The United Kingdom once had a strong direct or indirect influence in just about every place on Earth. At some points in the past, you were probably never more than 100 miles away from the Empire.

This article is the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of the UK Defence Journal.

As we all know the story is very different today, since the 1950s the UK fast tracked decolonisation with a lot saying that the Hong Kong handover in 1997 officially ended the British Empire.

In a previous article I examined whether or not the American role on the world stage had indeed diminished. However this only looked at changes over the past two decades roughly. For this I will examine how Britain’s role has changed over the past two centuries and maybe even further.

Original British Dominance 1815-1850

Although the technical and nominal height of empire was just after World War One (where the UK occupied the most landmass it ever did) what I believe it’s true dominant height to be at was in fact just after 1815. Why? Simply because Britain at this time had no credible imperial opponent. The defeat of Napoleon saw the significant defeat of the only other rival European empire whereas after World War One the empire was living on borrowed time. A massive war debt owing to the US and a large debt of gratitude to her colonies for their help had left the UK running up a credit bill too unsustainable for the Empire.

The post Napoleonic years saw the British Empire rule by both carrot and stick. Where honest and peaceful means failed to further her interests, gunboat diplomacy ruled supreme. Whether you think of the Empire as beneficial or malevolent is irrelevant. It cannot be disputed that it’s reach into the world was so much so that it was impossible to go anywhere where the Empire didn’t have an interest.

The Doctrine of Pax Brittanica sealed the United Kingdom’s status as the supreme hegemon. Critics of the US’ Foreign Policy of trying to be a Global police force would faint should the US ever be remotely similar to what the UK was in terms of global policing. Imagine if the charter and principles of the UN were enforced solely by one singular nation’s army and navy – this was the idea behind Pax Brittanica.

The rise of the United States 1870-1914

While the doctrine of Pax Britannica was maintained until 1914 the global economic supremacy of the UK ended in the late 19th century as the US industrialised. Manufacturing skyrocketed to rival that of Britain and this was something that spelled the end of Britain’s complete economic dominance in the newly globalised world. While this made little difference militarily as the US maintained an isolationist stance it meant that when push came to shove and Europe began its fierce crusade against itself the United States would then be in a much stronger position to support its war effort.

Britain to the Rescue 1914-1916

The Shlieffen plan failed to factor one crucial point. The capability of Britain to so vermently defend France over a relatively small German infraction (the invasion of Belgium.) Without this it certainly would’ve succeeded. This intervention would supposedly reinforce the doctrine of Pax Brittanica but there is a reason why the doctrine ended in 1914 – it failed. The ensuing stalemate was a turning point in British relations with the world. It proved that it could not save the world on its own anymore and, as German behaviour under Hitler afterwards showed, the world did not necessarily have to do what Britain told it to do – with the result of catastrophic consequences.

America to the Rescue 1916-1918

Even though the United States alone didn’t win the First World War the fact it’s involvement just so tipped the balance in the allies’ favour cemented Anerican dominance on the world stage. Britain wasn’t the top dog anymore. This isn’t to say that the UK was downed and out. In fact it was quite the opposite. British inventions such as the tank and the aeroplane enhanced colonial policing after the First World War and as such was still an imperial superpower. However for the first time ever the United Kingdom was having to be solemnly grateful militarily to another nation. This was something that would make all the difference.

The Wounded but Victorius Gladiator of Europe 1918-1939

Like a wounded but victorious gladiator Britain emerged from World War One rejoycing in valour however not quite willing or wanting to fight again for a while.

This was a fairly new phenomenon for Britain as it was always ready to resort to powder and shot when diplomacy failed. But with just under over a million total deaths across the war years Britain was recoiling from the largest conflict it had seen and had no appetite for another. Afterwards it’s weariness for war saw it become a country first that oversaw the slapping of the wrist handed to the Germans. Through words, treaties and agreements Britain begun using something it had not yet had to use exclusively with no recourse. Soft Power. Neville Chamberlain’s recourse to appeasement affirmed this position. Britain wanted to coerce not with force, but with words. Sadly, as the following years were to prove, this would not in fact be “Peace in our time.”

