Never before have so few people done so much to keep a useless and dangerous war continuing.
Tara McCormack is a lecturer in international relations at the University of Leicester
When Annalena Baerbock (Germany’s Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs, Green Party member and promoter of a feminist foreign policy) pledged that she would support Ukraine no matter what her voters thought, she set out clearly the way in which Western policy towards Ukraine is being conducted. What ever it takes and as long as it takes, is the common refrain within the political-media class across the Euro Atlantic area.
Britain has so far paid £2.3 billion in ‘military assistance’ to Ukraine and has pledged to match that this year i. The UK has already committed to providing Ukraine with a squadron of 14 Challenger 2 main battle tanks, including training, ammunition, and spare parts; AS90 self-propelled guns to boost Ukraine’s long-range capability; and hundreds more air defence missilesii. The government has said fighter jets are not ‘off the table’ iii. At a recent address to the UN Security Council, British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly explained that British support to Ukraine was ‘not time-limited’ and that Britain would ‘Keep the promises that we made to the UN Charter and to the Ukrainian people’ iv. I
In a remarkable statement last week indicating the role of the West in the continuing war, Rishi Sunak said recently that now is ‘not the time for peace’ for Ukraine v. This adds to the evidence that Britain is playing a key role in prolonging the war. Last year it was reported by Ukrainian media that Boris Johnson went to Kiev in April and told Zelensky that even if he (Zelensky) was ready to negotiate, the West was not vi. Former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has also recently argued that in the spring of last year, Russia and Ukraine were both keen to negotiate but that Johnson was not and that ultimately the Western powers put a halt to the negotiations vii.
The British government has also made two other extremely significant military commitments since 2021. In September 2021 the AUKUS military pact between Australia, Britain and America was announced. This is a military alliance set up to maintain American hegemony in East Asia and to keep China in check. The military alliance was announced without any preceding discussion. Then, last year, following on from Sweden and Finland’s application to join NATO, the government made an extraordinary security pledge to these two states. The British government pledged to defend 800 plus miles of border with Russia and even more amazingly seemly to do so with British nuclear weapons. Yet these incredibly significant military pacts were announced suddenly at the end of a swift visit by then Prime Minister Boris Johnson to Sweden and Finland.
Over the course of the last two years British government has engaged in, and is escalating, a proxy war with Russia, a nuclear state. It has signed up to America’s contest with China for hegemony in the East Asia; and has pledged to use nuclear weapons on behalf of Sweden and Finland. Whatever it takes? However long it takes? Why should Britain be doing any of this? One thing has been notably absent from any of the government’s policy choices in relationship to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, AUKUS and the security pacts with Sweden and Finland, and that is public discussion.
In Britain a war consensus has been created by the government and the mediaviii. The government announces military policies without any prior debate and the media, following announcements, does not ask any questions. Not even the most basic questions are asked, simple, rational questions about aims, means, ends, and consequences. Sunak argues that we need to help Ukraine to ensure victory. But what does this mean? At what cost? To the extent of war with Russia? How do British citizens feel about that? Is it in our interests to join in America’s move to go to war with China? Could many people in Britain point out the Spratly Islands on a map? How would Chinese control of Taiwan affect us? Do we want to be in a military pact with Sweden? There may be good answers to all of these questions in support of the government, but we have not been asked. Mirroring the way in which policy choices in responses to Covid were framed, policy choices in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have been framed in terms of There Is No Alternative. Any one who disagrees is designated as a Kremlin propagandist.
The level of media consensus is quite stunning. From the ever increasing arms to the revelations referenced above as to the key role that the government has played in dictating the terms of the war. Even when the government has suggested that it might send military planes to Ukraine not a question is heard from journalists to ripple the smooth surface of our war consensus. The media supports and underpins the TINA consensus. Instead, the media focuses very selectively on specific battles within Ukraine, or runs increasingly silly pieces on Russia. The BBC recently outdid itself with a comical article cut and pasted from the Ministry of Defence narrative management team, who must have been having an off day, explaining that Russian reservists were relying on fighting with shovels. As if to underscore the veracity of this, the BBC informed us that these particular shovels were mythologised in Russa ix. Russia is forever running out of ammunition, soldiers, tanks, and reduced to fighting with shovels, whilst simultaneously being such a threat that if not defeated, will shortly be marching on Warsaw. But never a question is raised.
Equal silence reigns in the Houses of Parliament. Instead of a rational Parliamentary debate on means, ends, goals, and consequences, we have in its place astonishing scenes such as when Ukrainian President Zelensky made a ‘surprise’ visit and was greeted by the entirety of Parliament in Westminster Hall.x The Labour opposition understands its role in British democracy as fully supporting the government and asking no questions, apart from criticising it for not doing enough. Eleven Labour MPs were threatened with withdrawal of the whip last spring after signing a Stop the War letter urging a diplomatic settlement and drawing attention to NATO expansionxi. Even this was too much and the MPs dutifully withdrew their names.
The Ukraine war may be a first in terms of the almost total official war consensus across the political-media class. It is unparalleled when it comes to British foreign policy choices since the end of the Cold War. British citizens have every right to debate and democratically decide on foreign policy. The war consensus is a deliberate construction of the British state in order to avoid democratic scrutiny and exclude the public from what are existential policy choices. The decision by the political and media class that there should be total exclusion of any kind of discussion about our foreign policy should be a cause for great alarm, whatever one believes British policy towards Ukraine should be. Foreign policy is our decision, not that of our government and we need to make it so.
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