MP Claudia Webbe to the government, demanding that the “huge distance between declarations and deeds” noted by Guterres is closed on these shores. The letter is backed by the Stop the War Coalition, of course, and is signed by 35 MPs - mostly the usual suspects: various long-time Labour peace warriors like Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott; Caroline Lucas of the Greens; some Scottish nationalists.1
The letter is copied to Dominic Raab, who - in his capacity as foreign secretary - formally endorsed the ceasefire idea. It is easy enough to demonstrate his hypocrisy. We need only look at the two matters most immediately at issue for British anti-war activists - Iraq and Yemen. In the former case, it is somehow still the case that British military operations continue. Indeed, two days after Raab’s warm reception of Guterres’s plan, an RAF bombing raid took place there. Joined-up government at its finest!
The British armed forces are not directly involved in the Saudi war in Yemen, instead sending ‘advisors’ to help the Saudis take care of maiming and massacring themselves; but the British arms industry certainly is. ‘Defence’ sector sales to Saudi Arabia have continued throughout the appalling conflict, which has killed hundreds of thousands of civilians through relentless bombardment, famine and cholera (the full set of horsemen, even before our recent viral misfortune). The high court ruled that granting further export licences to Saudi Arabia was unlawful last June, embarrassing the government; but the licences already granted continue to be used, with the peace-loving shareholders of BAE Systems enjoying particularly obscene profits from this chaos.
Whither Raab? We find no evidence of any concern about overseas operations in Iraq; on top of which, for example, he vociferously defended the United States assassination in January of Iranian major general Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad. As for the Saudis in Yemen, we might consider his reaction to the murder in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul of Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018. Though Raab conceded that the Saudi government’s explanation for how Khashoggi came to be garrotted and dismembered were not credible, it was no reason for “throwing our hands in the air and terminating the relationship with Saudi Arabia”. After all, you have to think about “the huge number of British jobs that depend on it” and the fact that “if you exert influence over your partners you need to be able to talk to them”.2 Stop me if you’ve heard this one before ...
In Raab’s hypocrisy, however, we meet the limit of Webbe and Stop the War’s politics. A follow-up email from the STWC, appealing for donations, perhaps expresses the thing most clearly: “... our government has claimed support for the UN global ceasefire; it is now up to us to hold it to account and ensure words become action.” It is, of course, correct to demand an end to all imperialist-backed wars, just as it is to critically support pro-Palestinian motions in the UN general assembly. We need not have any particular illusions in the virtues of the UN to accept that it might inadvertently embarrass imperialist powers when they work themselves up into a fit of self-righteousness.
Indeed, this is not even merely a matter of war and geopolitics. A series of UN officials, for example, have excoriated the British government for its failure to provide adequate housing for its population. One such farrago was started off by the then special rapporteur for adequate housing, Raquel Rolnik, in 2013; periodically the matter has resurfaced in the news - usually accompanied by the furious spluttering of Tory MPs to the effect that UN officials should stay out of politics and go back to their own countries to sort out housing there. But the special rapporteur for housing dispatches no troops, and so the homelessness situation in Britain has deteriorated alarmingly in the seven years since Rolnik’s broadside. Encampments of the dispossessed multiply in London and elsewhere. This is, of course, one of the many factors exacerbating the spread and impact of Covid-19, as is - on a larger scale - the fact that our world is pockmarked with bomb sites and shell craters.
The UN, in other words, is essentially an ideological instrument. It is wielded as a weapon against one’s political enemies, either on the national or the world stage. The trouble is that it is not a terribly effective weapon against certain adversaries. The Asian giant hornet, the world’s largest wasp, feeds on honeybees; and it is a ferociously effective predator, because its carapace is thicker than a bee stinger is long. The capitalist world order has its own apex predators; and the thick hide of the United States has never yet been penetrated by the feeble sting of UN censure. The US and UK blithely motored on with the invasion of Iraq despite the disapproval of the UN; and no meaningful distance has been taken by the Atlantic powers from the Yemeni bloodbath - for reasons both of naked greed and Washington’s psychotic hatred of Iran, which was dubiously blamed for the outbreak of civil war in the first place.
