Whilst the actions of the Bush administration has ensured that the reputation of the United States has taken a battering in recent years, its loyal ally in Europe, Great Britain, has not suffered to the same extent. Until now, there has not been a British equivalent of Wiliam Blum's Rogue State, an account of America's unscrupulous role in the 'New World Order'. Mark Curtis' Web of Deceit: Britain's Real Role in the World, remedies this situation at a most opportune time. Although the book has an introduction by John Pilger, presumably to give it critical credibility and sell a few more copies, Curtis should hardly need such publicity - he was the man who uncovered Britain's complicity in the murderous regime of General Suharto in Indonesia, and indeed has already published a pair of books dealing with British foreign policy: The Ambiguities of Power (1995) and The Great Deception: Anglo-American Power and the New World Order (1998). Under the leadership of 'Teflon Tony' Blair, Britain has engaged in four major wars in five years: one as a leading member of Nato (Kosovo), one as a former Imperial master (Sierra Leone), and two (Afghanistan, Iraq) in an attempt to maintain something of its former importance in the world by tagging along with Bush's adventures.
In Europe, Britain is usually seen as a harmless, even well-meaning, partner. British popular culture, as manifested by sports or television, and the widespread use of the English language, has meant that Britain appears 'close'. Britain's dubious post-colonial foreign policy is often overlooked. Recent revelations will have made unsettling reading for those who still believe in Britain's essentially benign approach to world affairs: evidence of British collusion with loyalist paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland engaging in 'targeted assassinations' of suspected IRA members, for example, and the mounting anger over the way in which the government not only doctored intelligence reports on weapons of mass destruction, but also misled the House of Commons, and indeed the whole country, over the nature of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein.
Foreign correspondents in Britain (based in London, naturally) often seem to get trapped in a comfortable metropolitan world of embassy receptions and first-night theatre parties which, if not blunting their objectivity, at least gives a strange impression of what the general public back home (wherever that may be) would like to hear about. The British press itself is, however, often no better. Tony Blair shamelessly courted the right-wing Murdoch newspapers on the way to power, and the support given to Blair by Murdoch titles such as the Sun and the Times have demonstrated clearly why this section of the popular media was so important to the New Labour project. It is the reason why Web of Deceit, by Mark Curtis, is such an important book, because in spite of the brave work carried out by John Pilger and others since the Vietnam War, the popular self-image of Britain as a benevolent post-Imperial master, only engaging in 'humanitarian intervention', has been allowed to penetrate the global psyche almost unchallenged. According to Curtis, however, 'violating international law has become as British as afternoon tea'.
Well over a century ago, Michael Davitt, one of the leaders and fouding fathers of the British labour movement, mused on Gladstone's ideas of 'humanitarian intervention', and came to the conclusion that British morality in foreign affairs was highly elastic, dependent only on what was in British economic interests. The only thing that has changed in the year 2003 is that it is now the leader of the British 'New' Labour movement who is carrying out this kind of policy. Whilst the likes of Davitt, and many modern readers, might be familiar with British misadventures in the colonies, Curtis' book throws light on areas which many outsiders might find surprising.
In order to highlight the grotesque hypocrisy in British foreign policy, especially in relation to 'humanitarian intervention', Curtis juxtaposes the chapter on Nato's Kosovo campaign with one on Chechnya. It is noted that human rights abuses in Chechnya are merely referred to as 'allegations' by the British, and a chronological account of the Chechen wars is put alongside Blair's reactions - usually nothing. In October 2002, as a part of the justification for the war on terror, Blair claimed that because of the 'terrorism coming from extremists operating out of Chechnya... I have always taken the view that it is important that we understand the Russian viewpoint on this.' The Chechens, therefore, are little more than al-Qaeda mercenaries, doing their best to de-stabilise international order.
The idea that the general public are not given any real information about Britain's real role in the world is given further strength by Curtis's account of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Using official files, he tells of how the British government 'used its diplomatic weight to reduce severely a UN force that, according to military officers on the ground, could have prevented the killings', and, in late April 1994, along with the US and China, secured a security council resolution that rejected the use of the term "genocide", so that the UN would not act. Rwanda is often brought out as an example, by the likes of Blair, as to why 'humanitarian intervention' is necessary. This book demonstrates that he should be more careful with his examples. Curtis' main aim is summed up in his claim that 'if we were honest, we would see Britain's role in the world to a large extent as a story of crimes against humanity.'