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by Euro Reporter
2014-08-05 11:52:20
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Lights go out across Britain, 100 years on from World War One

Lights across Britain switched off for an hour on Monday night in a tribute to the dead of World War One inspired by the prophetic observation of Britain's foreign minister on the eve of war 100 years ago.  "The lamps are going out all over Europe," Edward Grey told an acquaintance, shortly before Britain declared war on Germany on Aug. 4, 1914. "We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime." British landmarks, including the Houses of Parliament, Tower Bridge and St Paul's Cathedral, went dark from 10 p.m. local time (2100 GMT), and Prime Minister David Cameron had asked Britons to switch off all but a single light in their homes for an hour. The "war to end all wars" spread carnage across Europe, especially northern France and Belgium, killing 17 million soldiers and civilians in 1914-18. Over one million of the dead were soldiers from Britain and its then empire. Grey's prophecy was also at the centre of a service in London's Westminster Abbey later on Monday, where candles went out one by one until only a burning oil lamp remained at the Grave of the Unknown Warrior.

At 11 p.m., the lamp was extinguished, marking the exact time the British Empire joined the war. In Trafalgar Square, one single light shone from an old police box.  Acting as beacon for the capital, a monumental pillar of light beamed into the clouds from Victoria Tower Gardens. Installation "spectra" by Japanese artist Ryoji Ikeda was commissioned by 14-18 NOW, the official cultural programme for the centenary, and will fade away as the sun rises over the London skyline on Aug. 11. "The light that 'spectra' throws up into the night sky is a unifying point; it echoes how the First World War affected all Londoners, but also how they and the rest of the country came together, standing united during those dark days," Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, said in a statement. Moths darted across the beams, giving the work, which was accompanied by a sound composition, an ethereal twinkling. A black cab stopped in the middle of a busy road next to the park so its driver could lean from his window to capture the column on a mobile phone. "It's like something biblical," one woman exclaimed, as other spectators wandered between the lights. Prime Minister Cameron and Prince William, second in line to the throne, attended 100th anniversary ceremonies in Scotland and Belgium on Monday. Speaking at an event in Liège, William paid tribute to those who died. He noted that the current fighting in Ukraine showed that instability continues to stalk Europe.

"We were enemies more than once in the last century and today we are friends and allies," the prince said, alluding to Germany and its cohorts in the First and Second World War. "We salute those who died to give us our freedom. We will remember them," he told Belgium's King Philippe and other heads of state attending the Liège ceremony at the Allies' Memorial, near to where German troops invaded Belgium in the early hours of Aug. 4, 1914 - the event which brought Britain into the war. Commemorations in Germany are understated, with no national initiative to remember the war. But Germans have been encouraged to place flowers on soldiers' graves and many local, small-scale efforts marked the anniversary. In Munich's city centre, a white hot-air balloon was tethered to the ground as a symbol of hope and peace, and artist Martin Schmidt installed his work "Kraterfeld" - a lawn littered with craters and small bumps, replicating the shell explosions and trenches in landscape around Verdun, northeast France. Politicians and royalty from 83 countries, including presidents Francois Hollande of France and Joachim Gauck of Germany, were among those in Belgium. In Glasgow, Scotland, Cameron was joined by heir-to-the-throne Prince Charles at a centenary service. "When you think that almost every family, almost every community was affected, almost a million British people were lost in this war, it is right that even 100 years on, we commemorate it, we think about it and we mark it properly," the Conservative prime minister told the BBC earlier on Monday. The war's most enduring symbol, poppies, featured at the Tower of London with an art installation called "Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red," by Paul Cummins, in which thousands of ceramic poppies flow from the medieval monument's wall into the dry moat. The artwork will grow throughout the summer until 888,246 poppies have been added to represent each British or colonial fatality during the war - more than double the number of Britain's casualties in World War Two.

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Small-scale vision is right for post-imperial Britain

Does America Need a Foreign Policy? asked the title of a book by Henry Kissinger in 2001. It turned out to be a cheeky ruse to lure readers in. The answer was yes, don’t be silly, and weeks later terrorist attacks on the east coast gave rise to an unmistakable foreign policy, even if it strayed from the august US diplomat’s realist counsel. It says something about modern Britain that a similar title concerning its own foreign policy would be more than a retail gimmick. It would cause reflection, and more answers in the negative than could have been imagined a generation ago. And it should. Britain is increasingly accused of lacking an international strategy, and therefore a “role in the world”, in a scolding tone suggesting we all know why this is a bad thing. David Cameron is said to be directionless abroad, a spectral presence in such large areas as Russia and the Middle East, with an EU policy forced on him by his ornery backbenchers. Ed Miliband, the prime minister’s Labour opponent, is suspected of conflating statesmanship with roving partisan opportunism. The problem with these criticisms is not their accuracy. This government really does live hand to mouth. It came to power with blueprints to revive the Commonwealth, a weird Tory obsession that predictably came to nought. It had no intention to reopen the Europe question but ended up committing to a renegotiation of membership and a referendum. Its reticence on the abysmal plight of Libya could make you forget that it intervened there just three years ago. There is no Cameron Doctrine, unless making it up as you go along is a doctrine. And anyone who seriously expects a more strategic approach from Mr Miliband, with his strange brew of passivity (on Syria) and do-somethingism (on Israel), possesses a special kind of optimism.

