But is it Civilisation?
Gwydion M. Williams in March 1993 considered the logic of the New World Order in the light of last year’s Iraqi arms scandals and the current Somali intervention.
Does anyone remember [Fukuyama’s book] The End of History? The fall of the Soviet Bloc was supposed to lead to a peaceful world in which there was really nothing to quarrel about, only peaceful trade and economic growth. Some hope.
Trade has sometimes brought prosperity, but never peace. Success in trade generally means success in destroying somebody else’s livelihood. Build a better mousetrap and you ruin the existing makers of mousetraps, destroying the way of life of people who have never done you any harm. But you are under no obligation to worry about this. You can pocket the profits from your invention – or, more probably, some smart venture capitalist gets the lion’s share. The public get a better mousetrap. The plight of obsolete manufacturers is nobody’s problem but their own.
Trade and free-market production are the most subversive forces the world has ever seen. Radical movements stop and become conservative when they have built a society that is more or less in line with their founder’s ideals. Free-market production has no definite aim and no stopping point. It is total chaos. Even though most of its practitioners devoutly wish everything to stay the same, production for profit guarantees that nothing at all stays constant for very long. Industries shift from country to country, continent to continent, causing untold disruption in the process.
International politics are based on sheer greed and power – what is commonly called the Law of the Jungle. The phrase comes originally from Kipling’s Jungle Book, in which it refers to a basic honour-code that the fictional jungle animals use to ensure some sort of rough justice. In common usage this meaning has been utterly reversed, to become a system with neither honour nor justice.
Honour and justice are not market forces. They survive for a time, since people are slow to change their habits. But a world mainly devoted to the freedom of market forces does indeed gravitate towards the Law of the Jungle, a constant war of all against all.
Bush and Thatcher didn’t even wait for trade to start disrupting things. They had it in their power to establish a real system of international law – a system which all world leaders, themselves included, would be obliged to obey. They chose not to do this. Anglo-American military power would be used as they saw fit. It might be clothed in the formalities of international law, as in the Gulf War and Somalia. Or it might be naked and direct, as in the US invasion of Panama. Or the formalities of international law would be allowed to remain limp and ineffective, as in Haiti, East Timor, Burma, Tibet, Somalia, South Africa and most especially Yugoslavia.
The US has even been subverting the established norms of international law. The Supreme Court upheld the kidnapping of Dr Alvares Machain, a Mexican gynaecologist suspected of being involved in the torture and murder of an undercover agent of the US Drugs Enforcement Agency. The formal logic behind this judgement was that the US’s extradition treaty with Mexico doesn’t actually say that suspects cannot be kidnapped. By this same formal logic, the British government could now kidnap IRA suspects hiding out in the USA. The real logic is that the US can override and ignore the sovereignty of third world nations. Also that they need plenty of foreign scapegoats for their own continuing weakness in failing to say no to drugs. (The judgment remains in force, even though Alvares was later found not guilty and returned to Mexico, after briefly being threatened with prosecution as an illegal immigrant.)
Yugoslavia is a prime example of the inability of Anglo-American power to create a stable world. The Federation was doomed when the Serbs got away with stripping the Yugoslav Albanians of Kosovo of all of their established rights. Albanians are mostly Muslim, and have few friends in the West, so nothing was done for them. It was conclusively shown that justice and the rights of minorities mean nothing when Britain and America take no interest in the matter. Might makes right. Naturally, the Croats, Bosnian Muslims and Slovenes reacted by trying to get out of the Serb-dominated state as quickly as possible. Equally, the Serbs decided not to let them go easily. In particular, they would not allow the large Serbian populations in Croatia and Bosnia to be carried off into new states where they would be unprotected minorities.
[I had been an early protestor about Serb behaviour. But later, the West treated them unfairly, not allowing even majority-Serb areas of Kosovo to choose their own future. I tried to be impartial and the International Agencies blatantly were not.]
The United States, which fought a bitter civil war to prevent some of its own federated states from seceding, and also helped the government of Nigeria crush the secession of Biafra, is quite happy to ignore this principle when there might be some momentary advantage in so doing. A new principle has been invented – autonomous units in federal states may in some cases secede, and may do without the agreement of their minorities, and without any redrawing of the borders, no matter how recent, unfair or untraditional these may be. This is the rule today, though it was not the rule yesterday, and may not be the rule tomorrow. Also it will not actually be enforced.
The Serbs must have calculated that there would be no Iraq-style terror bombing against them. Serbs are white, Christian and European; public opinion in Britain and America would not stand for them being killed like Arabs. They acted on the assumption that American policy-makers are racist chauvinists with a deep prejudice against all Muslims. Nothing that has happened so far suggests that this was a misjudgement. The much vaunted ‘no-fly zone’ might as well be a ‘no-cockroach zone’, for all the practical difference it will make to the war.