It seems, however, that I am refuting arguments that have not actually been made. Nowhere in its communications does Stop the War explicitly claim that the UN provides moral leadership in general, or positively propose multilateral diplomacy as a solution to the world’s massacres. The positive proposals instead amount to signing a petition urging the British government to “act on the call of United Nations secretary-general António Guterres for a global ceasefire by withdrawing British armed forces from war zones around the world” - and donating money to a certain Stop the War Coalition.
So does this silence cover over a credulous attitude to the UN and other international institutions, or a critical one? The answer is both. Stop the War was, from the outset, conceived as a maximally broad alliance of all those opposed to the retaliatory war on Afghanistan in 2001, and then reached its climax when the neoconservative faction in Washington pressed their advantage and proceeded to invade Iraq. It is quite true that the demonstration of one or two million in London on February 15 2003 would not have been so large if it had not been a suitable outlet for those outraged at the shabby treatment of the UN by the Americans and British (and Quakers, and Islamists, and 9/11 truthers, and ... ). The total focus on one demand - that the government should not participate in military operations in Iraq - worked, at least insofar as it gave birth to a demonstration of unprecedented size and mass reach.
The problems arise from the ways in which the demonstration did not work. That is: Tony Blair invaded Iraq regardless. It was, at that point, inevitable that the movement would fragment into the positive programmes offered by its component parts. The Liberal Democrats fell back into ‘support our troops’ state loyalism and griped about international law from a safe distance. Divisions opened up between apologists for the Iranian theocracy and those who refused to let an anti-war stance silence criticism of the mullahs. The Socialist Workers Party, which provided the activist backbone for the operation, attempted to roll it into an electoral project, Respect, in which the SWP joined forces with George Galloway and various dubious clientelist businessmen in Birmingham and east London (the intention was to get the Muslim Association of Britain - the British wing of the Muslim Brotherhood - on board, but the MAB considered it too opportunist). But Respect split, and then the SWP itself split soon after; the wing most dedicated to the STWC ‘strategy’ launched Counterfire.
Under a version of its historic leadership - that is, the Counterfire top bods, ‘official’ communists, trade union bureaucrats and Labour lefts - the STWC has never managed to reorient itself. It has held to the only line that could work for it: that mass demonstrations on minimal politics constitute the appropriate anti-war strategy. But truly mass demonstrations passed into history a while ago - a state of affairs that cannot be blamed on lockdown. That is because, however we define ‘strategy’, doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results ain’t one.
The question of the UN, and of international law more broadly, is neuralgic enough to ensure that essentially it is never discussed in the STWC. That is because it cleaves the leadership in half - on the one side, those of a sterner Trotskyist background know very well that such institutions are dens of thieves and not to be trusted. On the other, there are well-meaning liberals, whose naivety on this score scarcely needs description; and ‘official’ communists and left Labourites, who inherit a faith in the UN that dates from the days when the USSR was a superpower and so the UN was an arena of cold war struggle - which lives on as a spectral vestige in their thinking.
The result is not so even-handed. Because the ‘default’ position of official ideology is that the UN and international law matters very much (so it can be press-ganged into the service of imperialist agendas), the liberals (and tankies) are free to frame anti-war politics in a way that envisages the UN as a kind of neutral arbiter or even a friend of peace and enforcer of international law. It is those who realise that this is false who must censor themselves, so that the movement can remain maximally broad, and continue to keep its illustrious donors and patrons on board.
Actually overcoming British militarism, however, cannot be done like this - because it is neither reducible to a single issue (or a succession of single issues - should we go to war with Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria ... ?) nor is it merely a matter for Britain. We confront instead the real structure of power in the global order, and Britain’s place within it - as a hireling of the USA and a long-deceased hegemon; and the UN’s, which we have already discussed. Overcoming militarism requires a state-disloyalist outlook: a view that the many wars carrying on in the background to this pandemic are not an unfortunate contingency of poor diplomacy or governance, but an intrinsic feature of that global order, of which Britain is a parasitic beneficiary.
The problem, then, with the STWC strategy is not - as is sometimes supposed by its left critics - that an A-to-B protest march (or, for that matter, a petition like the one set up to support the ceasefire) cannot of itself stop war. No particular tactic will bring success on its own. The issue is rather that this subset of tactics becomes, precisely, a strategy, which prevents participants from discovering the kinds of analysis that show up the extent of the mess we are in. And with the pandemic’s long-term effects likely to be the very opposite of a global ceasefire, we badly need to get out of this intellectual hamster wheel.