Imperial Delusions

In a new article for RT (which you can read here), I discuss the adventures of the British warship HMS Defender off the coast of Crimea. In essence, I argue that while the British action was probably in accordance with the international law of the sea, it was strategically foolish. The British imagine that they are sending certain signals to the Russian Federation, but the signals Moscow is getting are almost certainly very different. Consequently, the Russian reaction is likely to be one that the Brits don’t like very much. In short, the action will prove counterproductive.

All of this raises an important issue – why don’t the Brits get it? For the past 20 years, I’ve been arguing incessantly that British defence policy needs a radical rethink, because the country’s endless military meddling in other parts of the globe is doing the United Kingdom no good and quite a lot of harm, as well as wasting national resources which could much more productively be used on other things. Yet it doesn’t seem to matter how many times things go tragically wrong – the invasion of Iraq, the failed British campaign in Helmand province in Afghanistan, the continuing disaster that is Libya, the mess the Brits are supporting in Yemen, the growing confrontation with Russia, and so on – they fail to draw the pertinent lessons. The attitude seems to not be – ‘well that didn’t turn out so well, let’s not do it again’ – but ‘let’s do again, just better next time’. As a collective failure in lesson learning it’s quite remarkable.

So what’s going on?

It’s hard to say for sure, but various answers present themselves.

The first and perhaps most obvious is that the British ruling class is trapped in a sort of imperial nostalgia, yearning for better times when ‘Britannia ruled the waves’ and all that. The UK feels that it ‘ought’ to be a great power, that it is right and natural for it to be dictating to other pars of the world what they should do, and that national honour requires an assertive foreign and military policy. Brexit hasn’t helped with this, as it’s been accompanied by a lot of ‘global Britain’ guff, but it’s a problem that long predates it. The Blair government had its equivalent with its ‘force for good’ slogan for the British armed forces. It’s all a dangerous illusion, but a powerful one nonetheless.

The ‘force for good’ stuff (which the Johnson government has to some extent revived) also reveals another problem: moral arrogance. The ‘victory’ over the Soviet Union in the Cold War convinced the USA and UK that History, with a big ‘H’, had proven them right. Consequently, anybody who continues in any way to resist them is not mistaken, but profoundly Wrong, as proven by History. By contrast, Britain is Right. There can be no moral doubt. Again, it’s an extremely foolish attitude, but all too prevalent.

A third element is a rather exaggerated belief in the professional magnificence of the British armed forces. Brits really believe that their military is the best in the world. Somehow, the total hash the British army made of Basra and Helmand seems to have slipped them by. But that’s by the by. The belief is strong. Governments also like the military because it’s obedient and responds rapidly to commands. The rest of the ship of state is a horribly immoveable beast, which resists instructions in all sorts of frustrating ways. But when you tell the military to do X, it salutes, about turns, and does X (not always very well, but at least it tries). Politicians therefore end up rather liking it.

Fourth, there’s the whole ‘military industrial complex’ thing. The United Kingdom is the sixth largest exporter of arms in the world. It’s big business. This week’s escapade in the waters of Crimea was preceded by a visit by HMS Defender to Ukraine during which British and Ukrainian officials signed a deal for the UK to produce warships for Ukraine. So you see the logic: Ukraine pays the UK a bunch of money: the Royal Navy then pokes the Russian bear – quid pro quo, you might say.

Fifth and finally, foreign policy is always domestic policy. Because of Britons’ exaggerated sense of their importance, it pays British politicians to strut the world stage and engage in muscular moral posturing. Poking the bear might be stupid from the point of view of British foreign policy interests, because it provokes an unwanted response, but it sells well with the public. The UK doesn’t benefit from worsening relations with Russia, but British politicians benefit from being seen to stand up for Good against Evil. And so it is that the national interest suffers for the domestic political interests of our politicians.

‘Twas ever thus, alas, and doubtless ever will be. But it’s long past time for Brits to put aside their delusions of grandeur and their faith in military power. To quote Kipling:

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
   Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
   Or lesser breeds without the Law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
   In reeking tube and iron shard,
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
   And guarding, calls not Thee to guard,
For frantic boast and foolish word—
Thy mercy on Thy People, Lord!

25 thoughts on “Imperial Delusions”

  1. Britain is trying to do favours for parts of the US administration. Which is always dangerous because the US admin is fragmented, has no leader, and one part will betray another overnight.
    It is about as sensible as the Kurds fighting for US in Syria.


  2. The British really need to stop getting in their own but with ‘Tiny Trump’ in power it is highly unlikely. Johnson is someone who has discovered that putting both feet into his mouth on a regular basis has proved no impediment to gaining power and popularity, this in a country that still plays Dad’s Army on rotation on prime time TV. Lets hope the Chinese show the twerp where to get off. (This little flotilla is also going to (illegally) bomb Syria on the way to the South China Sea) Brexit has deeply hastened the UKs decent into irredeemable moronity!


