The Resurrection of Central Asia: a return to prominence for an historic region?

As the link between Europe, the Middle East and the Orient, Central Asia has historically been a region of great strategic importance. From the Mongol invasions, through the inception of the Silk Road and its trading networks, to the era of Turkic control, the Steppe-countries have played a vital role in international affairs.

That was changed, however, by the Soviet encroachment and resultant Cold War, which saw Central Asia hidden behind Churchill’s “Iron Curtain”. A new age of aviation and rapid sea transport further eroded the importance of the region as a facilitator of economic and communication links. Indeed, the contemporary view of Central Asian states is often one of grey, lifeless communist-era countries, culturally and economically dependent on Russia.

The reality is somewhat different and indicative of the resurgence of Latin America on the global stage. Whilst Central Asia remains inextricably linked to Russia through its recent past, a new future of commercialism and capitalism is threatening to take hold, built on windfall oil and gas revenues. Europeans and East Asians are beginning to re-establish an interest in Central Asia as a result of their insatiable desire for energy resources and this will undoubtedly have implications for regional states’ development. The question is will Central Asia be resurrected as a region of great influence and geopolitical importance, as it once was? Or will it remain a relative backwater in the modern world, destined to play only a minor rule in future international politics?

 

The Mongols Open up Central Asia

Central Asia – the territory stretching from the Caspian Sea in the west to China in the east, and from Russia in the north to Afghanistan in the south – was home to a myriad of tribal groupings and clans, mainly of Hunnic and Turkic descent, up to the thirteenth century. Societies were generally small and inter-tribal fighting a frequent occurrence, making the region one of great unrest.

It would take the stunning and rapid invasions of the nomadic Mongols throughout the 1200s for the region to assume a new place of importance in world affairs. Genghis Khan and his descendents fought and pillaged their way west from their homeland, exploiting their pioneering use of cavalry-based warfare to create the largest contiguous empire in history. The vassals the Mongols attained through their conquests ensured not only a constant flow of tribute to the Great Khan, but also a relative peace in Central Asia under their political and military domination. Termed by some as the Pax Mongolica, for the first time in history a safe route from Eastern Europe to China and its dominions opened up. The Mongols ensured secure passage for the right price, with the traditional warring tribes of the Steppes forbidden from disrupting any travellers under the protection of their overlords. Central Asia had within a century become the most important economic and cultural transit point in the known world.

Ghenghis Khan and his descendants brought Central Asia to prominence

 

Marco Polo and the Silk Road

The most significant consequence of the opening-up of Central Asia by the Mongols was the resurrection and expansion of the famous Silk Road, a series of trading routes between China and the Middle East.

The Silk Road ran through the heart of Central Asia

The rise to fame of cities such as Samarkand, Almaty, Kashgar, Bukhara and Merv was a result of their location on the now flourishing Silk Road. Instead of remaining deserted regional outposts, these settlements became crucial stopping off points for merchants plying their trade along the Road, and subsequently melting-pots of various cultures. With Chinese maritime expansion having created trading links with Java and the Spice Islands, the Silk Road even became indirectly associated with goods from Southeast Asia, ferried as they were through China’s hinterlands.

The mighty Registan in Samarkand was built as a consequence of the Silk Road

Furthermore, the commercial ambitions of several Christian states, including the Italian republics of Florence and Venice, brought significant numbers of Europeans into contact with Asian trading routes for the first time. Most famous of all these early pioneers was Marco Polo, a Venetian merchant who travelled along the Silk Road to China in the second half of the thirteenth century. Polo was even able to meet Kublai Khan, the Mongol leader, during his travels, and his account of his adventures inspired a brief period of enthusiastic trading between Europe and the East. Bringing back silk, ivory, jade, porcelain, and various spices, Marco Polo expanded European horizons about the luxuries and lifestyles of the Far East. None of his endeavours would have been possible had it not been for the peaceable nature of the Silk Road through Central Asia at this time.

