Britain's real foreign policy and the failure of British academia

Mark Curtis

Published in International Relations, Vol.18, No.3, September 2004

My argument is that the reality of Britain's foreign policy is very different than usually presented by academics and the media. The standard view - which is implicitly promoted in numerous studies - is that Britain's postwar foreign policy has aimed to promote the grand principles of democracy, peace, human rights and overseas development. In other words, the goals espoused by British policy-makers are generally taken seriously and tend to set the framework of academic analysis. If these supposed goals are not always explicitly outlined in mainstream academic analysis, they are invariably implicitly assumed as being at the root of foreign policy. This means that, while criticism of foreign policy is certainly possible and normal, it is usually within very narrow parameters, focuses on marginal issues and regularly ignores whole policies.

I think British academics in general are significantly responsible for keeping students and the wider public in ignorance about this country's real role in the world. As well as preferring analytical frameworks that essentially support state policy, this also occurs by failing to investigate the available evidence on British foreign policies, notably the categoric failure by British academia to document rigorously the formerly secret planning records in the National Archives. These government files are easily accessible, vital to understanding foreign policy and, in my experience, in many cases a revelation. It is little short of a national disgrace that files on whole British foreign policies appear unresearched by people whose job I thought this was.

Let me share what some of my research at the National Archives and elsewhere has revealed. Overall, as I have tried to document in various books, most recently Web of Deceit: Britain's Real Role in the World, the evidence shows that Britain is a systematic violator of the grand principles noted above. It has traditionally been, and remains under the current New Labour government, a systematic violator of international law and the UN, a key ally of some of the world's most repressive regimes and acts as a consistent condoner of human rights abuses.

The twin goals of British foreign policy are clearly revealed in the declassified planning files and continue today: to maintain British elites' political standing in the world, ie, some form of "great power" status; and to ensure that key countries and regions, and the global economy, function to benefit Western businesses. Both are to be secured primarily in alliance with US foreign policy. From these goals have flowed a great number of policies which consign much of the population of the world to the status of "unpeople" - victims of British policies.

To illustrate this, let me briefly sketch out some of the most important episodes in postwar foreign policy, some of which have been buried in the mainstream, some of which have yet to receive any academic attention.

In 1953, Britain and the US collaborated to overthrow the nationalist Iranian government of Mohamed Musaddiq and replaced it with the Shah's regime. Musaddiq had challenged British interests by nationalising oil operations - then controlled by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Corporation (AIOC), the forerunner of British Petroleum. The Labour government under Clement Attlee immediately began covert plans to overthrow Musaddiq, which were continued under the Churchill government. Britain's aim was to install "a more reliable government", Foreign Secretary Eden explained. "Our policy", a British official later recalled, "was to get rid of Mossadeq [sic] as soon as possible".

When the oil talks collapsed, the main British negotiator advised the Shah that the "only solution" was "a strong government under martial law and the bad boys in prison for two years or so". British planners preferred "a non-communist coup d'etat preferably in the name of the Shah". The files show that it was clearly understood by the British embassy in Tehran that "this would mean an authoritarian regime". Britain's ambassador in Tehran preferred "a dictator", who "would carry out the necessary administrative and economic reforms and settle the oil question on reasonable terms".

The subsequent repression under the Shah was supported both by Britain and the US. Britain trained some officers of SAVAK, the Shah's secret police, when it was set up in 1957, according to its former coordinator. MI6 was in close touch with leading SAVAK officials while the Head of MI6, Maurice Oldfield, met the Shah regularly in the 1970s and "had a close and intimate relation-ship" with him, according to a former MI6 officer.

The coup in Iran has been the subject of various academic analyses, mainly by US analysts who stress the US role in the coup. Yet the British role receives little if any attention in general analyses of British foreign policy and when it does it is invariably excused as an action desgined to forestall a communist or Soviet takeover in the country, which simply does not fit the evidence.

However, the coup has been analysed to death in comparison with Britain's invasion of its then colony of British Guiana in the same year, 1953. This story has been effectively removed from history. In 1953 Britain overthrew the democratically elected government in British Guiana, which was then a British colony given an element of self-government. The April 1953 elections had resulted in victory for the People's Progressive Party under Cheddi Jagan, a popular, nationalist government committed to a redistributive economic programme that would reduce the grinding poverty under which the mass of the population lived. The PPP's plans also threatened the British sugar multinational, Bookers, which controlled British Guian's main export, sugar.

