A New Age of Empire


Former government minister and Member of Parliament Tony Benn argues for a truly independent, non-aligned Britain.

Throughout the whole of human history, many  empires have grown, dominated and finally withered away and we now live at a time when the U.S. Empire is at its  peak. The U.S. has bases all over the world and four new  ones have just been added in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikstan, which offers control of the oil in the Caspian area.

The Pentagon war machine can, by high-level bombing,  flatten and destroy any land installation almost anywhere and, without the loss of life associated with past empires, can enforce its will on any government for any purpose that it chooses.  The Star Wars project, when it comes into operation, will allow any US president to order the destruction of any installation in the world from space stations, using laser beams without the necessity of deploying any troops at all.

To achieve all this, international treaties that might obstruct these plans must be abandoned, just as we have seen with the unilateral ditching by the US of the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty, which might have restricted the project.

The American Service Members Protection Act is the new legislation that is now being introduced into Congress and will give the president the authority to send US forces to back any US military personnel who might be arraigned before an international war crimes tribunal and would penalize any developing countries that voted for such a court to be set up. This follows the enactment of the Patriot Act, which already allows any non-US citizen who is suspected of being associated with terrorism, to be tried before a military tribunal, giving it the power to withhold the evidence from the accused and his or her lawyers, imposing the death sentence on a vote of a bare majority of the officers  making up the tribunal.

This all flies in the face of all the human rights upheld by the United Nations and amounts to the tearing up of the charter itself, since nobody but nobody is allowed to limit the infinite power required by the new empire that is based in Washington. Against this background, any pretence that Britain, France, Europe or even Russia and China can have any real influence on the US is a complete illusion and it would be better if we were told the truth. Namely that the US has no intention of being told what to do by world opinion or even the so-called international community, which is the new instrument for world governance.

None of this is really new, as the Romans did the same during the 500 years when they controlled Europe, as did the Arabs when their crescent-shaped dominions stretched from the Indus to Spain. Genghis Khan and the Mongul emperors also retained full control after their conquests, just like Britain, France, Portugal and Spain, when those empires were built over the years before 1914. Later, Hitler, Mussolini and the emperor Hirohito of Japan proclaimed their power before and during World War II.

Britain is now entirely in the power of Washington and its bases. In Britain there's an "independent deterrent", in the form of Trident submarines that are equipped with atomic

warheads, which the US only lends us.  But with the US controlling the global satellite guidance system, we would need to target our weapons as our negotiating position is so weak it is virtually nonexistent. That has not prevented the Prime Minister from parading around the world as if he was the US vice-president and speaking of the war as if Britain was playing a significant role  -  which is not the case  -  but all this should not take us in, nor could it if we sit and think about the underlying truth. We simply cannot force the US to do anything that we want or even to get it to respect international law.

However, that does not leave us as powerless as it might appear and the time has come when we should be devising a different strategy, devising a plan for withdrawal from our close links into a more non-aligned position.

First, this would mean the abandonment of the pretence that we are a nuclear power and asking the U.S. to withdraw its military bases from this country, a request, as we know from experience, it would reject  -  just as it did when the Cuban government unsuccessfully asked the US to leave the Guantanamo base in Cuba. A non-nuclear, non-aligned Britain could then throw its full weight behind the United Nations and its various agencies, especially those which are concerned with humanitarian projects and, as a permanent member of the UN security council, Britain could use the veto to support positive action and maybe even hold the US in check when it attempts to railroad its own policies through.

All this would save enormous sums of money that would be available for increased international aid, leaving more cash for our hard-pressed public services and pensioners.

It would be absurd to suggest that such a radical departure from post-war  dependence on and subservience to US policy could be achieved easily, not least because it would also undermine the claim by a succession of prime ministers to be world leaders, thereby weakening their authority at home. But none of these arguments should discourage us from publicly arguing the case for these policies and such a campaign might well win a lot of public support, both here and in the US, where many Americans share our anxieties and hopes.

The author, Tony Benn, retired from the British Parliament last year after almost half a century as a Labour MP (interrupted briefly in 1983 when he lost his Bristol seat, only to be adopted for Chesterfield the following year). A champion of the interests of working people, he declared that, having past seventy years of age, he wanted to retire from the House of Commons so that he could spend more time on politics.  This article first appeared in the Morning Star on December 19, 2001.