From a region of nomadic herders, disparate Islamic caliphates and shamanistic warriors, Central Asia was transformed into a centre of cultural and scholastic exchange and economic importance, providing a wealth to regional towns that would otherwise have been impossible. However, the halcyon days of the Mongol Empire weren’t to last forever and a new force of Islamic imperialists was ready to cast its shadow over the Steppe-lands and its various peoples.

 

Mongol Disintegration and the Rise of the Ottomans

Towards the end of the fourteenth century, the Mongol Empire had already passed its zenith. A series of dynastic struggles and fragmented vassal states led to the political and economic disintegration of the once mighty Mongol realm. Central Asia again became a land of rival tribal entities and nomadic bandits, making the region one of danger. Along with a series of small, relatively weak Khanates, these tribes created a buffer zone between the great powers of Europe, the Middle East and East Asia, effectively marking the end of the Silk Road in its original conception.

Simultaneous to the Mongol Empire breaking up into various weaker components was the meteoric rise of the Ottoman Turks. After establishing themselves as the preeminent force in the Near and Middle East, the Ottomans captured Constantinople in 1453, bringing a final end to the decaying Byzantine Empire. Control over the remaining trade routes between Europe and the East were now firmly under Turkish control.

Rather than facilitate cross-cultural trade, the Ottomans monopolised control of the flow of goods from the East, which were already in a permanent decline because of the instability of the Central Asian overland routes. China, for nearly two centuries an attainable land of luxuries, was cut off from the Europeans until the great Jesuit missions of the sixteenth century. The Europeans responded to the Ottoman blockade by launching an unprecedented period of maritime exploration. This inadvertently led to the founding of the New World (Columbus had been looking for a route to Asia) and the beginnings of Portuguese expansion into the Indian Ocean as a result of Vasco da Gama’s historic voyage.

By the Sixteenth Century the Ottomans had isolated Central Asia from Europe

Whilst a tenuous relationship in historical terms, the Age of Exploration can be linked back to the decline of the Mongols in Central Asia and the subsequent Ottoman control it allowed. Had the Pax Mongolica and its associated trade benefits persisted, the urgency to explore the unknown world would not have been so great.

That is not to say that Central Asia completely diminished in importance in European eyes. With maritime trade-routes to the East still not firmly established by the sixteenth century, or remaining exclusively in the hands of the Portuguese, attempts were made to resurrect the overland routes through Central Asia. The most pioneering enterprise was led by Anthony Jenkinson, an employee of the English Muscovy Company. Having begun trade negotiations at Ivan the Terrible’s Moscow court in 1558, Jenkinson pushed further south to Astrakhan, where he managed to secure passage across the Caspian Sea. Progressing as far as Bukhara, a bastion of the old Silk Road, Jenkinson was thwarted in his attempts to reach India and China by the persistent banditry and regional warfare that had plagued the Steppes since the Mongol decline.

Jenkinson depicted the Tartar nomads he encountered as pagans

Central Asia had become an isolated backwater, its fragile states and peoples trapped between the Ottoman wall and an inward-looking China. Its place in the world had become almost irrelevant, a status largely maintained until the present day.

 

Soviet Rule

Through the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century, the people and resources of Central Asia were fought over by a variety of Shahs, Emirs and Khanates, all seeking to expand their influence and increase their tribute revenues.  Isolated from the rest of the world, these landlocked territories had little autonomy of their own and continued to function in a non-statal manner. As a consequence, they were largely disregarded by global forces, leaving their populations impoverished and technologically backwards.

As the Ottoman Sultans and Persian Shahs began their own inexorable declines from the mid-nineteenth century, the potential to re-open Central Asia to the wider world emerged. However, before significant trade links with Europe and the Far East could be established once again, the onset of World War One distracted any serious economic suitors. To compound matters, in 1917, Russia underwent a communist revolution that sought to include the Central Asian nations as republics within the new Soviet system. The Russification of the region had occurred slowly in the century beforehand, with Tsarist expeditions to map the land and its resources combining with the migration of thousands of impoverished peasants looking to escape a life of serfdom.