This dynamic would be a model used in later post-WWII years where soft power is preferential to soft not due to a weariness of a catastrophic previous war but of war in general. Later in the inter-war period we would see Britain cowtow to appeasement out of weariness for war. America’s return to isolationism was to be one of the causes of the Second World War. Britain remained firm in the idea it did not want to stand up to anybody. Hitler’s Germany on the other hand was spoiling for a fight. Having revitalised it’s armed forces, thrown off the economic shackles of Versailles and reclaimed old land she was almost ready for round two. And like the wounded Roman gladiator Britain would once again be thrust into yet another brawl to the death.

Overstretched to capacity 1939-1945

World War Two was, simply put, the most testing time in British history. The same could be said for the entire world. However what the Second World War did was expose all the weaknesses and blind spots caused by two centuries of nearly unopposed empire building. Chief of which was how thinly spread the armed forces were across colonies around the globe. Any concentration of serious force against colonies that were far and wide resulted in British defeat – with a few exceptions. Even the smallest remnant of Pax Brittanica was long lost. Britain had long lost any credibility to defend her colonies from outside invasion and thus all credibility to remain their sovereign. As Hobbes wrote in Leviathan, the Sovereign must be able to defend its citizens to remain its rightful sovereign.

The Empire, crestfallen 1945-1979

As well as the pressures on empire from the war came a newfound desire from the United States for a decolonisation drive across the world (kindly making exceptions for colonies that they controlled such as Hawaii and Guam.) The British international dynamic was changing rapidly from the dominator to the dominated. This outlook of Britain being on the back foot culminated in the Suez Crisis of 1952. The huge war debts owed to America was held over the UK’s head to great effect. It embarrassed the empire and showed that Britain did not have the clout to sustain its overseas colonies anymore.

What was probably more poignant about this event was that for the first time, Britain had been forced to act against its will. This shift showed the depletion of empire and a change to another foreign policy approach. While the hard power of empire was gone Britain would become a model for the use of soft power with the Soviet Union and the Commonwealth.

Britain. The great partner and negotiator 1979-1991

Leaving aside the Falklands War as an isolated self defence response rather than a comprehensive change in foreign policy, one of the main highlights of Thatcher’s premiership was her stance on the deployment of cruise missiles and her ardent support given to the United States.

First of all Thatcher became a ringleader for the deployment of nuclear deterrent against the USSR while many believed we should disarm. Thatcher was heavily pro-American whatever the cost and this showed. When, as a result of her allowing US Jets to base themselves in England, UK based US Jets bombed Libya in 1986 she stood firm against critics and defended the US/UK alliance. This trend would continue through into the 90s and beyond.

As for the commonwealth, Britain played a major negotiating role in the Rhodesia crisis and the international reaction to South Africa’s political situation during the 80s and early 90s. A formidably stubborn leader in Thatcher and three equally stern Foreign Secretaries allowed Britain a lot of clout on the world stage heading into the 1990s.

John Major and the heated Atlantic 1992-1997

Climate change is nowadays commonly blamed for the heating of Atlantic sea waters but in the Major-Clinton years the reason for heated tension between Britain and the States was the fundamental disagreement between their two leaders.

After the Gulf War in the 90s, which was largely a result of the strong foreign policy postured by Thatcher, Britain was not so much involved in direct intervention as it would be later. The Major ministry refrained from military action in Bosnia against Bosnian Serbs and instead taking a position of Moral equivalency in the conflict. This contrasted with the United States’ role which did put pressure on the special relationship. It did not help further where quotes from Mrs Thatcher reminding the world that the UK would take the side of the their Atlantic partner no matter what were replaced by comments such as, “We work together when it is to our mutual advantage. We compete when it is not” from Major and from Clinton, when forgetting to mention the special relationship “How could I forget? The special relationship!” (he then rocked his head back and laughed.)

