Growing up in the deeply uncool Dublin of the early 1980s, I became fascinated by images of rain and mud beamed into my family’s home on BBC news bulletins. Those were the conditions which the women of Greenham Common peace camp endured in their noble quest to remove weapons of mass destruction from British soil and eventually from the entire world.
Almost 30 years later, my admiration for those activists remains undimmed. The intensity of that admiration is surpassed, though, by the anger I feel towards people who used to support the peace camp but have since abandoned their principles for political expediency and personal gain.
Take Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s first foreign minister. During her recent confirmation hearing in the European Parliament, she was quizzed about the job she once held as a treasurer with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
Faced with unproven claims, made by the particularly vile and reactionary Tory MEP Charles Tannock, that CND was financed by the Soviet Union, Ashton rightly refused to apologise for her past. Nonetheless, she tried to distance herself from it by underscoring how she was young then, and implying she had long grown out of that idealistic phase.
As if feeling that some kind of atonement is needed, Ashton’s most important statements in her new role have sent a bellicose signal towards Iran. The rank hypocrisy of her position must not be allowed to go unchallenged.
Her elevation to the House of Lords and her subsequent move to Brussels are almost entirely due to her close links with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. She has not said one word – in public, at least – that is critical of how Britain is pursuing the Trident programme (albeit with an apparent willingness to scale back its original plans) in what appears to be flagrant violation of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. So what moral authority does she have to threaten Iran over its nuclear ambitions?
Much has been made of Ashton’s inexperience in international diplomacy. But I regard that inexperience as far less troubling than how she has tried to compensate for it by turning to some of the most elitist figures in the Brussels bureaucracy for counsel.
The team helping her assemble the EU’s new diplomatic service includes Robert Cooper among its members. Now one of the Union’s top politico-military strategists, Cooper was Tony Blair’s chief confidant on foreign policy until 2002.
After helping pave the way for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (though Cooper was no longer in London when the latter war was declared, he assisted Blair during its preparatory stages), he explained his worldview in the equally erudite and accessible book The Breaking of Nations.
It suggested that a new ethos of imperialism, which emphasises voluntary action over coercion, should be developed for the 21st century. Cooper cited the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund as institutions that provide “a limited form of voluntary empire”, without expressing any concern about the misery they have inflicted on the world’s poor by insisting that governments serve the interests of the markets, rather than those of their own citizens.
Cooper has close contacts with some of the more hawkish US representatives in Europe. In 2008, he wrote a pamphlet with Ronald Asmus, Brussels director with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and an inveterate defender of Israeli aggression. Cooper’s contribution to that pamphlet displayed how he is in awe of American hegemony. “What is the point of the Belgian army today?” he asked. “It is not to defend Belgium, since no one is going to attack it. Rather it is to demonstrate a sufficient commitment to ‘the West’ that friends and allies, above all the USA, will be there if ever Belgium should need help.”
By relying on people like Cooper, Ashton is ensuring that the key decisions about European security and foreign policy will be taken in the Pentagon and the White House. The likelihood that she will distinguish the EU from America by stressing that Europe values human rights or social cohesion above economic or military might appears non-existent.
Other members of the team surrounding Ashton have displayed contempt for democracy. Catherine Day, the Irishwoman who is secretary-general of the European Commission, spent several months last year trying to bludgeon her compatriots into accepting the Lisbon Treaty, even though they had previously rejected it in a referendum. And veteran French diplomat Pierre de Boissieu has been instrumental in ushering in a single currency in much of Europe. Conceived by bankers and industrialists, the fiscal discipline demanded by this project has led to austerity measures affecting millions of people – most recently in Greece.
With friends like these guiding her, Ashton could soon have far more to apologise for than what she did in her younger years.