Britain dispatched warships and 700 troops to overthrow the government, under the pretext - known to be false - that they were acting against "part of the international communist conspiracy" represented by Jagan's policies. With many of the elected PPP leaders detained in jail, the Colonial Secretary then ruled out elections since "the same party would have been elected again".

Almost exactly ten years later British Guiana was faced with the same threat - again clearly one of democracy - that British and US planners were keen to counter. This time Britain rewrote the constitution so that the PPP, winners of the 1961 elections, could not lead Guyana's first post-independence government. Instead, Britain instituted a PR voting system that guaranteed that the two opposition parties would win, which they did, and Guyana was granted independence.

Many myths surround the British wars in Kenya and Malaya in the 1950s. The war in Kenya was essentially one over land between the Mau Mau movement demanding land for millions of landless poor and the British defending white settlers, only a few thousand of whome owned the best land in the country. Former members of the Mau Mau movement are currently trying to sue the British government for human rights abuses committed by British forces who fought against them. They are calling for compensation "on behalf of the 90,000 people imprisoned and tortured in detention camps, 10,000 people who had land confiscated and a further half a million who were forced into protected villages". The declassified files I have seen paint a frightening picture of terrible human rights atrocities by the colonial authorities.

The key aspects of British repression in Kenya were "resettlement" operations that forced 90,000 Kikuyu into detention camps surrounded by barbed wire and troops, and the compulsory "villageisation" of the Kikuyu reserves. The Kikuyus' livestock was confiscated and many were subjected to forced labour. "Villageisation" meant the destruction of formerly scattered homesteads and the erection of houses in fortified camps to replace them. This meant a traumatic break from the traditional Kikuyu way of life. Even when not accompanied, as it often was, by 23-hour curfews, it resulted in widespread famine and death. In total, around 150,000 Africans lost their lives due to the war, most dying of disease and starvation in the "protected villages".

This war has often been depicted as one of civilisation versus barbarity with Britain on the side of the angels of course. In reality, although atrocities were committed on both sides, the worst abuses were committed by the British forces and their local allies. Britain also used the war against Mau Mau as a cover for halting the rise of popular, nationalist forces that threatened British control of its then colony, imprisoning nationalist leader Kenyatta on the charge that he was leading the Mau Mau while British officials knew this was not so. This was an early postwar example of wiping out the threat of independent development, a key concern of British, as well as US, planners throughout the postwar era and much more important, indeed, than the Soviet threat, which was often fabricated and regularly exaggerrated.

In the war in Malaya largely at the same time, Britain resorted to very brutal measures, including widespread aerial bombing and the use of a forerunner to modern cluster bombs. Britain also set up a grotesque "resettlement" programme similar to that in Kenya, that provided a model for later US programmes in Vietnam. It also used chemical agents from which the US may again have drawn lessons in its use of agent orange. Despite the standard portrayal of the war as one fought in a noble cause against "communist terrorists", the secret files reveal the Foreign Office's understood it as "very much as war in defence of [the] rubber industry", then largely in the hands of British companies. It was the threat to British commercial interests, in Malaya and in the wider Southeast Asia, that was the primary concern of planners.

Britain's invasion of Egypt in 1956 is the only British military intervention over the past fifty years that has been severely criticised and government motives questioned in the mainstream. Why is this? The reason is obvious - Britain lost. It therefore deserves a lot of soul-searching among the elite and the speace is provided for academic criticism. Other interventions, and there are many of them, where Britain successfully blasted the nips deserve no such criticism, and many simply no attention, since we won, therefore what could possibly be the problem.

A good example is the British intervention the year following Suez, in Oman, intended to counter a rebellion against a British-controlled regime as repressive as any that has existed in the Middle East. Under the rule of Sultan Said bin Taimur there was no economic development to speak of, few schools and widespread disease. The Sultan kept several thousand slaves and presided over a barbaric justice system with torture endemic, while British advisers stood by. Indeed, the oil-rich Omani regime was in effect run by Britons, who served as commanders of the armed forces and as government ministers. Britain deployed troops in defence of this regime not only between 1957 and 1959 but again from 1965 until 1974, by which time even the British had had enough of the Sultan so instigated a coup against him and installed his son in 1970. Sultan Qaboos remains in power today, betraying the same autocratic tendencies that guarantee him British support as Whitehall's staunchest friend in the Gulf.