Britain, the world’s Deputy Sheriff 1997-2001

As I wrote in a previous article, the role of the United States as an interventionist agent increased massively in the 90s whether it be UN sanctioned missions in Somalia to unilateral actions such as Yugoslavia. Alongside this was the importance of the Anglo-American relationship. This relationship had become more and more tight-knit since the era of Thatcher-Raegan and this trend continued into the Blair-Clinton and Blair-Bush years. It was in this time that the relationship between Presidents and Prime Ministers came under more scrutiny. Generally relationships between Presidents and PMs were friendly, regardless of difference in political standpoint. “Atlanticism” became more permanent in the British political climate as Anti-Americanism was fading slowly. Indeed relations between the two mellowed substantially from the soured relations between John Major and his American opposite. In fact Blair worked alongside Clinton and Bush Jr in every way, be it in Kosovo or the second Iraq war later on.

I named this sub-heading as I did mainly because in this time because it is generally agreed that, while Britain went alongside what the United States did on the world stage, it did not follow their partner across the pond. This is a contrast to what Blair is remembered for in his second term. And I have named that section accordingly.

Britain, the United States’ poodle 2001-2010

Although controversial, I would say that it is indeed true that Blair followed blindly what Bush did in the first Iraq war especially. Although it was justified and logical, in my opinion, to depose the Taliban and scupper the threat of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, it certainly wasn’t in Iraq. The removal of Saddam Hussein was woefully prepared for and, in my opinion, ill justified. The lack of preparation, showed with the dreadful protection offered by the Snatch Land Rover, was damning to the British campaign. This gives the impression that, with the benefit of hindsight, the UK was blindly following in the US’ footsteps. Indeed, during the Blair years the clout of the UK on the world stage increased dramatically but it still remained in the shadow of its bigger brother.

The Cameron Years and liberal interventionism 2010-2016

David Cameron’s premiership was a turbulent and inconsistent time for British international foreign policy. During the Arab spring Cameron’s government was all too eager to get involved with the toppling of dictatorships – often with violent means. Whether it was the UK spearheading the fateful NATO charge into Libya or the involvement in supporting rebel groups in Syria, David Cameron wanted Britain to play an interventionist role. What he wanted to refrain from doing is placing boots on the ground. Or invade countries. Or occupy countries. He learned from Blair and Brown that a foreign policy that promotes extended military campaigns that bring back a high count of dead British servicemen is unacceptable in the British political landscape of the time. From this the Cameron doctrine was that of liberal intervention. Not directly involving British soldiers in the outcome of the war but instead by supporting who he saw as the desirable victor seemed appealing. It served British interests overseas without needlessly endangering British lives. The problem with this is that, like with all intervention, it had unforeseen consequences. The toppling of the Gaddafi can be considered by all to be an unmitigated disaster. Even now the ensuing power vacuum is showing no signs of being filled. Meanwhile the mix of lawlessness and exodus of civilians has lead to it becoming a major port for people smugglers. Not just smuggling Libyan citizens but citizens from all over Africa. Although Britain’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War wasn’t as much a catalyst for instability as Libya was, it can easily be argued that it hasn’t helped. Even by just 2013 the UK had given £8m worth of equipment to Syrian rebels and it’s unquestionable that at least some of that equipment has fallen into some less-than savoury characters.

To conclude this era of British International Relations history, we can say then that the shift in public opinion away from boots on the ground invasions signalled a change in means, but not goal. The United Kingdom still wanted to be a major interventionist player during this time but did not want to resort to putting British lives at risk.

Britain, the future? 2017 – 

Of course, it isn’t possible to predict the future. We can take a pretty good guess that the QE class carriers will reinstate some form of Naval importance. It gives the UKFCO and a symbolic tool in its arsenal to ramp up British involvement in an area – the South China Sea for example – just by setting course for that particular area. The tactical capabilities of the vessels when completed will be more than symbolic also – they could embolden any move to commit to airstrikes in the Middle East, for example.