Possibly something is about to happen. I don’t rule it out. But it is rather more likely that hints are being dropped to keep America’s Muslim allies happy until things have settled down a bit and every last raped Bosnian woman has had her little Serb bastard. Only a very few people could know the inner truth of the matter, and all of them are liars
Under Anglo-American hegemony, international law simply hasn’t functioned. It would have been possible to set up some impartial body to partition Yugoslavia. Instead you had the disorderly secession of the regional administrative units that Tito established back in the 1940s. No authoritative judgment was ever made. Naturally, all sides grabbed what they could. New nation-states are being created by violence and massacre, not law or fair judgment.
Slovenia was a simple case, overwhelmingly Slovene with no large minorities that wanted to get away. But Croatia was chaos, with Serbs refusing to be ruled by Croats. Croatians had massacred Serbs within living memory, and were using the very symbols of the Croat fascist government which had done the massacring. Had there been a large-scale pro-Croat intervention, people might have remembered what Hitler had to say about the matter:
“If the Croats were part of the Reich, we’d have them serving as faithful auxiliaries of the German Fuehrer, to police our marshes. Whatever happens, one shouldn’t treat them as Italy is doing at present. The Croats are a proud people. They should be bound directly to the Fuehrer by an oath of loyalty. Like that, one could rely on them absolutely. When I have Kvaternick standing in front of me, I behold the very type of the Croat as I’ve always known him, unshakeable in his friendships, a man whose oath is eternally binding. The Croats are very keen on not being regarded as Slavs. According to them, they’re descended from the Goths. The fact that they speak a Slav language is only an accident, they say.” (Hitler’s Table Talk, 29th October 1941).
[Mysteriously, both the Serbs and their Western supporters made much too little of this.]
Having reached a stalemate in Croatia, the war moved on to Bosnia. 44% of this very mixed population are Muslim Slavs, converts from the period of Turkish rule. These Muslims have lost out very badly, with most of their territory taken over by Serbs or Croats, No one seems interested in defending their rights, or undoing the de facto partition of their land between their larger neighbours. In the New World Order, European Muslims are not even second-class citizens. And the British authorities have made even Germany seem very liberal in its treatment of the mostly-Muslim refugees.
Bush and Thatcher must have decided that the fall of the USSR meant that things could get ‘back to normal’, a policy that Major has gone along with, and Clinton also seems to support. ‘Normality’ means curbing third world independence. Not only did the Gulf War break the power of one of the third world’s strongest armies. It also reduced Saudi Arabia to the status of a Western lackey. Kuwait and similar places have always been lackeys, the equivalent of Bournemouth becoming a sovereign state under the protection of Japan. But the Saudis up until the Gulf war had been functioning independently. Their claim to be the guardians of the true spirit of Islam were taken very seriously in much of the Muslim world. Yet what are they now? They had a choice between trusting Arab traditions and the God of their fathers, or else trusting the visible military power of the USA. They chose the latter. They allowed a war in which Arab lives, even the lives of women and children, were treated as a negligible matter compared to the lives of Western troops.
Muslims in general seem to have been classed as the ‘bad guys’ of the new world order. While Christianity continues to disintegrate, Islam shows strong signs of reviving and even spreading in some parts of the world. It remains a serious religion, while Christianity continues to lose purpose and authority. All mainstream churches have capitulated to liberal-democratic and free-market values. The Catholic hierarchy continue to insist on their right to regulate the sex lives of their ‘flock’. But beyond this, they no longer represent anything in particular.
It could well be that Islamism will be the means by which the Muslim world modernises itself. Western industrial civilisation was in large measure made by people who were just as devoted to their own understanding of religion. For instance Michael Faraday, pioneer of electricity, was a member of a small obscure sect that tried to live completely according to the literal text of the Bible. Among other things, this led them to cut out most of the paraphernalia of Victorian funerals, for which there was no good Biblical support. And it’s a fact that the Islamists, “Fundamentalists”, are much more willing than most moderate Muslims to accept scientific knowledge and the latest computer technology. They simply want to assert it in the context of their own civilisation, not as a second-rate copy of the West.
[This was written when the main Islamist movement was than of Iran. Al-Qaeda and its offshoots have been nihilistic, destroying and creating nothing worthwhile.]
