Wednesday, October 06, 2004

We don’t like your friends

Both the Telegraph and the Times today run stories on the oil-for-food scandal. Interestingly, as far as I can see, the story is not covered either by the Independent or the Guardian, the respective coverage – or lack thereof – perhaps reflecting the left-right biases of the journals, and the reluctance of the left-wing to attack its darling United Nations.

The Telegraph homes in on the UN, reporting that one of its inspectors "took £60,000 Iraq bribes", while Bronwen Maddox in The Times does a more reflective piece, but nevertheless fingers the UN.

Both papers also report French and Russian – and in the case of the Times, also the Chinese – complicity in blocking attempts to bring the scheme under control, but the references are so low-key that you have a hard time spotting them.

Perhaps it is either unfashionable or just too contentious to remind people just quite how unreliable the French are as our allies, but one does feel that the media ought to be doing a better job of reminding us of the perils of relying on them, or even associating with them at all on a formal basis.

From out of left field recently came just such a reminder, not from any politician but from the unlikely figure of Harry Stonecipher, chief executive of Boeing. Better known for his rĂ´le in the Boeing-Airbus dispute, he was in Paris recently to open the offices of his company’s French subsidiary, when he had some cautionary words for the UK.

There were concerns in the United States, he said, over the handling of military information, concerns that had prevented the United Kingdom being granted access to non-classified US defence technology. "There are some real issues in terms of how people handle data, how they distribute data, who their friends are, who they share it with." The UK itself was not considered a security threat, but there were "people who don’t like the way data is handled, where it gets passed to".

With it now common knowledge that US military technology is leaking to China via France – with the UK as a possible, if unwitting intermediary – we are beginning to see co-operation opportunities with the US being closed down.

In an attempt at damage limitation, the UK recently tightened its own defence export rules, in the hope of getting an exemption from the stringent US rules on expert of their technology, but the move failed to impress the US Congress, which, increasingly, is tending to regard the UK as a hostile power.

All this seems to be happening unnoticed by the UK media but, as we get more involved with European defence projects and get further embedded in European defence co-operation, are risking further isolation from the US. The pity of it is that this is happening not as a result of a deliberate political decision to favour either "Europe" or the US, but is the result of drift.

The concern is that technological progress is now driving the political agenda, forcing decisions to be made as to who our friends are. In the absence of our making those decisions, they are being made for us. And the criterion is very simple – people in power in the US are saying, "We don't like your friends".

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