By 1936, the tenuously-demarcated lands that had come to be known as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan were fully-incorporated into the Soviet Union and its sphere of influence. Rather than opening-up the region to foreign trade, the Soviet leaders sought to farm the Central Asian states for their own benefit. Resources and manpower were utilised mercilessly in exchange for a comprehensive and rapid programme of industrialisation that effectively turned the cities of each Republic into factory zones.

Cities like Almaty in Kazakhstan became imbued with the architectural tenets of Socialist Realism

With loyal Communist Party comrades in charge of each semi-autonomous region, the Central Asian people were subjected to the same fear and propaganda that was perpetuated throughout Russia proper. Having been cut-off from the world by Ottoman control and internal dissension for centuries, Central Asia was now firmly isolated behind the “Iron Curtain”, to be called upon by Moscow alone.

 

The Fall of Communism and the Re-Emergence of Central Asia

Given the iron grip with which the Communists held the Central Asian states in their grasp, the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 came as a particularly significant shock to the people of the region. Almost out of the blue the “Stans” were independent and set about trying to create a national unity and identity that they had never before possessed. Independence was not only a cultural challenge but also an economic and political one. Reliant on the revenue streams and aid of Russia for decades, and unused to governing themselves, the Central Asians quickly became subjected to a new form of dictatorship: that of the strongman.

Ex-Soviet officials retained power in all of the newly-independent nations. Some, like Saparmurat Niyazov in Turkmenistan, ruled in a brutal fashion, creating bizarre personality cults and ruling by decree. Even today, the democracy rankings of the states in question remain extremely low:

Country Ranking
Kyrgyzstan 121
Kazakhstan 127
Tajikistan 129
Uzbekistan 147
Turkmenistan 149

Source: World Audit Democracy

This is hardly surprising, given the lack of precedent for statehood in the region, as well as the continuing influence of an undemocratic Russia.

Yet though not particularly free, the global importance of Central Asia is on the rise for the first time in centuries. Huge reserves of oil and natural gas – together with other rare minerals and stones – have again made the region one of great strategic importance. Foreign direct investment is pouring in, not only from the old patron Russia, but also the democratic West and the rising dragon of the East, China. Instead of a series of overland routes once known as the Silk Road, Central Asia is now criss-crossed by pipelines, transporting vast quantities of energy resources to far-flung destinations. The revenues generated from these much-desired riches have allowed modern infrastructure to be built in the country’s capitals, along with resplendent cultural works that are essential in developing a national identity.

A network of energy pipelines have opened-up Central Asia to the world once more

Whilst Russia is undoubtedly still the senior partner of the Central Asians, the influence of other countries is likely to rise. As large multinationals from the West, China and India begin to invest more in the region, cultural norms may spill-over. Furthermore, the growing prosperity of the people in the Steppe countries will see the emergence of a burgeoning middle class, who will become the obvious targets of global consumer brands. No longer an impoverished backwater in the Cold War, Central Asia is resurgent and gaining momentum. As the world was forced to take notice of the Mongol invasions in the twelfth century, so too will it have to be aware of these slumbering giants. In an era when the energy crisis dictates foreign policy around the globe, Central Asia has to be taken seriously.

Bayterek has become a symbol of Kazakhstan's "new wealth"

A Repeat of Zimbabwe?: the problem of land reform in South Africa

In 1979, Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF comrades came to power in Zimbabwe, ending almost a century of white-minority rule in what had been the British colony of Rhodesia. An immediate policy of the new black government was to begin the sensitive process of land reform. This involved redistributing land to poorer black communities, who owned a disproportionate share of the country’s territory in relation to the white minority.

Initially land reform was successful, with the British government even paying 50% of the costs to transfer formerly white-owned land into smaller, tenanted plots for the black population. This redistribution was carried out under the “willing buyer, willing seller” principle, whereby white farmers were only encouraged to sell their land if they were inclined to and were under no compulsory obligation to do so.