British strategy in the Middle East - then as now - is based on propping up repressive elites that support the West's economic and political interests. This strategy has tended to undermine the prospects for more popular, democratic governments and has fanned the flames of religious extremism that is often the only alternative available to those being repressed.

The declassified British files show that the Gulf sheikhdoms were largely created by Britain to "retain our influence" in the region. London pledged to defend them against external attack and to "counter hostile influence and propaganda within the countries themselves". Police and military training would help in "maintaining internal security". The chief threat to these regimes was never Soviet inter-vention but what the Foreign Office called "ultra-nationalist maladies". In 1957, the Foreign Office identified the danger of the existing rulers "losing their authority to reformist or revolutionary movements which might reject the connexion with the United Kingdom".

The fundamental Western interest in the region is of course oil, described by British planners in 1947 as "a vital prize for any power interested in world influence or domination". "We must at all costs maintain control of this oil", Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd noted in 1956.

In 1961 British planners were desperate to find a pretext to deploy military forces to Kuwait. The fear was that this newly independent country, where Britain had major oil interests, would sever ties from London. Kuwait had signed an agreement for Britain to defend it if requested, but the solidity of this agreement was questionable. British fears were that "as the international personality of Kuwait grows, she will wish in various ways to show that she is no longer dependent upon us". Therefore, "we must continue to use the opportunities which our protective role will afford to ensure so far as we can that Kuwait does not materially upset the existing financial arrangements or cease to be a good holder of sterling".

Iraqi leader Qasim publicly claimed Kuwait as part of Iraq in June 1961 but the files show that British planners did not take this threat seriously. But Foreign Office officials in London, together with the British embassy in Baghdad, concocted a story that Iraq had ordered a tank regiment to speed south towards Kuwait. The files show that British officials in Basra, near the Kuwait border, saw no such threat. However, a terrified Kuwait emir, told by British officials that Iraq was about to invade, permitted the landing of British troops. A Ministry of Defence report 11 days later finally admitted it was "unlikely" that Iraq ever posed a threat.

If you want an example of how the worst British policies are excluded from virtually any public debate and academic attention then consider policy towards Indonesia in 1965. This was one of the postwar world's worst bloodbaths when the Indonesian army under General Suharto set out to destroy the Indonesian Communist party (PKI), leading to around a million deaths.

The declassified files clearly reveal British complicity. Britain, like the US, wanted the army to act against the PKI and encouraged it to do so. "I have never concealed from you my belief that a little shooting in Indonesia would be an essential preliminary to effective change", Britain's ambassador in Jakarta, Sir Andrew Gilchrist, informed the Foreign Office. British policy was "to encourage the emergence of a General's regime", one intelligence official later explained. One British memo referred to "an operation carried out on a very large scale and often with appalling savagery". Another simply referred to the "bloodbath".

Britain directly connived with those engaged in slaughter. By 1965, thousands of British troops were in Borneo, defending Malaya against Indonesian encroachments following territorial claims by Jakarta. British planners secretly noted that they "did not want to distract the Indonesian army by getting them engaged in fighting in Borneo and so discourage them from the attempts which they now seem to be making to deal with the PKI". So Gilchrist proposed that "we should get word to the Generals that we shall not attack them whilst they are chasing the PKI". In October a US contact passed to the Generals "a carefully phrased oral message about not biting the Generals in the back for the present".

This episode has been written out of history. I broke this story in an article in the Observer in 1996. Since then, I have barely seen mention of it in the media and academic work.

A decade later in 1975, Britain supported Indonesia's invasion of East Timor, which led to further hundreds of thousands of deaths. The British ambassador in Jakarta informed the Foreign Office a few months before the invasion that "the people of Portuguese Timor are in no condition to exercise the right to self-determination" and that "the arguments in favour of its integration into Indonesia are all the stronger". He suggested giving "greater sympathy towards Indonesia" if it decided to "take strong action" in East Timor. He added: "it is in Britain's interest that Indonesia should absorb the territory as soon and as unobtrusively as possible, and that if it should come to the crunch and there is a row in the United Nations, we should keep our heads down and avoid taking sides against the Indonesian government".