As I mentioned earlier, there is no way of knowing what our role on the world stage could be next – it could change tomorrow. A different Government of the day. A new Foreign or Defence secretary. An unexpected world event. A significant world event. And of course this is by no means an in-depth look. It is entirely possible to write several-thousand page volumes on each of the  different periods I’ve gone through in this article. In fact someone most definitely will have. But what this does is give a barebones skeleton of the history of Britain’s International Relations and how it can and has changed.


  1. ‘When, as a result of her allowing US Jets to base themselves in England, UK based US Jets bombed Libya in 1986 she stood firm against critics and defended the US/UK alliance’

    The USAF had a large presence in the UK long before she came to power. As for the Libya bombing she was told by the USA that they would be using the bases to bomb Libya – she was not asked for permission as was stated at the time. She was Reagan’s poodle as much as Blair was Bush’s.

  2. The Major ministry refrained from military action in Bosnia against Bosnian Serbs and instead taking a position of Moral equivalency in the conflict

    That’s strange as I have a couple of medals upstairs which i earned after the UK and France sick of the dithering of the UN and EU over Serb intransigence sent out a rapid reaction force to Ploce (aka plotchee death camp) where along with the French foreign legion we took off our UN berets and put on our own ones and knocked the Serbs to the negotiating table.

  3. Recent news of Mrs. May giving 20bn to the NHS shows a lack of monitory planning since the UK is not investing in local RFA shipbuilding or new business ventures that will develop new technology. The balance of revenue earnings vs. spending shows a lack of appreciation that the country needs to earn cash before it spends it. If 20bn is thrown into the NHS, every penny will get spent, as it always does, whilst NHS people argue for yet more cash, and we will get another series of yet more A & E failures during subsequent Christmases. I say this since the defense budget of 35bn along with a defense deficit of approx -20bn is not being supported, the space industry is not being grown or supported (Reaction Engines / Galileo / …), the education of future engineers appears to be on the back burners, the foreign office and foreign consulates throughout the commonwealth in these Brexit days appears to also be on the back burners for future trade opportunities. The services industry in London city is starting to vote with its feet where some banks/insurance businesses are setting up offices in Dublin and other places within the EU.

    This is not an appropriate time to push 20bn into the NHS; some of it should go to supporting the local shipbuilding industry for Portsmouth shipyards and redressing the defense budget (RFAs, type 31s, F35s) to reduce the gap that has opened up between Russian military equipment improvements (new boats, aircraft, tanks, ships and hypersonic anti-ship missiles, …)

    Some cash should be invested in venture capital for reaction engines and into the spaces industry.

    The UK does not even manufacture its own F35s like Italy / Japan

    And the NHS should be broken up and reorganized since it has demonstrated its own inability to self-manage itself of the last several decades; how many times have we all heard that the only solution to the NHS is to spend yet more money?

    Meanwhile, the British economy has shifted its balance away from manufacturing and towards becoming a wholesale economy (which is rather unbalanced and dangerous)?

    All this while Russia and China have both grown their military capacity and capability

  4. “This outlook of Britain being on the back foot culminated in the Suez Crisis of 1952.”

    Suez was in 56 was it not?

    • Indeed it was. I was a precocious 7 year old and remember it well. Caused the demise of PM Anthony Eden and the entrance of Harold”You’ve never had it so good” Macmillan!

  5. Interesting article. Particularly remember ‘I did not have sexual relations with that women’ Clinton and his comment about the ‘special relationship’ just wish Tony ‘blood sacrifice’ Blair had !

  6. HF I’m afraid you are just plain wrong the US did have to seek permission to bomb Libya from HM gov . They initially wanted to use bases in Italy where likewise they also have aircraft but were told no by the Italians. Like most of the armchair generals who talk a lot of bs on this best you hid yer wheeesht

  7. While the Suez crisis, the fall of Singapore and American decolonisation is blamed for the death of the British empire the real reason for its end was the rise of the Labour Party and the countries internal decisions to get rid of it that ended it.

    Eden was taking the piss lying to the country and carrying out illegal acts over Suez. That’s why he had to stand down.