This all changed in 1992, however, with the passing of the Land Acquisition Act, created in the hope of speeding up the land reform programme which Mugabe had long-promised his loyal followers. The Act allowed the Zimbabwean government to buy any land it wanted for the purposes of redistribution, provided a satisfactory compensation was paid to the landholder. This clause, unsurprisingly, was the target of abuse, and white farmers began to receiving appalling compensation for their best lands. Consequently, as the 1990s progressed, opposition to the Land Acquisition Act increased, bringing the farmers into direct conflict with Mugabe and his cadre of supporters.  Further complications arose as Mugabe expected the British government to pay a substantial amount of aid for the buying-up of land. The British declined on the grounds that the land reform programme had become increasingly unfair.

As British money dried-up, the land seizures began. White farmers (and some black farmers that were political opponents of Mugabe) were forced from their homes with minimal or no compensation provided. Gangs of black peasants took the initiative and forcibly evicted many families, at the cost of a number of lives. Mugabe turned a blind eye and, indeed, tacitly supported this act of “black empowerment”. Never mind the fact that these once productive farms were either laid to waste or opened to the worst cases of mismanagement by unknowledgeable black farmers, Mugabe did nothing to stop the atrocities. The subsequent hyper-inflation and economic collapse that followed was no surprise, for Zimbabwe had stopped producing enough food. Therefore, instead of providing a means of social advancement for black people, many found their impoverishment increased and some even starved to death.

Violent land reform led to hyperinflation - the Zimbabwean currency became worthless

This foolhardy desperation to rush land reform as part of an independence pledge should serve as a warning. Nevertheless, there are fears that the same thing could befall neighbouring South Africa. As with Zimbabwe, the policy of land reform was one of the earliest initiatives implemented by the ANC on its ascendancy to power in 1994. Also like Zimbabwe, land redistribution has so far proved both a lengthy and costly process in South Africa and has been largely unsuccessful.

Why this is such a pertinent issue now revolves around the internal dissension within the ANC. President Jacob Zuma has faced open criticism from firebrand Youth League leader Julius Malema, whose attitude to wealth redistribution is simple: go and take it. Zuma has manoeuvred the banning of Malema from the party for five years, causing uproar amongst Malema’s own substantial group of supporters. The worry remains that, if Malema is reinstated, or Zuma becomes anxious to dispel the opposition towards his leadership from the poorest segments of society, a similar programme of land reform to Zimbabwe might emerge. There have already been violent threats to white farming communities in the Transvaal and the Cape, with many farmers responding with equal force. Despite the positive rhetoric, could South Africa go the same way as Zimbabwe?

 

Farm Attacks and ANC Inclusivity

As Zimbabwe experienced from the 1990s into the 21st century, attacks on white farms in South Africa have increased in prevalence in recent years. With many agricultural homesteads being situated in far-flung districts of the country’s vast Northern and Western Cape provinces, these attacks have gone largely unnoticed by the mainstream media in the cities. It is therefore difficult to attain an accurate comparison between the two, disparate states, in terms of precise figures.

However, the murder of far-right agitator Eugéne Terre’Blanche on his farm near Ventersdorp in April 2010 gave the issue of white “farm attacks” a higher profile. For, despite the condemnation of the attack as a “terrible deed” by President Zuma, it came amidst a controversial debate surrounding Julius Malema. As a means of rousing the crowds at his ANC Youth rallies, Malema had orchestrated the singing of a song containing the lyrics “shoot the Boer”, a now derogatory term for white South Africans. Malema has remained unapologetic to this day over his decision to publicise the song, and it contributed greatly to his sacking from the party. Whether intentional or not, the song fits Malema’s mantra of “go and take it” perfectly, and is understandably an issue of great concern for farmers and liberal activists alike.

The murder of Terre'Blanche brought attention to attacks on white farms

Whilst in Zimbabwe Mugabe was happy to allow the violent removal of white farmers from their lands, the ANC is loath to take such a vindictive stance. From the time it came to office under Nelson Mandela in 1994, the ANC has preached inclusivity between all races and ethnicities. Therefore, whilst the ZANU-PF continues to see whites as the oppressors, the ANC theoretically supports a multi-racial society.