In the 1980s, with diminished means of unilateral intervention, Britain continued to act as the world's leading supporter of US aggression, notably in US intervention in Central America (after 1981), the bombing of Libya (1986) and the invasion of Panama (1989). "We support the United States' aim to promote peaceful change, democracy and economic development" in Central America, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher stated in January 1984; by this time the US aim of destroying the prospects for peaceful change and economic development was abundantly clear - evidenced in US backing for the murderous regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala and in creating a terrorist army to operate against Nicaragua. British apologias sometimes reached astounding heights. A Foreign Office minister stated in 1985 - after years of devastation wrought by the Nicaraguan contras - that "the American government have stated time and again that they are seeking a solution by peaceful means to the problems of Central America".

With a probable nod and a wink from London, the British private "security company", KMS, trained some of the Nicaraguan contras. KMS also organised the destruction of the El Chipote arms depot in the centre of Managua, and KMS helicopter pilots flew with the contras in Honduras. The company also recruited soldiers for Oliver North's gun-running operation to the contras.

Let me now consider another terrible episode in British foreign policy that has also been apparently written out of history - the Rwanda genocide of 1994. A planned campaign of slaughter was launched by extremist Hutus in April 1994 to eliminate members of the Tutsi ethnic group and political opponents. The UN security council, instead of beefing up its peace mission in Rwanda and giving it a stronger mandate to intervene, decided to reduce the troop presence from 2,500 to 270. This decision sent a green light to the killers showing that the UN would not intervene.

It was Britain's ambassador to the UN, Sir David Hannay, who proposed that the UN reduce its force; the US agreed. Both were concerned over a repetition of the events in Somalia seven months before when the UN peace mission had spiralled out of control. The Nigerian ambassador pointed out that tens of thousands of civilians were dying at the time and pleaded to reinforce the UN presence. But the US and Britain objected, suggesting that only a token force of 270 be left behind.

The Rwandan government was sitting on the security council at the time, as one of ten non-permanent members. So British and US policy was reported back to those directing the genocide.

General Romeo Dallaire, commander of the UN force in Rwanda, was pleading for reinforcements and later spoke of "inexcusable apathy by the sovereign states that made up the UN, that is completely beyond comprehension and moral acceptability". He complained that "my force was standing knee deep in mutilated bodies, surrounded by the guttural moans of dying people, looking into the eyes of dying children bleeding to death with their wounds burning in the sun and being invaded by maggots and flies".

The following month, with perhaps hundreds of thousands already dead, there was another UN proposal - to despatch 5,500 troops to help stop the massacres. This deployment was delayed by pressure mainly from the US ambassador, but with support from Britain. Dallaire believes that if these troops had been speedily deployed, tens of thousands more lives could have been saved. The US also ensured that this plan was watered down so that troops would have no mandate to use force to end the massacres.

The US and Britain also argued that before these troops could be deployed, there needed to be a ceasefire, even though one side was massacring innocent civilians. The Czech republic's ambassador confronted the security council about the fact of genocide, saying that wanting a ceasefire was "like wanting Hitler to reach a ceasefire with the Jews". He later said that British and US diplomats quietly told him that he was not to use such inflammatory language outside the security council.

Britain and the US also refused to provide the military airlift capability for the African states who were offering troops for this force. The RAF, for example, had plenty of transport aircraft that could have been deployed.

Britain also went out of its way to prevent the UN using the word "genocide" to describe the slaughter. Accepting this would have obliged states to "prevent and punish" those guilty under the Geneva Convention. In late April, Britain, the US and China, secured a resolution rejecting use of the term genocide. A year after the slaughter, the Foreign Office sent a letter to an international inquiry saying that it still did not accept the term genocide, seeing discussion on whether the massacres constituted genocide as "sterile".

All this information is in the public domain and has been brilliantly pieced together by journalist Linda Melvern in her book A People Betrayed. There has been virtual complete silence by the media and academics. An article just published in the journal African Affairs, by Melvern and Paul Williams of the University Birmingham, appears to be the only academic analysis of Britain's role in the slaughter.

