Mark Curtis, 'Web of Deceit: Britain's Real Role in the World'

IssueSeptember - November 2003
Review by Matt

The reality of US foreign policy has been dissected by a large range of analysts (Gabriel Kolko, Michael Klare, etc) but the grim realities of British foreign policy appear to have received comparatively little attention. Mark Curtis is one of the few to have subjected Britain's post-WWII role to proper critical scrutiny.

The basic thesis of Web of Deceit is that “Britain's basic priority - virtually its raison d'etre for several centuries - is to aid British companies in getting their hands on other countries' resources” and that the policies of British elites are “helping to make the world more insecure, unequal and abusive of human rights”.

These conclusions will not surprise most Peace News readers. However what is impressive about Web of Deceit is its broad sweep and the huge array of evidence - including declassified government files housed at the Public Records Office - that it presents to support its claims.

The book is divided into four parts. In part one Curtis examines Britain's relations with Iraq, Kosov@, Afghanistan, Israel, Russia and the US, and New Labour's policy on arms exports. In part two Curtis examines Britain's role in promoting what he terms “liberalisation theology”, as well as Britain's “forgotten past” in the Middle East, supporting corrupt and repressive elites - a policy which persists to this day.

Part three uses declassified documents to examine Britain's role in the overthrow of governments in Iran and British Guiana and Britain's brutal counter-insurgency wars in Kenya and Malaya. Finally, part four examines the role of the media, British complicity in mass murder in Indonesia, and the ongoing outrage of Diego Garcia (whose indigenous population was dispossessed in order to turn the island into a US bomber base).

Curtis's passionate outrage is palpable throughout.

In his final chapter Curtis offers some brief prescriptions for what a truly “ethical” foreign policy might look like. However he is under no illusions that effecting such change will be easy. Indeed in Curtis's view no fundamental improvement in foreign policy will take place unless policy-making is transformed from “elitist, secretive and totalitarian [as it is at present] to popular, open and democratic”. Consequently, “establishing democracy in Britain, alongside deepening the sense of global interdependence among people, is the big challenge in transforming Britain's foreign policy”.

If Curtis's book manages to open a few more eyes to these realities he will have performed a valuable service.

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