This laudable stance cannot, of course, prevent individual criminals from attacking white-owned property and the farmers have responded to these threats with force of their own. Support Groups and security companies have been established that often resemble posses, sent to track down threatening outsiders in an expression of vigilantism. Whilst farmers’ desire to protect their lands is understandable, the Support Groups are an expression of the disdain with which the majority-black law enforcement services are held by many whites in South Africa. When the rule of law breaks down in any state it spells danger. Consequently, the potential for the Support Groups to overstep their remit is a constant threat.

Other farmers, like their counterparts in Zimbabwe, have been more pragmatic, deciding to leave their ancestral homes behind. Although done with great reluctance, many white South African farmers no longer see the incentive of staying in a nation they no longer feel is their own. Many depart for the English-speaking world, whilst others have been driven further into the depths of Africa, where schemes in the Congo and Zambia are trying to entice skilled agrarians to their under-productive countries.

Violent land grabs may not have reached anywhere near the level they did in Zimbabwe at the beginning of the century. Nevertheless, the persistent failure of land reform, coupled with an increasingly-agitated black working class in rural areas, could see this change. Whilst the ANC continues to trumpet the importance of multiracialism, populists like Malema threaten to destabilise any notions of ethnic tolerance with their impulsive preaching.

 

A Nervous Future

What must be concerning a majority of South Africans, white and black, is the rapidly deteriorating health of Nelson Mandela. Now 93, Mandela is becoming ever frailer and is unlikely to survive too long into the future. Not only would this be a sad loss of a great anti-apartheid figure and democratic agitator, but it may also have a tangible impact on ANC ideology.

The policy of inclusivity, whereby the former white oppressors were incorporated peacefully into the “new” South Africa, was an initiative of Mandela. Whilst he remains alive, the party hierarchy is unlikely to change this official stance. However, after his passing, the possibility for change is strong. With the forcefulness of Malema and other young radical politicians who shun the corrupt ANC hierarchy and preach power to the black masses, the party has the potential to turn the way of ZANU-PF. The black working class that still reveres Mandela today will no longer be shackled by their former leader’s doctrinal desires when he’s gone; Malema’s message will become their new guiding light.

Of course, the institutionalisation of democracy in South Africa means the decrees handed down by Mugabe in Zimbabwe are unlikely to be repeated here. Nevertheless, succumbing to the demands of impoverished blacks may be an inevitable step for a leadership that wants to remove attention from its pork-barrel politics and rent-seeking tendencies. With one of the most vehement demands of the black working class being an access to land, much of which remains in white hands, the potential for unauthorised “land reform” is a strong one.

The future of South Africa rests on the power struggle between Zuma and Malema

South Africa is now the most unequal country in the world (except for Namibia), even surpassing Brazil in the “rich-poor gap”. With the ANC unable to deliver on its independence promises of an era of prosperity for all blacks, the leeway for political manoeuvring is becoming greatly reduced. With Mandela’s demise will come greater demands for a black assumption of power in all areas of life, whether through legal or non-legal channels. Unless President Zuma can control Julius Malema, white farmers and landholders will continue to worry. Zimbabwe’s land attacks may have had presidential approval. The same will not be necessary in the unbalanced and ideologically-confused Republic of South Africa.

Selective Intervention: Britain’s Inconsistent Foreign Policy Post-WWII

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has blamed a foreign conspiracy for trying to destabilise his country, suggesting that Western media outlets and governments alike are at fault for the mass uprising against his rule, which has left over 5,000 people dead since it began almost a year ago. With Arab League observers doing little more than overseeing Assad’s forces’ slaughtering of “terrorist” agitators – which apparently include women and children – the president should be grateful that harsh words is all that he is receiving from abroad. If the NATO-approved intervention in Libya proved anything, it is that Western firepower is easily capable of neutralising the weapons of terror deployed by despots in the Middle East.

However, the chances of a similar intervention are unlikely. Just last month Sir Peter Ricketts, David Cameron’s national security adviser, suggested that whilst similarities existed between Libya and Syria in terms of levels of violence, a similar path of resolution would not be pursued. According to Ricketts, the decision to intervene in Libya was because “we had urgent appeals from a wide range of people”. This, says Ricketts, is apparently not the case with Syria, despite the continued pleas from the country’s citizenry and the Free Syrian Army suggesting otherwise.

