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.