    While the Italians and Japanese invaded a very small part of the outer defences of the British empire in WW2 the empire pushed them back and ultimately expanded its territory during the war.

    The fact is there was never any benefit of the British empire to the UK itself and after the east India company was nationalised the empire only ever cost vast sums of money to run and protect.

    The pax britanica was the result of Britain becoming the worlds first industrialised country and the empire that followed a result of that fact rather than the other way around.

  8. The rise and fall of nations and empires is largely underscored by the resources they command and in particular the human resources at their disposal.

    While for some the economic, technological and military rise of China seems to have come as a surprise, in Australia at least its inevitability has been known and monitored for decades. A past Australian treasurer once remarked in this context that ‘demography is destiny’ and in a contest between history and demography the latter will ultimately win.

    Arguably it was the USA’s then relatively large population that allowed it to gear up its industrial base in WWII to produce an overwhelming stockpile of material for the war effort.

    So for any nation contemplating its role in the 21st century, a hard-headed look at the shifting demographic realties is advisable.

    Europe now accounts for 12 % of the world’s population and by 2050 this is projected to fall to around 7 %. The UK currently represents less than 1% (0.87%) of the world’s population and will fall further by 2050 to 0.78%.

    By contrast in 2050 55% of the world’s population will live in Asia and Oceania with China alone accounting for 14% of the total.

    At the outbreak of WWII China’s population was less than six times greater than the UK and largely a poor agrarian society. By 2050 China will be more than 21 times the UK’s population and it will the world’s largest and richest economy.

    Between 2009 and 2030 alone, China will add 850 million to its cashed-up, consumer driven middle class. That’s more than the entire population of Europe rich and poor combined.

    Similarly the US was just over 3 times the population of the UK in 1939 and is now almost 5 times the size.

    Elsewhere a lack of understanding of changes in relative populations perpetuates unhelpful stereotypes, nowhere more so than in discussion about the role of the Commonwealth (a polite ‘modern’ term for the colonies but the thinking on the part of many seems largely unchanged).

    For example in 1939 the UK’s population was almost seven times Australia’s population of 6.9 million. Today with around 25 million Australians the ratio has fallen to 3.7 times and by 2050 the UK will be less than twice Australia’s population.

    Quite apart from the ANZUS alliance with the US forming the basis of Australian security for almost 80 years and the common Pacific geography and military conflicts shared with the US, the demographic changes have further lessened any sense of dependency or reliance on the UK.

    Any contemplation of a greater security role for the Commonwealth post-Brexit would do well to consider the text of the Balfour Declaration at the formation of the Commonwealth in 1926 that agreed members were “equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs”.

    The world has changed.

    Relative populations – UK and China
    1939 China 267.5 m (5.6 x) UK 47.5 m
    2018 China 1,409 m (21.3 x) UK 66.2 m

    Relative populations – UK and US
    1939 US 147.5 m (3.1 x) UK 47.5 m
    2018 US 324.4 m (4.9 x) UK 66.2 m

    Relative populations – Australia and UK
    1939 UK 47.5 m (6.9 x) Aus 6.9 m
    2018 UK 66.2 m (2.7 x) Aus 24.8 m
    2050 UK 77 m (1.9 x) Aus 39.9 m

    Relative populations Australia and European countries 1939 and 2018
    Aus 1939 6.9 m 2018 24.8 m
    Belgium 8.3 m (1.2 x) 11.4 m (0.45 x)
    Netherlands 8.7 m (1.2 x) 17m (0.65 x)
    Italy 43 m (6.4 x) 59.3 m (2.3 x)
    France 42 m (6.2 x) 64.9 (2.6 x)
    Germany 69 m (10.3 x) 82.1 (3.3 x)

    • China’s demographic is actually a curse and will potentially limit it as a world power. The one child policy has very significant consequences and I’m not sure how China will manage its time old person time bomb.

      It’s also got a real problem in regards to future food security, 1.5 billion ageing mouths to feed in a landmass with a reducing capacity to produce food is a nightmare.