This selective intervention is typical of British foreign policy since the end of the Second World War. Whilst decisions to involve British forces in another country’s affairs have never been taken lightly, they have hardly been exercised with a consistent logic. Britain played a key combat role in Korea yet stayed out of Vietnam; intervention in Iraq remains fresh in the memory and the UK stays at war in Afghanistan, yet countless other dubious Islamic regimes in the region have been left alone; meanwhile, the UK even sent ground troops into Sierra Leone during a bitter civil war in 2000, yet has neglected to intervene in either Sudan or Zimbabwe, two countries of greater repression and suffering; and now Syria is left unaided despite the military support in Libya. Why has British interventionist policy been so haphazard and inconsistent? What motives decide whether British forces are deployed in another country’s territorial domain?

 

Ideological Justification for Intervention

Before intervening in the Libyan Civil War as part of the UN coalition, British Prime Minister David Cameron declared that the Libyan people’s “aspirations for greater democracy, for greater freedom, for greater rights should be met with reform, not repression”. One month later, in March 2011, UN Security Council Resolution 1973 was passed, having been lobbied for by the UK and France in particular. A no-fly zone was imposed over Libya and the Royal Air Force and Navy began their campaign to help topple Colonel Gaddafi. When Gaddafi was finally deposed in October, Cameron claimed that he was “proud” of Britain’s role in giving the Libyan people “an even greater chance…of building themselves a strong and democratic future”. From these statements it appeared as if Britain’s intervening role in Libya was based on ideological reasoning: the support of democracy against authoritarian tyranny. Most British interventions since the Second World War have been justified along such lines.

When British forces joined the Korean War in 1950 after the passing of UNSC Resolution 84, it was with a clear message of anti-Communist intent. The North Koreans’ decision to attack the South was the ideological confirmation Britain and their Western allies needed to portray communism as an expansionist threat to newly-budding democracies throughout the world; the so-called “domino effect”. Though no existential threat was posed to the UK, nearly fifteen thousand British troops were committed to the Korean Peninsula. The fact that North Korea remains today the most committed communist country in the world is proof enough that the Western allies did not succeed in their ideological objectives.  Interestingly, British support for anti-Communism did not extend to committing ground forces to the Vietnam War, a far bitterer ideological struggle. It is possible that the incumbency of Harold Wilson’s Labour administration (1964-1970) – one leaning towards socialist policies – throughout the most intense periods of the war explains this inactivity. Labour’s animosity towards communism was perhaps not as strong as the previous Conservative governments or the ruling American administration, making ideological intervention less desirable. Maybe it was the memory of Korea that detracted the British from going into Vietnam. Either way, it marked a very inconsistent policy of foreign intervention against the supposed communist enemy.

Despite the close proximity to WWII, Britain committed almost 15,000 troops to Korea

This inconsistency has been mirrored in Britain’s recent history of intervention in the Middle East. The UN-opposed invasion of Iraq was officially sanctioned by the British and US governments because of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). This was based on the ideological conviction of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, particularly within and across authoritarian states. Later events would reveal the misinformation the British administration had acquired regarding Saddam’s nuclear programme. Basically, it did not exist. That did not stop the war in Iraq from continuing, the fateful repercussions of which are still noticeable on a daily basis in a country unprepared for post-war reconstruction. Given that nuclear non-proliferation is apparently so important to Britain, why have its politicians made no steps to intervene in Iran? The Iranians are far from covertly carrying out a uranium enrichment programme and are notoriously hostile towards the “west”. Although economic sanctions have been imposed, military intervention does not appear a viable option, suggesting proliferation concerns alone are not enough for British foreign policymakers.

The same can be said of the determination to stop Islamic fundamentalism, as part of the broader “war on terror”. Again, aside from the US, the British have been the largest military contributors to the War in Afghanistan. The determination to not only overthrow but to destroy the Taliban, decried facilitators of Islamic fundamentalism, has long been trumpeted as the goal of the mission. Yet, there has been no intervention in Yemen; in Somalia; in Pakistan, or any other nation that harbours Islamic extremists. Furthermore, the recent British involvement in Libya has arguably helped to increase the powerbase of extremist militants and their political associates, rather than sowed a fertile ground from which democracy can grow.

