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  • Britain a “Great Power”?

    Posted by Lexington Green on January 31st, 2003 (All posts by )

    Iain Murray cites to this essay by Christopher Caldwell in the current Spectator. Caldwell’s rhetorical query is whether Britain is a “Great Power” or not. He concludes that Blair’s leadership has led Britain to a closer relationship with the United States, both in terms of public popularity, and in high-level contacts, which has in turn allowed Britain access to advanced U.S. military technology. On this basis, Caldwell appears to answer his own question with a pretty firm, “yes”.

    However, I think that the situation is actually a lot better for Britain than Caldwell makes it out to be. He casts Britain almost exclusively as an adjunct to American power. However, his use of the shorthand term “Great Power” is not consistent with this characterization. The image the phrase conveys is one of Castlereagh at the Congress of Vienna, or Lloyd at Versailles, or Churchill at Yalta – Britain as a peer in a militarily multipolar world. That type of status has not existed for a long time. Britain has been, and is, an important country even if it is not a true peer of the most powerful country of the day. Britain rarely ruled by raw muscle, even in its greatest days, but was rather a country which played a relatively weak hand extraordinarily well. I read recently that in 1900, Britain ruled 100+ million people in India with something like 100,000 people, military, civil government, and civilians. Chutzpah and discipline more than muscle built the Empire on the subcontinent. Britain amassed a global empire and managed to make money out of parts of it, something the other Europeans never really managed, and they did it on the cheap, both in terms of money and manpower. Britain spent even its most powerful decades in mortal dread of a single European power amassing enough population and economic might to swamp them – and managed again and again to be the banker and arsenal and safe haven and coalition manager for whoever was at odds with the leading land power in Europe. For centuries Britain preserved its role as offshore arbiter. But it was always outclassed in terms of brute strength by the various would-be European hegemons. So the current situation has been one of degree more than of kind. For the last 50 or 60 years we have had, successively, bipolarity during the cold war, and we now appear to have unipolarity. But even unipolarity is not “divinity”, as Charles Krauthammer pithily puts it, and other countries besides the United States are important actors. It should be no surprise to us that Britain has managed to make the most of this situation, as it usually has out of whatever situation of (relative) weakness it has faced.

    Caldwell is right that Britain under Blair has managed to ingratiate itself with the United States. However he is wrong to focus so much on this aspect of the relationship, as if Tony Blair were primarily a clever salesman. That is not really it. Any number of countries would like to be the “best pal” of the United States. It is only Tony Blair who was in the gallery when Bush spoke to Congress after the September 11 attacks, and it is Blair whom Bush will be meeting with prior to the upcoming blitzkreig against Saddam’s regime in Iraq. If, say, Aznar or Berlusconi had been invited to be at either of these two events, they’d have come. But Blair, i.e. Britain, was the power the United States turned to, not any of the others. The “special relationship”, especially when the United States is looking for assistance, does actually exist. The Anglo-American alliance which has lasted through many travails over many decades continues to exist despite greatly changed circumstances. Why?

    It is not, at least not much, a matter of sentimentality. There certainly is some sentiment involved. Those who are historically-minded remember our countries’ joint efforts in world wars and the Cold War. There are many ties of blood and marriage and personal contact between many here and many in Britain, obviously enough, going back four centuries. There are a certain number of Americans who are Anglophiles, some of whom are influential. And some of us will remember until we die the Queen of England having the Division of Guards play the Star Spangled Banner after 9/11. Queen Elizabeth, say what you like about the monarchy generally, understands that hers is a formal and symbolic role, and that great and terrible moments demand grand, ceremonial gestures. If I ever had a moment of actual love for any country but my own it was that moment.

    But nations live in an anarchic world which is essentially a violent, merciless snake pit. Sentimentality can only go so far. The United States does not value Britain’s friendship and cooperation primarily due to sentiment. The United States values Britain because Britain is a very valuable ally in a dangerous world.

    It is interesting to read British bloggers and other commentators talking about their counry. The conservatives see the Autumnal hues of decay and decline. They always talk about their country as basically a “has been”, as a minor leaguer. Even the patriotic ones do this. They were raised on a diet of Corelli Barnett and of fading maps of lands marked in red, all lost. When I hear these people I think of Philip Larkin’s poem “Homage to a Goverment”. The statues remain, but the greatness is over. No matter how good things may be, the British conservatives live in the shadow of a seemingly greater past. One particularly clear example can be found in Alan Clark’s diaries. Clark was a genuine eccentric, and not particularly nice, but he was also a man of strong emotions who truly loved his country. But his was a love which was saturated with pain for something which is lost, or which is slipping away into nothing before his eyes. Clark constantly harks back to the soldiers who died in the trenches of World War I, the aircrews of Bomber Command going down in flames over Germany, the sense that Britain spent its substance in the great wars of the twentieth century, leaving only a husk. Clark is more articulate than most people, but this basic notion is probably common on the conservative side of the political spectrum in Britain. I think also the apparent failure of Thatcher to “revive” Britain (at least to the degree hoped for) has cast a shadow into the soul of British conservatives and Libertarians. They look to the past and find the present wanting, and look into the future with dread. British leftists, on the other hand see a future of Britain relinquishing its unique identity and history, and repudiating its former martial glory, its former world role, all of which they are ashamed of. They look at Britain’s past and see only racism and injustice and oppression and class division, an historical canvas only lightly dotted with a minority of “troublemakers” and Little-Englanders and trade unionists and Fabians whose heirs they imagine themselves to be. As to the future, the British left seeks the dissolution of the United Kingdom into its sub-parts, and the joinder of these fragments as medium-sized provinces to a socialist European entity.

