Funding the new cold war

By Sammy Barker

On 19 November, Boris Johnson announced the biggest increase in British military spending for thirty years. This is the price for British government participation in U.S. imperialism’s new cold war against China and the developing nations. Johnson’s policy increases military expenditure by over £4 billion per year for four years. This is on top of the previously announced half a per cent increase over the rate of inflation for the same period. Together, these commitments a represent a £24.1 billion increase in expenditure compared to last year’s budget.

This patently follows the increase in US government military spending which Trump initiated, in pursuit of his campaign against China. The “pivot” to this aggression was begun under Obama, accelerated under Trump, and will be continued by the incoming Biden administration. US military expenditure is estimated to be $934 billion for 2020-2021. This is below Obama’s peak spending for the 2009-2012 period when there was a major additional military commitment in the “surge” in Afghanistan, plus the interventions in Libya and Syria. Obama reduced spending gradually from 2013. Trump’s increases have coincided with the growing conflict with China, and the campaign of “maximum pressure” on Iran.

The Tories’ policy is to promote “Global Britain” as the most reliable ally for the US government, as the US pursues the vain quest for a reasserted global hegemony. The biggest military spend since the end of the first Cold War allows the British government to act as a sub-contractor for US foreign policy.

Decline of military effectiveness

The actual decline of British political and military power has created scepticism amongst the British public. British troops were unable to maintain operational presence in Afghanistan, having to hand over their operation in Helmand province to the US. British troops in Iraq were unable to maintain operational presence in Iraq, ending up immobile and under siege in Basra airport. Operations in Libya, Syria and Yemen have been confined to special ground forces, and air/naval actions. In all cases, the stated political objectives of government have failed – none of these countries have stabilised with a pro-imperialist government in power.

Hence the peculiar justification expressed in the Tory government statement for the enormous additional spending. According to Johnson, “This is our chance to end the era of retreat, transform our Armed Forces, bolster our global influence…” There has been no retreat in military spending. Prior to the recent announcement, the UK had, in absolute terms, the fourth highest military budget in the world; and the seventh highest as a percentage of GDP. Given that the UK’s population occupies the twenty first place in world terms, the military budget has been, and will continue to be, over-inflated.

There has been a retreat, whether that be measured in terms of economic power, political or diplomatic influence. Successive British governments have failed to come to grips with the growing multipolarity of the world. Hanging onto US imperialism through its first decades of relative decline has shrunk the independent significance of the British state.

Having no substantial, or sustained, military victories since the Malvinas war, Johnson’s statement prefers to highlight the “humanitarian role” of British military power. He said, “Defence has also been on the front line responding to every major international humanitarian disaster of the last decade”. A point he illustrates by reference to the harbour explosion in the Lebanon, and disaster relief from Hurricane Eta. This ignores the actual major “international humanitarian disasters of the last decade” in Libya, Syria and Yemen, where the armed forces have helped to create terrible catastrophes. As indeed they did in the earlier, and horrifying tragedies in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Labour as bipartisan prisoner

Johnson can only get away with his nonsensical justification for an expenditure of an additional £24.1 billion on the military because of the bipartisan character of the parliamentary opposition. Post-Corbyn, there is no challenge to the Tories from the Labour shadow front bench. Keir Starmer told Parliament: “We welcome the additional funding for our defence and security forces and we agree that it is vital to end what the Prime Minister calls… an ‘era of retreat’.” As Starmer and Lisa Nandy have already endorsed the new cold war orientation of the Tories, they cannot but agree to fund it.

Starmer and team still feel the obligation to present the appearance of an opposition. Hence Starmer continued, “But this is a spending commitment without a strategy. The government has yet again pushed back vital parts of the spending review and there’s no clarity over the government’s strategic position”. The government’s “strategic position” is to support the US in the new phase of the developing cold war. Its strategic review document is delayed probably because negotiations amongst service chiefs continue on precise resources. Nothing fundamental will change. It will be a matter of what the US regards as the most supportive “inter-operational” resources it requires from Britain.

The weakness of Starmer’s “opposition” was evident when he asked Johnson to explain whether the increased funding would come from tax increases or from cuts in other public spending. Johnson didn’t deign to reply. Starmer can hardly press, effectively having already welcomed the commitment. The fact that the Tories haven’t decided on the concrete funding isn’t important. Some reports suggest the Tories intend to cut aid to developing countries. This would leave the shadow front bench with the uneviable choice of accepting the destruction of a favourite policy, or proposing other sources of funding based on tax increases or public service cuts. Either way, the cost of pro-imperialist bipartisanship is very steep for Labour.

Actual opposition is needed to British involvement in the new cold war and future “kinetic” adventures behind US belligerence. From the additional spending Johnson estimates there will be an additional 40,000 jobs in military related industries. As if this will compensate for the horrific assaults upon poor people and developing countries. The Campaign Against the Arms Trade has shown that investment in offshore wind and marine energy can produce more jobs than the entire arms industry. This and similar green based investments can overcome the economic crisis. But it requires a break with twenty first century imperialism, and an engagement with the developing nations instead of continued destruction.