  3. My basic feeling is this is one of the fruits of the Corbyn defeat. The people in the British halls of power seem to lack much ideology. They are unprincipled people who often lie. To be part of this system one is expected to subscribe to certain doctrines such as anti-Russianism or the “Corbyn is an anti-semite” canard. For a while Johnson was following the Trump line of dismissing COVID until he fell ill.


  4. I feel there’s gotta be more to it than ‘imperial nostalgia’, grandstanding and all that.

    The post-brexit UK is in a new, different economic and geopolitical environment, and naturally it’ll try different things. Rapprochement with Turkey, for example. Or, getting paid by Ukraine for testing Russian reaction to its ship getting into disputed aquatory. Hey, why not.


    1. maybe not, maybe preparation???? little partner preparing for something to start next week?

      NATO exercise Sea Breeze 21 will begin in the Black Sea next week and run until late July. So we will have NATO ships, vessels of the Ukraine navy and the Russian navy sharing the same (somewhat constricted) maritime space.

      Of course, all participants are sharp, well trained, and squared away, and accidents never happen. But imagine for a moment a repeat of that 1992 screw-up, only instead of striking another NATO player, a Russian vessel is hit instead.

      Tensions are already running high due to the Royal Navy’s freedom of navigation operations off the Crimea. This next month could prove to be rather interesting depending on how events play out in the Black Sea.

      Ed Lindgren adds links.


  5. The BBC report confirms the provocativeness (utter foolhardiness) of the mission:

    “The crew were already at action stations as they approached the southern tip of Russian-occupied Crimea. Weapons systems on board the Royal Navy destroyer had already been loaded.

    This would be a deliberate move to make a point to Russia. HMS Defender was going to sail within the 12 mile (19km) limit of Crimea’s territorial waters. The captain insisted he was only seeking safe passage through an internationally recognised shipping lane. . .”


  6. This is a very interesting topic for scientists: is it possible for one country to partially recognize sovereignty over the territory of another country? If Britain or the United States do not recognize that Crimea belongs to Russia, then, in this case, they should withdraw recognition of the Russian Federation as a sovereign integral state with all the consequences that follow from this. It is simply impossible to imagine the international law where some countries recognize some selected parts of the territory, and do not recognize another ones.

    Omnia aut nihil

    The United States and Britain are opening the second pandora’s box after Kosovo one. Now Russia can question the sovereignty of Britain over the Falkland Islands, or other remnants of former colonial possessions over some islands, and the United States over the Hawaiian Islands, Puerto Rico etc. I am sure, president Putin red signals of stupid British government properly…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. But there is already quite an amount of international laws on what the occupying powers are allowed (or even required) to do: for example, 4th Geneva Convention of 1949. See its Article 64 and the commentary on it from 1958, esp. on the last paragraph. Even if you recognize the Russia as an occupying power, it still gives it *a lot* of legal ground: it’s absolutely allowed (and again, is even required in some regards) to take measures to ensure its own safety and safety of the population in the occupied territory.


  7. It’s hard to explain why British politicians behave in this (dangerous) way.

    They must know it works well with the public.

    Poll after poll show that the British think the empire was a good think that it was a positive force in the world.

    There is an imperialist hangover and they have a sense of superiority towards everyone. They look down their noses even towards Americans.
    And the just don’t like the Russians – I don’t know why as despite many different immigrants into the UK – Russians are not here in any significant numbers – so it’s not a dislike from personal experience. The political class just don’t like Russia it seems.

    (I am from an immigrant family so perhaps I may exaggerate)

    As for military disasters – Britain can always turn a disaster into a triumph.

    Charge of the light brigade – wonderful poem by Tennyson obscures the horror of the battle.

    General Gordon at Khartoum- immortalised in a famous painting by George W. Joy.

    There are a lot of other examples

    The British always had the advantage of media control of the story to be able to do this.

    Even in this era of social media – the mainstream media still has the greatest advantage in presenting the story the way the government of the day wants it.

    In this incident in the Black Sea – they had the BBC and the Daily Mail (best selling middle class tabloid ) on board the ship.

    It’s clear that they knew what they were going to do and would get a reaction – the media was there to present the story. Look at the Daily Mail with its jingoistic headlines.

    It’s dangerous and immoral and those sailors on that ship should not be used to make a political point.

    They are off to the South China Sea next – and after this nonsense what will China be thinking?


    1. There is one thing I just don’t get: The Brits were clearly playing this to their jingo audience and wanted the Russians to react strongly. So, why did they then lie and say the Russians DIDN’T fire on them? That doesn’t make sense. I thought for them the correct narrative would be:

      “Look at us, Defenders of Freedom, sailing in international and then Ukrainian waters, at the invitation of our Nazi freedom-loving Ukrainian friends! And then these dastardly Russian bears, they have the gall to fire their barbarian guns at us! Shame on them!”