On the other hand, there seems little chance of Islam expanding itself, except perhaps in Africa. Both Christianity and Hinduism proved resistant to Islam even when ruled by Muslim lords with a superior culture. Christians and Hindus cannot become Muslims without denying their own culture, which only a small minority are ever likely to do. East Asia also seems quite content with its own diverse cultures, mostly non-Muslim. The more Islam asserts its distinctiveness, the less it is likely to be able to assimilate other strong cultures. Only three creeds [in the modern world] have been able to spread themselves into the most diverse of cultures – Capitalism, Socialism and Leninism. With Leninism effectively dead – China’s rulers are committed to opening up to the free market, despite keeping Leninist one-party dictatorship – only Capitalism and Socialism remain as serious contenders.
[China has been continuously committed to allowing capitalism only when it serves socialist ends. I did not fully understand this at the time.]
The strength of post-war Capitalism has been its lack of social ideals and its internationalism, combined with a gloss of ineffective conservative values. Socialists assumed that they could combine moderate but continuous growth with the preservation of various distinct national ways of life. This was a perfectly workable system, but was unable to compete with a free-flowing. unprincipled and multinational capitalism. The businessmen operating this disruptive capitalism were of course committed in principle to preserving the various distinct national ways of life. They did not desire to undermine the world as they knew it, any more than a drunken driver belting along at 100 MPH desires to have a car-smash or run over a mother and child. Desires mean nothing when they do not lead to sensible actions that are likely to lead to the desired outcome.
‘Conservative’ governments in the 1980s have undermined most of what they wanted to preserve, simply because they were sold a load of New Right fairy-tales. Adam Smith’s famous book is mistitled – it should be The Wealth or Nations. Nations that want to preserve distinctive ways of life have to put severe curbs on trade. This was the pattern in China and Japan right up until the 19th century, and might have gone on for ever. But Europe and America forced them to open up, wrecking China and compelling Japan to adopt many Western ways. America imposed a lot of its own way of life on the world via trade, but is in tum being altered and losing its distinctiveness. Trade is integrating Europe, and played a large part in disintegrating the Warsaw Pact.
The New Right have maybe ten years to come up with a form of politics that will actually preserve something, rather than simply speeding up the process of disintegration. So far they have managed only a moderated version of 1980s politics – milk and cyanide, rather than cyanide straight. A real New World Order – one that would actually be orderly, and governed by impartial laws fairly administered – is only likely to come from socialist politics. This is the challenge and the opportunity.
I began by asking ‘but is it civilisation?’. You may or may not remember this as the catch-phrase of Sir Kenneth Clarke, father of the Alan Clarke who featured in the Iraq arms scandal (though nothing to do with the Kenneth Clarke who was involved in the same murky business). One thing I remember about Sir Kenneth was his total refusal to take proper notice of the nine tenths of humanity who were not West Europeans. He minimised the role of contact with the Islamic world in raising the cultural level of mediaeval Christian Europe. (Things like the pointed arch, the key to Gothic architecture. Not known to the Romans, known for several centuries in the Islamic world before its first use in Western Europe, first used there at a time when many Muslim ideas were being copied, but probably a separate and spontaneous West European invention, according to Sir Kenneth.)
For most of history, Western Europe was a fringe area of a great civilised belt centred on Mesopotamia, the land where civilization began. Mediaeval Europe learned much from Arab civilization – an influence shown by words like algebra and algorithm and admiral and zenith. Also’ Arabic’ numerals, which had actually begun in India; Chess, which came from either India or China; gunpowder and the printing press, both of which were definitely Chinese. China was a separate civilised zone in its own right. China had been an empire as large and powerful as Rome, and while Rome fell, China re-united and carried on a more or less unchanged civilisation. Marco Polo had been overawed by its wealth and power, and the tales he brought back seemed impossible to his fellow West Europeans. Even in the late 18th century, Adam Smith saw China as a richer country than any part of Europe, though stagnant while Europe was progressing.
18th century Europe had seen itself as one civilisation among many. 19th century Europe, boosted by the power of steam, gunpowder and iron, redefined itself as the only true civilisation, with a duty to impose itself on ‘lesser breeds without the law’. In this spirit, both China and Japan were forced to open up to Western trade. China gradually fell into chaos, while Japan very successfully rebuilt itself on the model of Western Imperialism. Meanwhile Britain was losing its role as “workshop of the world”, main! y because the ruling class preferred to play at being country gentlemen instead of ensuring that manufacturing remained strong. And Germany, which had lived contentedly for centuries as a jumble of tiny states, was forced in a changing and dangerous world to become a strong nation-state in its own right.