Open defiance of the UN is a permanent feature of British foreign policy. In the last twenty-five years of the cold war, 1965-1990, Britain cast twice as many vetoes in the security council as the Soviet Union - twenty-seven compared to thirteen, mainly to support the racist regimes in South Africa and Rhodesia from the application of full international sanctions. I can find no mention of this fact anywhere in the mainstream political culture, which continues to promote the myth of Britain's enduring support for the UN.

Entering the New Labour years, since coming into power in 1997, Labour ministers, especially Tony Blair, have been ceaselessly making extraordinary claims about the morality of their foreign policies and their desire to be a "force for good in the world". Never before has the public of a democratic country been subject to such an extraordinary ongoing tirade of propaganda. For the reality is that the government is, quite generally, promoting policies that are directly opposite to this rhetoric - policies that systematically undermine human rights, the prospects for international cooperation, fair trade and international development.

The invasion of Iraq in March 2003 was nothing unusual, certainly historically, nor even compared to Blair's other foreign policies. By then, the Blair government had already indulged in six specific violations of inter-national law: in conducting without UN authorisation the wars in Yugoslavia (1999) and Afghanistan (2001); in committing violations of international humanitarian law in the bombing of Yugoslavia; in the illegal bombing of Iraq in December 1998; in main-taining the illegal "no fly zones" over Iraq, a permanent "secret" war; and in maintaining sanctions against Iraq, which over the previous decade contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.

Robert Cooper, a British diplomat despatched by Blair to become special envoy in Afghanistan, has written that "inter-national order is created by force, preserved by force and backed by the threat of force". He added that "questions about whether it is legal or not seem - at this stage in world history, at least - merely pedantic". The outlaw state under Blair is acting according to these concerns - that the world will continue to be ruled by force, and that it will be our force rather anyone else's.

The principally Anglo-American war in Afghanistan was much more brutal than is conventionally believed, with apparent deliberate US attacks on civilians, clearly war crimes. The one dominating fact about the war is surely that more - probably far more - people were killed in the bombing than on September 11th, which provided its supposed rationale. But this fact has not noticeably upset the view across the mainstream political culture that Britain and the US were justified in bombing the world's poorest country in retaliation.

Sanctions against Iraq, championed solely by Britain and the US, killed more Iraq children per month than were killed in the horrific attacks on September 11th. Yet these sanctions, described by former UN coordinators for Iraq as "illegal and immoral", have been largely forgotten in the mainstream, as the British political culture has acquiesced in the slaughter of a generation of Iraqis. Former UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq Denis Halliday resigned in protest over sanctions and has since said that "this policy constitutes genocide and Washington and London are a deliberate policy to destroy the people of Iraq...We are in the process of destroying an entire society."

Or consider what I think is one of the great scandals of British academia - the failure to say anything whatsoever about the Chagossians. Beginning in 1968, the Chagossians were flung off their homeland islands in the Indian Ocean to make way for a US military base. Some were tricked into leaving on the promise of a free voyage; others physically removed. The Chagos islands - formally known as the British Indian Ocean Territory - includes Diego Garcia, from which US bombers have attacked Iraq and Afghanistan and where Al Qaida suspects are being held in circumstances even more secret than in Cuba.

The islanders have long campaigned for compensation and the right to return, outside of significant international attention. But the Blair government set itself against the Chagossians and its sustained legal campaign has just been rewarded with a High Court ruling that the Chagossians' claim has "no reasonable grounds".

When Britain depopulated the islands, most of the Chagossians ended up living in the poverty-stricken slums of the Mauritian capital, Port Louis. Some died of starvation in the early years of exile and many, without livelihoods or hope, committed suicide. Many in the Chagossian community, now numbering around 8,000, continue a life in poverty.

The giant lie at the heart of British policy was that the Chagossians were never permanent inhabitants of the islands but simply "contract labourers". Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart wrote to Harold Wilson in a secret 1969 note that "we could continue to refer to the inhabitants generally as essentially migrant contract labourers and their families" and that it would be helpful "if we can present any move as a change of employment for contract workers.rather than as a population resettlement". This set the policy and seven successive British governments maintained the fiction.

Until a few months ago, visitors to the Foreign Office website were told that there were "no indigenous inhabitants" on the islands. Then the wording suddenly changed and now acknowledges that there was a "settled population" - 35 years since the beginning of the depopulation, the truth has quietly been admitted.