      So why lie about it? It doesn’t make any sense, and I like things to make sense!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. The centre of Britain’s empirical belief is in their MI6/5 community. Somehow, in a day and age where American hegemony is declining and looks to be a blip in comparison with size and likely timelessness of rising China, the top British spies think they can steer the Anglo-American empire as an indispensable rudder: to create havoc and chaos for the Eurasian axis and as such delay or muddle that influence. Their “caprioles” (Litvinenko case & inquest, Skripal, Steele, the chemical stories in Syria, the White Helmets, the Assange farcical trial and imprisonment) have a disproportionate influence on NATO policy and propaganda.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Dear Prof. Robinson,
    Have you considered the possibility of being affected by the Western narratives? You obviously are aware of the extreme anti-Russia bias in the Western political elites and media. Despite that you side with some Western positions without clear reasons. This is in sharp contrast with your logical and well-argued positions in cases where you debunk false Western narratives. In previous comments I pointed some of the cases where I find your positions unjustified: Navalny, Skripal, the recent claims by the Czech government…
    While I agree with the core of your argument in this article, I find it strange that you think that “the British action was probably in accordance with the international law of the sea”.
    Have you considered how you formed this opinion?
    You did not provide legal/logical arguments to support this opinion. Which is why I suspect that you took this positions because it is the prevailing one in the West. Do you have some legal arguments to put against Craig Murray’s arguments:
    or Prof. Stefan Talmon, the Director at the Institute of Public International Law at the University of Bonn:

    You probably find my questions uncomfortable, but I sympathize with you. I know how difficult it is to remain objective or stand up against the modern Western propaganda. I struggle with this myself – I live in Sweden and whenever Russia comes up I find myself at odds with everyone around me, but I strongly believe that we must stand for truth and objectivity. Otherwise, we are doomed…


  10. The self righteous hypocrisy of the British elite is pretty sickening – they do genuinely think of themselves as uniquely good and virtuous and therefore entitled to what they like for the greater good.
    Anyone who opposes them is therefore seen as evil and must therefore be combated with a messianic fervour
    Any bad results of British actions are brushed under the rug or put into the memory hole leading to a group of people living in their own distorted reality
    This belief will probably lead to something bad happening to my adopted country if you believe in your own righteousness you cannot make peace with your opponents
    To misquote Monty Python – Britain, you are not the Messiah, you are just a naughty boy like all other nations


  11. Perhaps there is a sixth reason: if the result of the actions is to mess up, perhaps the aim is to mess up?

    Iraq as well as Libya were countries that were to some degree industrializing. But perhaps the North-Atlantics wanted to be alone in that business? Perhaps their aim was to learn those impertinent Southerners not to step into the prerogative of the North-Atlantics? To give them a lesson, so that they stayed in the slave role of the South forever?


  12. If you want to see the utter delusions in the heart of the British defence establishment have a read of this guy – – the author is an MOD civil servant and military reservist who really does think that Britannia still rules the waves – people like this and their thinking are likely to lead to a nuclear war by blundering


  13. Dear Paul, how does the “leak” to the BBC regarding the true intentions of the ship adjust your observations. It is now confirmed that it was a planned provocation,

    “ A series of slides prepared at PJHQ shows two routeing options, one described as “a safe and professional direct transit from Odessa to Batumi”, including a short stretch through a “Traffic Separation Scheme” (TSS) close to the south-west tip of Crimea.

    This route, one slide concluded, would “provide an opportunity to engage with the Ukrainian government… in what the UK recognises as Ukrainian territorial waters.”

    Three potential Russian responses were outlined, from “safe and professional” to “neither safe nor professional”.

    In the event, Russia chose to react aggressively, with radio warnings, coastguard vessels closing to within 100 metres and repeated buzzing by warplanes.

    An alternative route was considered, which would have kept HMS Defender well away from contested waters.

    This would have avoided confrontation, the presentation noted, but ran the risk of being portrayed by Russia as evidence of “the UK being scared/running away”, allowing Russia to claim that the UK had belatedly accepted Moscow’s claim to Crimean territorial waters.

    Alongside the military planning, officials anticipated competing versions of events.

    “We have a strong, legitimate narrative”, they said, noting that the presence of the embedded journalists (from the BBC and Daily Mail) on board the destroyer “provides an option for independent verification of HMS Defender’s action”.

    Following the controversy generated by HMS Defender’s mission, the documents discovered in Kent confirm that passage through the TSS was a calculated decision by the British government to make a show of support for Ukraine, despite the possible risks involved.


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