    What these two political poles have in common is a perspective of permanent and inevitable decline and even termination of their nation, the conservatives with regret, the leftists with eagerness and malice and a spirit of revenge.

    Tony Blair is a curiosity in large part because he is not a declinist. He actually sees a dynamic role for Britain in the years ahead. He is, in this sense, the heir not of the Labor Party of Clement Atlee, that wound up the Raj in India, but of the older school of liberal imperialists like Henry Asquith who sought to use Britain’s wealth and influence to do good in the world, and in their Empire, in addition to accruing military, political and economic advantage, even at the cost of certain of those advantages. Blair is not embarrassed to hold out his country as basically good, with a past which is not entirely shameful, and as a positive example to the world. This kind of expansive liberal spirit, not crippled by self-doubt or self-loathing, has long been missing on the left, both here and in Britain, and it harks back to an earlier age. Blair is therefore at odds with his own party as well as with most of the conservatives at the same time. But Blair is actually more right than everybody else on this point. That Blair is right may be more apparent from the perspective of the United States than it is in Britain. Several thousand miles of salt water may provide a clearer perspective on this issue.

    Let’s just compile an “inventory” to demonstrate what I am talking about. In the sphere of hard power Britain has exceptionally large and capable military forces. It has a navy which can project power thousands of miles from home. It has able, disciplined and well-equipped land-forces. Moreover, Britain has made a much larger commitment to technology and inter-operability with the United States military than any other country, and hence is able to work with the United States and make a significant and valued contribution to joint operations. Britain also has a special strong-suit in the key military capability of the age, special operations forces. Britain’s SAS and SBS are every bit as good as what the Americans have in this department. Also, the British have a long history and retain deep skills in “operations other than war”, such as peace-keeping, as well as in so-called low intensity operations, the “small wars” which have long been Britain’s forte, and which will be characteristic of the decades ahead. Britain is a nuclear power which is trusted with its nuclear weapons. No one loses any sleep worrying that the British Prime Minister will go insane and release his bombs. Britain has exceptional signals intelligence capability, with a long and unique history of close cooperation with the United States in this department. Britain has unusually good human intelligence assets all over the world, particularly in its former empire.

    Another hard power criterion is economic wherewithal. Again, Britain is a major player. It has, last I checked, the fourth largest economy in the world. It is, compared to its European neighbors, a much more dynamic country. However much Britain’s entrepreneurial spirit may have declined from a prior heyday, it is still much more enterprising than most other countries in the world. It is, as it has been for centuries, still a magnet for high-skilled immigrants from the Continent and from around the world. Similarly, it is a safe-haven for foreign capital. It is a technologically advanced country which does not have nearly the degree of Luddite-type resistance to change and innovation which one sees in Europe. Britain is, as it has been for centuries, one of the financial capitals of the world. By some measures, London is the premier center for finance in the world. Britain is, I have read, the largest foreign investor in the United States, and vice versa. This continues a centuries-long, deep link between the economies of our two nations. The business styles of the two countries, while different in many respects, are compatible. And Britain has extraordinary business connections and contacts all over the world, derived from its former Empire, as well as from centuries of ocean trade and serving as an entrepot for the world.

    Politically, Britain is exemplary. It is an extremely stable country. It has a functioning representative democracy and a politically mature populace. Elections happen on time and votes are accurately counted and peaceable changes of government occur as a matter of unremarkable course. It has, by world standards, honest and efficient courts.

    In terms of soft power, Britain is a first-rank player as well. It is still, by world standards, a free, open, liberal society. It has a vibrant media, with a free press and newspapers which runs all the way from the near-scholarly to the topless girl-next-door on page three. Britain is one of the beacons in the world of democracy, public order, legality and fair play. Britain is a cultural treasure house, a center for entertainment from the most sophisticated to the very vulgar indeed. And of course it is the founding homeland and a major participants in the world sports of soccer and cricket. Perhaps most importantly, Britain is the hearth and heartland of the lingua franca of the age, the English language, Britain’s greatest gift to the world, which will only become more dominant in the years ahead. The ongoing and increasing predominance of English in world culture and commerce will continue to provide many advantages to Britian in many arenas.

    Of course, none of the foregoing means that Britain has not been ruthless, cruel, greedy or duplicitous on many, many occasions. It does not mean that in the long annals of the rise and relative decline of Britain there have not been crimes and villainy aplenty. It does not mean that Britain is not a country which has daunting problems today, with a terrible increase in criminality and social disorder, for example, or a horrendous decline in educational standards. It does not mean that Britain’s respected military does not need much more money, and liberation from a stultifying political correctness which is undermining it. Nor does it mean that Britain does not face daunting hazards in the future. It does. Britain may yet suffer disasters which will futher reduce its significance in the world. It may be broken into pieces and subject to an unaccountable bureaucratic Fourth Reich run by the French and Germans from Brussels. That Orwellian scenario is on the outer reaches of the possible, but it is not sheer fantasy. And none of the foregoing means that Britain can ever aspire to being the dominant military and political power it briefly was during Victoria’s reign. It can’t. For better of for worse, the days of Palmerston, Disraeli and Gladstone are gone forever. But these are caveats, not the main story.

    So that is the balance sheet. Looking at the facts as objectively as one can, it is simply folly not to recognize that Britain is, now, today, in 2003, a major player, a powerful and important country which still has a significant role to play in the world, and that it can and should be a force for good in the world. Blair seems to realize this better than almost any of his countrymen. I hope they open their eyes and see what he sees.

    Britain is America’s most important ally. Tony Blair is George Bush’s most important foreign colleague. This is because, plainly and simply, Britain brings more to the table than anybody else does. The special relationship exists because Britain is worth having a special relationship with.

    To conclude, to use Caldwell’s term, however inapt it may be: Yes, Britain is a “great power”.