Martin Whitlock - political writings 2001-2004

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Atlantic drift

17 November 2003

British government ideas for a single U.S.-E.U. market reflect a vision of shared interests and values that is supported neither by history not by contemporary reality.

News last week that the U.S. Supreme Court was prepared to consider the question of jurisdiction in relation to the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay offered a small chink of light to them and their families, although it would be premature for them to start packing up their meagre possessions. Their prison is on land leased from Cuba and, since neither U.S. territory nor U.S. citizens are involved, the U.S. government's attempts to deny the jurisdiction of American courts have so far succeeded. Perhaps the legal jurisdiction is Cuba's, in which case any attempted to assert it would probably get short shrift.

That a nation founded on the rights and liberties of the individual should deny such benefits so comprehensively to these prisoners is, at first glance, surprising. Perhaps it should not be. With two million or so of its own citizens behind bars (and some serving life for non-violent offences), the U.S. cannot be expected to be too fastidious with foreigners whom they suspect of supporting an anti-American terror organisation. That figure of two million represents about six times the per capita rate of imprisonment that prevails in the E.U.

What the prisoners at Guantanamo are experiencing is the projection of American power. The U.S. government has chosen to incarcerate these people for its own ends and there is no other power in the world that can stop them. What the prisoners in jails throughout the U.S. are experiencing is what it is like to be a loser in a culture of success. They've lost, mostly, because they are poor, black, mentally ill, or a combination of two or more of these things.

These two little "windows" on its society remind us that the United States of America is definitely not Europe. It is a truth that appears to have got lost in the Atlanticist policy of the British government. There is an assumption that U.S. is basically like Europe, only richer, more energetic and more successful - a sort of millionaire thirty-something to Europe's fading senior citizen, a lot different to look at but essentially from the same mould. There are, of course, close cultural connections, not least because most Americans are of relatively recent European descent. But these people left Europe behind for good reasons, and ever since the Mayflower these two continents have progressed along markedly different historical paths.

Europe once projected the sort of global power that the U.S. has come to take for granted. Britain was foremost in this, but France, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands and Portugal all had their day. It has become commonplace to characterise the U.S. as the most powerful nation of all time, but this crude measure of firepower ignores the technological context of earlier times. Within that context, the European nations projected considerable power over astonishing distances. The situation of the U.S, at present, in which Iraq is tying up almost all its effective fighting capacity, is not one in which Britain would have found herself at the height of her power in the mid-nineteenth century.

If the big European powers had co-operated in that period their power would have been near-absolute. But to say that is to mis-understand the object of their power-projection. Their object was to compete with each other, each seeking to ensure that no one state became too dominant. Their fortunes fluctuated, with French power triumphant in the Napoleonic era, Britain dominant after 1814, Germany resurgent after 1860 and all three powers engaged in an orgy of mutually assured destruction in the 1914-18 war. The Second World War saw the final act of the drama of the European competition for power that had been played out on a global stage over four centuries. Thereafter, the baton passed to the United States, and the European nations cast around for a different approach.

By the standards of the European powers in their heyday, the situation at Guantanamo Bay would hardly feature in the scale of human rights abuses. No enterprise that operates through the projection of power can afford to respect the rights of people who do not choose to have that power projected in their direction. But as the European power drama reached maturity in the latter half of the nineteenth century there were those who thought it legitimate to question what that power was for. The answer came slowly, in the development of a doctrine of responsible power. By the end of he nineteenth century it was accepted that the powerful have a responsibility for those subjected to their power - in effect a responsibility to exercise that power in the subjects' interests.

At first those interests were narrowly construed. But the understanding of them broadened gradually and, having survived the wars of the first half of the twentieth century, the doctrine prospered in the shaping of the post-war settlement after 1945. The emphasis in Europe was upon the cultivation of the social-democratic model. This, although interpreted differently in each country, derived its basic principles and legitimacy from the aspiration to create a fair, just and relatively egalitarian society that catered without favour for its members welfare.

The continued projection of global military power was dissonant with this approach. Britain and France continued bravely for a while, but suffered progressive failures of will. Meanwhile the European economic powerhouse of Germany prospered disproportionately in the absence of distractions of this sort. The consequence was precisely the "effete" Europe that some U.S. commentators have taught their compatriots to despise.

Europe has, indeed, nothing like the military power that would reflect its economic status, but then neither has it the will to make use of such power. To make of this a criticism is to forget that European history has already explored every imaginable variation on this theme. Europe has "done" war to an unparalleled extent and has found it to be an ineffective tool. The substantial popular majority in every European country against war in Iraq was a clear reflection of that wisdom.

It is, certainly, an idealistic approach. European governments are very far from perfecting their study of the limits of self-interest. For the U.S., however, for whom the unchallenged power of the post cold war era remains a novelty, such ideas are historically remote. In precisely the same way that the European nations exploited the world in pursuit of their power play in the cockpit of Europe, The United States sees the world in terms of increasing its own power and prosperity. This is not a neo-conservative innovation, although the neo-cons have drawn attention to it. It is a bald fact, stated uncritically, of where America stands in its own history and understanding of itself.

This situation holds dangers for the British government, as it attempts to paper over this substantial historical fault-line. To speak, as the present government does, of Britain and the U.S. having a shared history and shared values, is to state what is factually incorrect. The history is completely different. When it comes to values, Britain and her European partners are embarked upon a project of genuine if hesitant mutuality which acknowledges the equality of rights across national boundaries. In clear contrast to this, the U.S. will only enter into a relationship or co-operate in a policy in which it sees the prospect of pure gain. Gain of this sort is invariably somebody else's loss. Gordon Brown, as he trumpets his project for a seamless transatlantic market, would do well to beware.

©Copyright Martin Whitlock 2003

© Copyright mindhenge 2003
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