Al-Shabaab fighters plague war-ravaged Somalia. Yet these Islamic extremists have been left untouched by the UK

Can all these decisions really be the result of an inconsistent foreign policy application? It appears more likely that ideological considerations, however much they are declared to be so, have never been the primary motivator for British politicians and generals when intervening in a foreign country.

 

The US Alliance as Justification for Intervention

Although not as openly preached as ideological considerations, the importance of the US alliance to Britain has often been invoked as a partial reason for intervening in foreign conflicts. The determination to preserve the “special relationship” formed by Churchill and Roosevelt during the Second World War lingers to this day and has certainly played a significant role in British foreign policy over the past sixty years.

After staving off left-wing agitation during the inter-war period, Britain emerged as the strongest supporter of America’s anti-communist doctrine, the first test of which came in Korea. As we know, the British played a strong supporting role in helping the US force the communist invaders back north, albeit without capitalising on their gains. Despite the questionable success of the mission, the actions of Great Britain and the USA in Korea helped establish them as world leaders in the preservation and support of democracy. British politicians have been reluctant to relinquish this mantle ever since.

Having said that, there was no British intervention in Vietnam, despite US appeals. That in itself is enough to raise doubts over the importance of the US alliance in British interventionist policy. Conversely, Tony Blair’s decision to support the US to the hilt in the build-up to the Iraq War was widely seen as a desire to retain Britain’s privileged status with the world’s only superpower. The false intelligence gathered about Saddam’s WMD programme was compiled by the US, yet unquestioningly supported by the Blair government. The subsequent blame regarding the “non-legality” of the ensuing war and the failure to design and implement an effective reconstruction plan for Iraq has almost exclusively been directed at the US and the UK. Unlike the conflicts in Korea and Afghanistan, for instance, the UN, long derided as a US puppet institution, were not supportive of the Iraq invasion.

Although British forces have provided valuable assistance to US troops in Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan – all operations at least partly-instigated by the US – the British government has at times taken the initiative in foreign interventions. The recent support for the Libyan rebels is a prime example, where pressure from the UK and France helped sway a reluctant Obama administration into using its undoubted lobbying power to gain support from the UN. A more intriguing example is the successful deployment of British troops during the Sierra Leone civil war in 2000, when a British Special Forces unit was used in support of the Sierra Leone government against rebels backed by Liberian president Charles Taylor. Although not a prolonged intervention, it was nonetheless an unusual example of British forces intervening in foreign territory without the presence of the US.

British marines were a surprising addition to the Sierra Leone Civil War in 2000

Given that Britain has not always aided the US in its foreign battles, despite the obvious desire amongst a succession of governments to retain the “special relationship” between the two nations, it cannot be deemed the most important factor guiding British intervention policy. Again, as with ideological motivations, the invoking of the US alliance as a reason for supporting foreign intervention has been an all too inconsistent strategy.

 

Resources and Strategy – the hidden agenda?

Whilst British interventionism has often been legitimated by ideological claims and the “special relationship”, cynical observers would suggest that the real reasons for intervention are often far more sinister. For instance, the desire of Western nations to increase their geo-strategic influence over potentially-valuable regions, and thus enhance their power-projection capabilities away from their own homelands, is often touted as a covert motive for intervention.

All of Britain’s foreign interventions since the Second World War can be tied to this “hidden agenda”. Korea, for example, offered Britain an opportunity to strengthen its influence in East Asia, at a time of de-colonialisation. Simultaneously, the chance to reduce Soviet and Chinese influence on the Peninsula was undoubtedly a key factor, therefore tying in with anti-communist sentiment. By the time of the Vietnam War, however, British strategic interests in Asia were waning. Having seen their last Asian colony of Singapore merge with Malaysia in 1963, British politicians abandoned any last-ditch attempts to preserve a degree of imperialism. Attention was being turned to the equally-troublesome European Community instead. Furthermore, given that a new economic powerhouse allied to the West had emerged in the form of Japan, any lingering British concerns about communist domination of East Asia dissipated. Whilst this might not have been the case with the US, the Americans’ large presence in Vietnam also gave the British and other Western allies the confidence that their interests were being protected in any event.