Yet the policy has not changed. The Blair government continues to fight the Chagossians in court and in other, more back-handed ways. In a landmark victory in November 2000, the high court ruled that "the wholesale removal" of the islanders was an "abject legal failure" and that they could return to the small outlying islands in the group but not the largest island, Diego Garcia.

This was a nightmare for British and US planners, and Whitehall immediately seemed intent on defying it. It dragged out the process of studying island resettlement, and then concluded that resettlement was infeasible anyway. A Foreign Office memo to a parliamentary enquiry stated that resettlement of the outlying islands would be "impractical and inconsistent with the existing defence facilities". It added that "our position on the future of the territory will be determined by our strategic and other interests and our treaty commitments to the USA". The memo said nothing about the government's obligations to the rights of the islanders.

The government has succeeded in staving off its worse nightmare - the Chagossians' return to Diego Garcia itself. This means that access to Diego Garcia will continue to be "controlled strictly and will be by permit only". Thus London will continue to require the deported inhabitants to have a special permit to visit their homeland. And US and British navies will continue to patrol the waters surrounding Diego Garcia to ensure that no-one gets near.

Can anyone here tell me why this episode is not generally known to students of British foreign policy (or indeed the general public) and why it has been the subject of precisely none - as far as I am aware - academic studies?

Key allies of the Blair government with whom arms and trade continue as normal are among the most repressive regimes in the world, such as Turkey - responsible for atrocities against Kurds on far greater scale than even the Saddam regime in recent years; and Saudi Arabia - where human rights organisations are banned, along with any political opposition.

Another of Tony Blair's greatest current allies is Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Blair-Putin relationship is one of the most extraordinary in recent British foreign policy, claimed by the Foreign Office as a great success. Ever since Moscow's intervention in Chechnya in September 1999, Britain has been complicit in some of the worst horrors of our time.

The city of Grozny was ferociously bombed from November 1999 to February 2000. Most people had left by then but between 20,000 and 40,000 remained, many too poor or sick to leave. This terror provoked British leaders to go through only the mildest motions of protest. Rather, while Grozny was being flattened, Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon said that "engaging Russia in a constructive bilateral defence relationship is a high priority for the government" and that "we wish to continue to develop an effective defence relationship with Russia". Since then mass executions of civilians, arbitrary detention of Chechen males, systematic beatings, torture and, on occasions, rape have been ongoing.

After September 11th, Britain, NATO and the EU have virtually abandoned even the pretence of concern at continuing Russian atrocities in Chechnya. The following month, Blair exuded praise for Putin in unprecedented terms, saying in Moscow that "I would like to pay tribute to the strength and leadership of President Putin at this time". Britain and Russia were "working through problems in the spirit of friends and true partners". No wonder that in December 2001, Putin could say of Russia's attempts to deal with terrorism (meaning Chechnya) that "we felt and we saw and we knew that our voice was being heard, that the UK wanted to hear us and to understand us and that indeed we were being understood".

London defends Moscow's line of fighting terrorism even when evidence has emerged of Russian security services involvement in the Moscow bombings that provided the pretext for invading Chechnya. Various prominent figures have provided evidence of official involvement.

The deceit maintained by Whitehall is that it lacks levers to press Russia to stop the worst abuses. The media has played along with the lie that the only option is all-out war with Russia. In fact, there is 30 million annual British aid; military assistance and training; exports worth around 300 million and imports of 700 million; and a line of 500 million in export credit guarantees for exporters to Russia. Britain is the fifth largest foreign investor in Russia and signed a trade and investment agreement in 1997. Rather than pressing Moscow, London has been stepping up contacts, especially with the Russian military.

It appears that the "war against terrorism" is being used by Britain, and the US, as a cover for a new phase of global intervention, similar to the cover provided by the "Soviet threat". The British military is enhancing its "power projection" capabilities and now has a "new focus on expeditionary warfare", a process that was beginning before 11 September 2001 but which is now justified by it. The extraordinary new phase of British military intervention under Blair is intended largely to secure the same basic goals as have motivated British foreign policy throughout the postwar era and are thus, sadly, consistent with a long, dark recent history.

Inevitably, the policies I have outlined are selective, and I am illustrating that the assertion that British foreign policy is motivated by concerns to promote human rights, democracy and other virtues is simply nonsense and an act of faith, or self-delusion.