      • It will eventually but long after we’re all dead, I hear this all the time that China has to many problems to become a superpower. They already are, just haven’t had to use their military to prove it yet, they control most of the world’s trade and that’s only going to get bigger.technologically they’ve caught up in almost all areas and with their economy and national and political will ,will surpass the us easily within the next couple of decades. The us is a slowly fading empire and it knows it. Expect major confrontation as the us tries to save itself

        • j
          They have a higher government debt than the United States. They are a importer of almost ever natural resource in addition to food. Food they cannot grow because of both lack of land and rivers in addition to massive pollution of the waterways they have.
          Political will? Apparently you haven’t noticed the number of wealthy Chinese fleeing to other countries and takin the money with them. They have driven up real estate prices so much that Vancouver and Tokyo both introduced special taxes on foreign homebuyers. With Seattle and Portland considering it also. This is because Xi Jinping has shot or arrested several billionaires in the past year alone.
          China will do what it has always done throughout history either overreach itself by causing a war with India that drags the US into it or accidentally do the same in Singapore, Japan, or Taiwan all of which would also cause a reaction from Washington. This would be a long conflict if neither side goes Nuclear and trigger a civil war in China as Beijing’s grip would weaken. When it couldn’t deliver on the propaganda spouted by the Global Times.
          Option 2 for them is their debt and demographics catch up to them and they still collapse in internal conflict. That is their cycle and civil war is as much if not more their vice than in Latin America. This has been playing like broken record for a few thousand years. In the end the Chinese Communist Party is just another dynasty awaiting it’s end point.
          No the US doesn’t have to arrange a conflict to save itself. Because it does not need saving. America just has to do what it has always done. Wait for the tyrants to screw up then smash them and attempt to glue them back together. The only difference is China would take a metric f*** ton of glue.

          • Is that really the best you can do Sole?
            Name one single supposedly great Chinese dynasty that didn’t fall apart when confronted with true opposition. Despite having the advantage of numbers, resources, and distance China has not won a foreign war against a determined enemy in nearly 2 thousand years. Their Army regardless of regime has proven mostly only useful for slaughtering their own peasants.
            Despite sharing a border having crushing superiority in tanks, artillery, aircraft, and infantry they couldn’t even fight to their stated goal of Hanoi in Vietnam. They fought a draw with India. Haven’t been able to bring Taiwan to heel. They couldn’t push the US and UN forces out of Korea and in WWII they were getting their ass kicked by and Japan a island nation with a fraction their population.
            That is just the twentieth century going back further is even more embarrassing. China has always had brief periods of prosperity followed by rampant corruption, stagnation, and overextension. Leading to either long periods of civil war or foreign domination.

  9. Should read:

    Today with around 25 million Australians the ratio has fallen to 2.7 times and by 2050 the UK will be less than twice Australia’s population.

  10. Pity this article did not receive the revision it undoubtedly deserves. Not like the usual UK Defence Journal.

    However, its main failing is that it fails to acknowledge that the British Empire resulted from a short period of British technological supremacy, resting initially upon the efficient use of the ocean-going sailing ship and the efficient commercial organisations (e.g., joint stock companies and Lloyds) to exploit the sailing ship qualities for trade. It was in essence a benevolent organisation because peaceful trade is more profitable – and from profit comes opportunity for the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people, which is surely the aim of any nation. That others tended to break the peace and the Empire had to fight back is a consequence of humankind’s tendency to fall into fights.

    Undoubtedly demographics will change the balance of the world. Australia, of all Anglophone nations, is as a result probably faced with the biggest need for adaptive change to its national policies. I believe it is well fitted to become the leader of the nations that embody the principles of the British Commonwealth, and should do so as fast as possible, ready to help us all to trade peacefully with the future great economic powers of India and China.

    As for the UK, with its new future as an independent trading nation, radical change of direction is inevitable. It will now have to produce the will and resources to return to its former technological leading place in the world if it is to have any chance of achieving the greatest possible happiness for the greatest possible number of its citizens. Let us hope for the necessary vision and drive to achieve this end.


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