In the months before the first Gulf War in 1991 my late friend Christopher Hitchens took part in a television encounter in which he demolished the actor Charlton Heston who strongly supported the bombing of Iraq. Hitchens asked Heston to name the countries clockwise starting from Kuwait which shared a common border with Iraq. “Kuwait, Bahrain, Turkey, Russia, Iran,” responded Heston, a list which must have come as a big surprise to the Russians and Bahrainis.
“If you are going to bomb a country you might at least pay it the compliment of finding out where it is,” replied Hitchens, as he delivered the knockout blow. Heston angrily but vainly tried to defend his credibility by saying that he had been insulted which provoked a final jibe from Hitchens who told him “to keep his hairpiece on.”
The exchange elicited much mockery of Heston at the time, but I recalled it this week as politicians, retired military officers and assorted pundits debated the despatch of a modern Type-45 British destroyer, HMS Defender, to sail close to the coast of Crimea. The purpose was to demonstrate that Britain does not recognise the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. I wondered how many of the supposed experts endorsing the British action could pass what might be called the “Heston test” and name the countries bordering the Black Sea.
It is scarcely surprising that the Russians found the voyage of HMS Defender as intentionally provocative since it had sailed 6,000 miles from Britain before making a further voyage from Odessa to Georgia. The fact that it had journalists on board suggests that the British government was keen for the world to learn all about Britain’s new “forward-leaning” military posture.
The British government justifies sending a naval vessel so close to Crimea as an act of solidarity with Ukraine and a sign that Russia’s annexation of the peninsula is unrecognised internationally. These are reasonable motives, but Russia is not going to give up Crimea unless it loses a war against the US and Nato. This does not mean that the annexation should be recognised, but using a warship to make a diplomatic point is an unnecessary risk.
Rather than demonstrating renewed British strength, the confused confrontation off Crimea showed up the dangerous frivolity at the heart of British policy. It is not just a bluff but is known to be a bluff and is less likely to intimidate than invite a vigorous response aimed at exposing the bluff. The Russians can now threaten to bomb the next British naval vessel that repeats the voyage of HMS Defender believing that this is not going to happen again. The danger is that in the unlikely event that it does, such rhetoric is difficult to ratchet down.
HMS Defender will now rejoin the royal navy’s carrier strike group, which includes the new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, to show the flag in the South China Sea where China is exerting its control. An outright military clash is unlikely but there is always a danger that making a show of force – when that force is inferior to that of the other side – will invite rather than deter retaliation.
In a reversal of President Theodore Roosevelt’s formula for successful imperialist intervention, Boris Johnson’s approach is “to speak loudly and carry a small stick”. To be conducted without disaster, this policy requires restraint on the part of a potential enemy and a calculation that it will not use its military superiority.
In the case of Ukraine and Russia there are other dangers. Too much rhetoric about defending Ukraine might give some in Kiev the idea that the US, Nato and Britain are prepared to fight Russia to do so, though everything that has happened since 2014 suggests that they will not. Meanwhile, a return to the pre-First World War tradition of using gunboats to make diplomatic points increases the risk of an accidental clash or a military overreaction.
Hands are all the more likely to be overplayed when Britain and Russia are involved because both countries were at the centre of great empires in the recent past. Shrunken politically and economically they may be, but they are led by people who like to play the patriotic card and cannot afford humiliation.
The brief confrontation between Britain and Russia off Crimea may end up as a minor footnote in history, but the event gives an alarming insight into the behaviour patterns of the British government at home and abroad. In both cases, the gap between pretensions and reality is getting deeper, as is shown by the row over the Northern Ireland protocol.
Brexit was supposed to enhance Britain’s control of its future and to a degree it has restored freedom of action, the most positive example of which is the development and rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine. Aside from this, the British state is paying a high price in terms of the loss of raw political power because of friction with the EU and the fragmentation of the UK.
It is supremely ironic that Johnson, as the leader of a movement aiming to restore British sovereignty, should have signed an agreement under which an international frontier now runs within the UK. It is difficult to think of a greater abrogation of national sovereignty than this. No wonder the unionists in Northern Ireland were appalled.
Johnson and his government enjoy a state of permanent bickering with the EU, enabling them to beat the patriotic tom-tom and blame everything on Brussels. What they cannot afford is for this conflict to become truly serious, because then – as the saga of the British withdrawal from the EU demonstrated – it becomes evident that Brussels holds most of the high cards. The best outcome for Britain in the dispute over the Irish protocol would be if the EU finds it to its advantage not to look for a decisive victory.
In the last five years Britain has become a weaker state while pretending to be a more powerful one. This tension will remain at the heart of British policies from Belfast to Sevastopol and the South China Sea despite all efforts to pretend the opposite.
Johnson has exacerbated the gap between Britain’s real and purported place in the world, but this follows previous trends. I reported the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria over the last 20 years and in none of them did the British government have much idea of the mess it was getting into. The only overriding purpose, in so far as there was one, was to show the Americans that Britain was a worth having as an ally.
I half-believed that there must be some hidden British strategy that I had failed to detect, but when post-war official inquiries were published they showed an extraordinary degree of ignorance on the part of the politicians and officials who had ordered these interventions. Charlton Heston would not have been embarrassed in their company.
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