At the dawn of the 20th century, it should have been obvious that Britain’s brief period as number one nation was doomed to come to an end. The British Empire would only have been stable if it had incorporated large parts of continental Europe, something that the ruling class had never seriously tried to do. British policy had always been ‘balance of power’ – playing off one nation against another so as to ensure general and enduring instability. France and Russia were traditionally the great enemies, the rival imperial powers. ‘Jingoism’ actually began as an anti-Russian movement. From this perspective, there was some logic to aiding the rising imperial powers of Germany and Japan. Even from a principled liberal-democratic viewpoint, there was little to chose between the alternatives. Except that no nation oppressed as many nationalities as Russia, which well deserved Lenin’ s description of it as the ‘jailer of nations’.
Britain began with an alliance with Japan, covertly helping them to win their 1904 – 1905 war against Russia. From a viewpoint of preserving the Empire, this was a damned stupid thing to do. Japan’s victory proved conclusively that white people were not superior to the rest of humanity. It confirmed that the 19th century advantage was merely a brief historic blip that might very easily be altered. It encouraged Asian nationalists – including the young Mao Tse Tung, who had not yet heard of Communism. But if the intention was to gradually shed the burden of empire and rebuild the world on a liberal-democratic basis, then it was quite a clever and successful move.
But if that was the intention, then Britain committed an act of utter folly in suddenly joining Russia and France against Germany and Austria, and turning what might have been a fairly ordinary European war into a world-wide disaster. Had Britain stayed on the sidelines, France would have soon had to make a separate peace, and Germany could have broken up the Russian Empire on a more or less orderly basis, producing something fairly similar to what has now emerged, seventy years late and after immense bloodshed and suffering.
The immediate cause of the war was the Serbian claim to Bosnia, a claim that Austria and Germany were resisting. 75 years on, Germany has the same policy, but Britain and France have reversed theirs, treating as monstrous a claim that they once started a world war to defend.
The Great War shattered the stability and moral authority of the old order. It became clear that millions had died over fairly minor issues – oil wells in Iraq and the like. Germany had actually offered peace when the initial breakthrough failed, a simple acknowledgement that a stalemate had been reached and that everything should go back to how it had been. It was the British ruling class that blocked the one possible way back to the world they had grown up in.
Having won the Great War, Britain and France built a peace that was doomed to failure. New and unstable nation states were created on the principle of self-determination. But the principle was repeatedly bent by Britain or France choosing to play favourites. One instance was the Kurds being included in the new state of Iraq, with which they had little in common, whereas the small coastal city of Kuwait was kept separate, even though it did logically belong with Arab Iraq.
Between the wars, Britain and France first oppressed and humiliated the Weimar Republic in Germany, even though it was doing its best to adjust to that particular ‘new world order’. They then appeased Hitler, whose basic incompatibility should have been obvious. There was a’ cunning’ scheme to use Hitler to destroy the USSR: they ended up having to do the very reverse.
After World War Two, the Labour Party came in as complete outsiders and imposed two policies that were to prove fairly successful. India was given independence, ensuring that the rest of the Empire would have to be gently wound down. And the policy of Cold War and the NATO link was evolved to deal with the USSR, when the 1948 Leninist take-over in Czechoslovakia made it absolutely clear that there could be no easy coexistence.
With the end of the Cold War, British foreign policy is returning to its old folly, meddling on an unprincipled basis, and often with a very speedy and unpleasant come-back. Argentina’s right-wing dictatorship had been helped and sold all the arms it wanted: the Falkland War was the fruit of this policy. Iraq was built up as a counterweight to Iran (which would never have gone for Islamic extremism had not Britain and America ruined moderate Iranian democracy in the 1950s.) But having been built up, Iraq was then knocked down again in the Gulf War. It’s an astonishingly repetitive pattern, and one from which no one seems to have learnt any lessons.
Is it civilisation?
Hardly. The sophisticated sleaze of British and American power- politics sets a horrible example to the rest of the world, and it mainly creates disruption. All the manoeuvres of British politics in the 20th century have simply accelerated the decline. America seems intent on learning from Britain’s errors, and repeating them with an appalling exactness.
This article appeared in March 1993, in Issue 34 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs. You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/ and https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/m-articles-by-topic/.
 Using the pen-name Michael Alexander
 Serbs in 1991 Allowed to Crush Albanian Kosovo, https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/magazines-020-to-029/magazine-026-xx/serbs-in-1991-allowed-to-crush-albanian-kosovo/. And in 2014, Kosovo & Crimea: the West’s double standard, https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/past-issues/2014-magazine/2014-04-magazine/2014-04-the-secession-of-crimea/.
 See ‘Globalisation before European Imperialism’, https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/problems-magazine-past-issues/problems-magazine-older-issues/p1-62-civilisation-alley-a-band-of-pre-industrial-empires-from-britain-to-sri-lanka/.