Britain’s Search for a Post-Hegemonic Identity

Commentary No. 354. June 1, 2013

Once upon a time, the sun never set on the British Empire. No more! In 1945, Winston Churchill famously said: “I have not become the King’s First Minister to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.” But in fact that is exactly what he did. Churchill knew the difference between bombast and power.

Ever since 1945, Great Britain has been trying, with considerable difficulty, to adjust to the role of erstwhile hegemonic power. One has to appreciate how difficult this is, both psychologically and politically. It seems today as if the dilemmas of its political strategy have finally imploded, and it is faced with choices that are all bad.

Great Britain emerged from the Second World War as one of the Big Three – the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain. It was however the weakest of the Big Three. The strategy it chose was to become the junior partner of the United States, the new hegemonic power. This was called, in Great Britain at least, the “special relationship” it claimed it had with the United States.

The most important benefit Great Britain obtained from this special relationship was the immediate transfer of nuclear technology, permitting Great Britain to be, from that point on, a nuclear power. The United States did not by any means make a similar gesture to the Soviet Union, much less to France. The United States was seeking a global nuclear monopoly shared only by its junior partner. Of course, as we know, this global monopoly was undone first by the Soviet Union, then by France and China, and then later by a number of other states.

In continental western Europe, the first steps toward Franco-German reconciliation began as the European Coal and Steel Community. It included six nations – France, Germany, Italy, and the Benelux trio of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxemburg. It did not include Great Britain. These first steps towards the European Union of today were at the time encouraged by the United States, as a mode of making possible the incorporation of the western parts of Germany into what would become the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

It is not sure that British leaders appreciated this new continental European structure. One of the ways Great Britain seemed to react was to attempt a geopolitical stance independent of the United States. It joined forces with France and Israel to attack Nasser’s Egypt. The United States was pursuing at the time another strategy in the Middle East, and therefore lost no time to rap the knuckles of Great Britain and insist that it withdraw its troops. This was humiliating for Great Britain, but it also reminded them of the limits of their ability to be independent of the United States.

After this, however, the United States began to encourage Great Britain to join the continental structures. In part, this was because the United States was beginning to worry about a French-inspired relative independent position of these structures. From the U.S. point of view, Great Britain could help prevent this. Such an entry had a particular advantage from a British point of view. Great Britain’s last remaining vestige of its erstwhile hegemony was the continuing major role of the City of London in world finance. Great Britain needed access to the European markets to guarantee this role.

So, Great Britain did enter the structures, to the great displeasure of Charles De Gaulle, who understood quite clearly U.S. motivations on this issue. By the 1970s, it was U.S. hegemony that began to be contested. Both France and Germany tendered diplomatic openings to the Soviet Union, which would culminate much later in 2003 with the Franco-German-Russian successful resistance to the U.S. desire to have the Security Council endorse U.S. military invasion of Iraq.

In this onset of geopolitical chaos, the British government sided totally with the United States. Tony Blair’s complete subordination to U.S. politics began to embarrass even British public opinion, which began to value much less a special relationship that was so one-sided. More and more people in Great Britain sought to withdraw both from the U.S. link and the European links. The rising strength of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) is a major expression of the change in sentiment.

Great Britain had refused to enter the Eurozone. In the economic turmoil that became so evident after 2008, the desire to withdraw from the European Union itself grew steadily, especially within the Conservative Party. This of course alarmed the financial groups of the City of London, who saw correctly that one consequence might be the effective overshadowing of London by Frankfurt as a European financial center.

Great Britain has other problems – the ever-increasing force of regionalism (and even prospective independence) of Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Great Britain is resisting, as best it can, its reduction to England. And it is doing this at a time when the United States no longer seems to be significantly committed to even a semblance of special relationship.

The problem for Great Britain today is that all the choices before it are bad. Great Britain wishes to insist that it is still a major military power. But the very same government that is asserting this is also reducing expenditure upon and the size of its armed forces, as part of its austerity program.

The biggest problem for Great Britain today is that the rest of the world will simply not consider it to be a very important geopolitical and financial actor anymore. Being ignored is not the happiest fate for an erstwhile hegemonic power.