As the 19th century came to a close, Great Britain stood as the premier country in the world. The century was labeled “Pax Britannica” and the world experienced nearly a century of peace from a major European conflict. The Napoleonic wars were but a distant memory and peace and prosperity appeared universally. For the average European and American, paradise was being ushered in and the world future never appeared brighter.
For many British statesmen, certain realities began to sink in. Both Germany and the United States were outstripping Great Britain's industrial output, German military power threatened to dominate the European mainland, and her Navy threatened the Royal Navy's monopoly over the sea lanes. In a recent piece for National Review, John O’ Sullivan wrote, “At this early stage of imperial decline, Britain had three grand strategic options: the imperial, the European and the Atlantic.”
Of the imperial option, O’Sullivan continued, “Imperial consolidation was the most obvious solution. If her far flung possessions- comprising a quarter of the world- could be transformed into a single political economic unit, Britain would remain a global hegemon.” The imperial option originated by British statesman Joseph Chamberlain was essentially the modern day Anglosphere without the United States. Chamberlain’s vision began with the premise that many in the colonies as well as numerous citizens of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand viewed themselves as Britons abroad. In both World Wars, a large number of colonials volunteered for duty. Nearly ten percent of New Zealand's population served overseas in the first Great War and nearly three million Indians chose to fight for King and Empire in the Second World War.
For various reasons, this vision failed to take hold. The first is that many in the colonies preferred a nationalist route and were not keen on the idea of being absorbed into a Greater Britain. The second was that many of these nations did not want to surrender their control of trade and tariffs policy to each other or to Britain. London wanted to maintain the general free trade policy that served Britain well while other nations wanted some protection for their embryonic industries.
The final drawback was racial, for as John O’ Sullivan observed, “For an imperial federation in a democratic age would have meant the political dominance of India.” Racial attitude of the days prevented the possibility of India dominating a federation of the English-speaking people, for Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and even Britons themselves were not ready for Indian leadership.
The second option was the European option, which meant that England would tolerate German domination of the continent as part of an informal Protestant alliance of Imperial Germany, Great Britain and the United States. Some thinkers of the age promoted the idea that Germany, the United States and Great Britain were natural allies.