The British support for the War in Afghanistan can to a degree be seen as a revival of British politicians’ desire to regain a foothold in the Middle East, long ago a bastion of British colonial strength. In support of the strategic goals of the US, Afghanistan presented an opportunity for Britain to develop its influence in the region, at the expense of larger powers like China, India, or even Pakistan. Although intervention in the former Taliban state now looks to have damaged the Western reputation amongst ordinary Afghans, the large British presence automatically makes them a key strategic decision-maker in a volatile region. The desire to root out supporters of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban would undoubtedly have influenced the British decision to support intervention in Afghanistan, but strategic considerations arguably played a larger role than the official line suggests. With the growing potential of a nuclear-armed Iran, the continuing tribal ruptures in Pakistan and the sectarian violence in Iraq, both the British and Americans may be using their deployment in Afghanistan as a hedge against future ruptures in the Middle East.

In Sierra Leone, a planned evacuation force of British marines ended up playing a decisive role in the civil war. Whether this was an uncontrollable escalation of events or an opportunistic strike by British generals hoping to gain sway with leaders in the resource-rich region is again hard to determine. However, the fact that Sierra Leone is a significant, if small, trading partner of the UK, and offers a plethora of mining and industrial opportunities to British companies, suggests there were hidden factors at play.

Whilst Korea and Afghanistan may have been driven by strategic considerations, the interventions in Iraq and Libya appear far more resource-driven. Although it would be unfair to suggest the Iraq War came about solely because of Anglo-American oil interests, the presence of “black gold” in Saddam’s country undoubtedly made a military operation far more appealing. Therefore the dual goals of securitising energy resources and overthrowing an uncompromising tyrant probably went hand in hand. The same could be said for Libya. Had Colonel Gaddafi’s grip on the country’s oil – a large proportion of which is sold to Britain –persisted amidst the civil war, the disruption of energy exports would also have continued. Sensing the opportunity both to help topple the deranged Gaddafi and at the same time secure a future stream of precious oil, the British took the lead in proposing a no-flyzone along with France, a similarly large beneficiary of Libyan oil reserves. Syria, meanwhile, whilst also a net exporter of oil, relies more on its Middle Eastern neighbours for trade than it does the nations of Western Europe; hence the importance attributed to the toothless Arab League observers. Could it be that the country’s relative lack of resource-importance in comparison to Libya has prevented Britain and its allies from an intervention? Whilst it is almost impossible to prove this, a great number of desperate Syrian citizens see the West’s malaise in relation to their country as inextricably linked with its relative resource deficiencies. If the “hidden agenda” really holds such credence amongst British foreign policymakers, the Syrians may have a long wait on their hands for support in toppling Bashar Al-Assad.

A cause for intervention? Iraq's productive oil wells were of great interest to the Anglo-American alliance.

 

Consistently Inconsistent

There has certainly not been a consistent doctrine for British intervention in foreign countries since 1945. Whilst any intervention has often been justified by the ideological tenets of liberalism and democracy, the genuineness of such claims are far from convincing. If British interventionism was directed by ideological concerns, reality would dictate that the UK would be embroiled in countless countries across the world. As it is, British forces are concentrated only in a select few. Why is that?

It appears a combination of unpronounced strategic goals, coupled with a desire to maintain strong relations with the US, largely sets the mould for British intervention. Although foreign policymakers are undoubtedly concerned by repressive regimes and anti-democratic political systems, these foibles alone are not enough to justify involvement in a foreign country.

Consequently, unless the Syrian Free Army and their political representatives can put forward a case outlining not only the ruthlessness of the Assad regime but the strategic importance of their country to the West, British military support is unlikely to be forthcoming. Whilst such a selfish foreign policy appears unfortunate, anything other than selective intervention is unrealistic. For the British, as undoubtedly with other states, it is self-interest that must come first.