But what if this does not matter all that much? What if Britain’s smallness of vision is not down to a second-rate generation of politicians, reared on peace and complacency, but a fatalistic generation who know that their country can no longer influence world events? Would it be any wiser to emulate the clarity of Tony Blair, who gave Britain well-defined goals – to become a central actor in the EU, to stop the acquisition by rogue states of the most destructive weaponry – but also an illusory sense of its own capacity to achieve them all? British foreign policy is not what it was because British power is not what it was. Grand strategy makes less sense for a country that is, though still militarily formidable and well represented in global institutions, slowly becoming one medium-sized power among many. The fiscal crisis is now the inescapable fact of government, and it has brought cuts to the armed forces and the diplomatic corps that will continue for years. One minister acknowledges that, whatever the government’s official projections, the army could fall below the symbolic level of 80,000 troops. Ahead of a Nato summit in Wales, Mr Cameron has asked other member nations to show the alliance “means business” by increasing their defence budgets to the target of 2 per cent of gross domestic product. The real question is whether Britain itself will continue to spend at that level.

Professor Lawrence Freedman, a British academic, has written that strategy is about “getting more out of a situation than the starting balance of power would suggest”. Britain’s starting balance of power is diminishing. It does not need a foreign policy, if that means an overarching mission or a take on the world. What it needs are foreign policies. It must know what it wants in specific areas of vital interest – these need not cohere into some grand narrative to please the windbags of diplomacy – and be prepared to let the rest go. This means an EU policy, something both the government and the opposition have. (We may question the wisdom of these policies but it is another thing to pretend they do not exist.) Then there are the EU’s volatile borders, including Ukraine, where Britain currently has a view but, for unavoidable reasons of geography more than anything else, a less than central role. Beyond these hinterlands, Britain should feel no duty to summon words, much less deeds, for the sake of it. That includes the Middle East. Unless Britain can be confident of making a material difference, mute vigilance is a respectable posture. It is also the only affordable one. It is true that Britain, with its open economy, has an interest in the preservation of a rules-based liberal order across the world, just as it did in 1914. The country does actually have a role in the world, and it is that of host. It is a nexus for global flows of capital and people, and makes its living this way. But a century ago it had the power to uphold this world system. Even 50 years ago, its thumb on the scales could tip things this way or that. That is less true now. Big-picture foreign policy was right for a great empire, and for one of an oligopoly of powers. For modern Britain, it is both vain and in vain.

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Britain is shamed by crisis in the Middle East

Sadly the First World War and the ongoing crisis in the Middle East are linked in a way that shames the British state. The current suffering of the Palestinian people can be directly traced to the cynical and botched Balfour Declaration of 1917.  In January 1917 British troops fighting the Turks - allies of Germany - in the Middle East started their conquest of Palestine. This led to the idea of the creation of a Palestinian national home for the Jewish people, and that was the basic concept of the Balfour Declaration.  Superficially, it was a noble idea, but it did not take into account the needs, interests and aspirations of the Palestinians. In 1917 there were around 90,000 Jews living in Palestine - and more than 500,000 Arabs.  But then, and for many years afterwards, the Arabs lacked effective leadership, despite the romantic posturing of T E Lawrence. They could not present a coherent riposte to the Declaration. In the context of the First World War the British saw the Arabs as useful, because they were fighting the Turks. But the idea of an embryonic Jewish state in Palestine seemed a snub to the Arabs, to put it gently.

Arthur Balfour and David Lloyd George, the British architects of the Declaration, were distinguished statesmen and their intentions were decent. They believed they were extracting something benign from the mayhem and carnage of the most hideous war in history. Lloyd George apparently thought that the Balfour Declaration was the most positive single legacy of that war. But the problems in implementing the Declaration were huge, and barely understood by the tired imperial power that was Britain. Many of the consequences were not foreseen as they should have been. The current, continuing mess is a direct result of this bungling and interference by far-away imperialists, including Winston Churchill.  Even in the early years of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, Zionists within Germany thought that both Nazis and Zionists could manage to work together peacefully to encourage Jewish emigration to Palestine. In retrospect it can almost look as if the project to create a Jewish homeland in the Middle East was to solve a supposed European "problem" rather than to help the Jews. As for the Arabs, no-one seemed to care very much about them. The Arab interest was undoubtedly a secondary consideration as the project to create a new Jewish state developed.  The slaughter of six million Jews in Nazi Germany was the worst crime in human history and it can be offensive to look for any good coming from it, but it did give momentum to the idea of creating a Jewish state. Even after the Second World War officially ended in 1945, the Palestine project continued to be botched. Britain had tried to hold the peace in what was to become Israel but it did not have the resources or the will to sort a problem it had created, so the British troops withdrew.

This led some to ask if the British had any concern for the interests, even the basic safety, of the Palestinian people. Arabs were not granted their due rights and safeguards as the new Jewish national home rightly and justly developed into a fully fledged state.  Denied effective representation, the Arabs were displaced. By the 1950s, supposedly a decade of much-needed peace, the seeds of intense and continuing conflict had been well and deeply sown. Yet the Arabs in Palestine still lacked coherent leadership. The emergence of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and an effective leader in Yasser Arafat, changed everything. Few western statesmen trusted Arafat and even among his own he was regarded with widespread suspicion, but he sustained the Palestinian cause. The PLO was based in Jordan, and was eventually expelled, but the Palestinian cause now had a focus and an authentic commander. Unfortunately he increasingly saw terrorism as the best way forward. While it is wrong to blame the British for every twist and turn in this sorry saga, Britain's culpability is nonetheless real and current.

Harry Reid (Herald Scotland)

 


    
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