Just as the past reality of policy has been ideologically treated or ignored by academics, so current foreign policy generally appears subject to the same processes. A good example of current mainstream analysis of foreign policy is provided in a recent prominent book called New Labour's Foreign Policy, edited by a professor of international politics and a senior lecturer in politics at Bristol University, published in 2000 by Manchester University Press. In its 15 chapters and nearly 300 pages, there is no mention of British support for Turkish aggression against the Kurds, of apologias for Russian atrocities in Chechnya, of the Chagos islands, of Whitehall's support for Saudi Arabia, Oman or other Gulf states, of the Blair's government extraordinary policy of siding with Israel in the Israel-Palestine conflict, or of Labour's equally extraordinary support for global economic liberalisation, especially trade liberalisation that is deepening poverty in the developing world. In short, there is not even mention of what I would consider as among the most important British policies.

The tone for the rest is set in chapter one, which accepts that the Blair government was motivated by concerns with human rights and wanted to pursue an 'ethical foreign policy' - as I mentioned at the beginning, taking seriously the proclamations of policy-makers which sets the framework of analysis. The chapter then makes repeated references to these assumptions about "the ethical dimension to Labour's foreign policy" and "the government's new approach to foreign policy" before arguing that the government did not wholly live up to this grand goal, for example in its arms exports to countries like Indonesia.

This chapter states - and I will go on to analyse this comment - that "after [Robin] Cook's initial enthusiasm on entering office, Labour's determination to ensure that there was an ethical dimension to foreign policy proved problematic and controversial. Much more substantively, several of Labour's initiatives proved to be disappointing in their ethical content". (pp.19-21)

This is a somewhat typical analysis of British foreign policy from within the liberal mainstream. First, it accepts the proclaimed goals of planners that they seek to promote the most lofty of goals, in this case human rights, saying even that they were "determined" to pursue such goals. Yet, by the most basic of reasoning, do such academics really believe that government statements about their goals are credible? Second, it provides an irrational or unexplained reason for not achieving these lofty goals, saying in this case that they proved "problematic and controversial". Isn't the obvious reason why human rights goals were not pursued across the board that the government never had any such intention?

Third, saying simply that some policies "proved to be disappointing in their ethical content" is surely the mildest rebuke possible for a government which, in my view, has become an outlaw state in its numerous violations of international law and other policies. Fourth, the examples given of where the government strayed from pursuing otherwise grand principles are few and far between, in this case almost solely the issue of arms to Indonesia, giving the appearance of an 'exception' to an otherwise fine rule. Just to emphasise - this is a liberal, more critical perspective than many.

I admit I am personally motivated by moral concerns in my research, especially the abuse of human rights, and I would frankly expect academics, since we are all human, to be primarily motivated by similar concerns. But even if I am generally wrong in this hope, as I fear I might be, the failure of British academia goes well beyond this - simply, basic facts and whole episodes of this country's real role in the world are unknown to students and therefore, as far as I am aware, simply not being analysed or taught. Overall, British academia is guilty of a great betrayal of its role, quite generally delivering not education but ignorance to the next generation.

In conclusion, I have deliberately generalised about "mainstream academia" while of course there are some independent academics in various departments around the country undertaking excellent analyses, such as at this university. It is not that no excellent work is taking place, just that it is to my knowledge few and far between, often marginalised and dwarfed by the mainstream. A new network has recently been established by staff in the politics department at the University of Bristol called NASPIR - the network of scholars of politics and international relations - to share research on mainly foreign policy issues and promote learning among academics committed to independent analysis and positive social change. This is an important initiative and is badly needed.

I hope that more students and more existing academics will be inspired to use their privileged position to assert their independence, meaning to look more at the issues that really matter, to reveal much more of the horrible truths about our world, especially those involving the British government, and to challenge power rather than to serve it.

Mark Curtis is a former Research Fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House and the author of Web of Deceit: Britain's Real Role in the World, Vintage, London, 2003, The Great Deception: Anglo-American Power and World Order, Pluto, London, 1998 and The Ambiguities of Power: British Foreign Policy since 1945, Zed, London, 1995. He has worked for international development NGOs for the past ten years and will take up the post of Director of the World Development Movement in June 2004.

Mark Curtis is the author of Web of Deceit: Britain's Real Role in the World, published by Vintage, 2003. Email -