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.
The idea did have some basis. Kaiser Wilhelm was related to Queen Victoria and a significant number of Americans had German blood as part of their heritage. Such a union would have provided “…the basis for a European Federation along the line of the present European Union,” according to John O’ Sullivan. Maybe World War I and all of its ugly aftermath could have been prevented had this alliance come to fruition.
The problem with this scenario was twofold. The first was that Great Britain would have to abandon their centuries-old policy of refusing to allow any one power to dominate the European landscape. The second problem was that Germany would have to give up competing with England outside of the European continent. The Kaiser did the exact opposite when he built a first class Navy to compete with Britain over the seven seas. When the Kaiser began his Naval buildup, the British viewed this a threat over their own dominion. Britain allied herself instead with France for “Entente Cordiale” and the stage was set for the Great War.
The last option, the Atlantic option, became the policy by necessity. The Great War weakened Great Britain as a world power and only with United States participation could Britain remain a leader in world affairs. The First World War brought both of these nations together in a formal alliance. In the early 1920s, Great Britain abandoned its alliance with Japan to side with the United States in the Washington Naval Conference.
The problem that arose immediately was that of the United States’ lack of readiness to resume a world role. In the aftermath of World War I, Woodrow Wilson hoped that a Democratic League of Nations would provide the basis of a Democratic alliance to preserve the peace. This floundered when the United States Senate refused to go along with American participation in the League.
The first two decades of the 20th century saw America becoming a player upon the world scene. The Spanish-American War resulted in an American empire in the Pacific. President Theodore Roosevelt’s build-up of American naval strength, as well as his involvement in brokering the end of the Russo-Japanese war, positioned America among the elites of the world. The problem was that domestically, Americans were not yet ready to take on such a role, and despite the pride of the average American in their country, there were limits to what Americans wanted to be involved in.
Woodrow Wilson kept America out of the Great War during the first three years of the European carnage, and there was universal agreement among Americans that the Europeans could just kill each other off. For many German-Americans and Irish-Americans, there was no love lost for the Allies and Wilson campaigned in 1916 as the “President who kept our boys out of war.”
The following year saw German resumption of unlimited warfare on the seas and American involvement on the Allies’ side. After the war, there was universal repulsion of the carnage produced in the First World War and isolationism from European affairs became the policy. In the ’20s, the United States was not ready politically to take the next logical step.
World War II forced the Atlantic option upon the United States once again and it was World War II that saw Great Britain pass the baton to the United States as the new world leader. The original plan called for an alliance of equals or at least one with Britain in charge of the special relations. The reality of World War II made that idea moot and the United States become head of the Anglo world. World War II essentially united both the imperial option of Chamberlain with the Atlantic option of Winston Churchill.
Churchill had the foresight to understand the need for the alliance. In Britain’s darkest hours, Churchill looked for ways to entice the United States to join the war. Even after Pearl Harbor, there was general agreement between both Britain and the United States that war against Germany took precedence over the war in the Pacific. During the war, Australia Prime Minister John Curtain wrote, “Without any inhibition of any kind I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America, free from any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom.”
The beginning of the Anglosphere appeared and the Cold War began the process of uniting the various options under one strategic outlook. Stalin’s action after the war prevented a repeat of the aftermath of the First World War as the United States no longer could afford to retreat behind fortress America. After the First World War, the relative strength of Great Britain and France gave American policy makers options, but after the Second World War, those options no longer existed. With her empire dissipating and financial resources drained from war, Britain no longer had the political or military strength to lead. With France a defeated power and Germany prostrated, the United States had no real ally to hold off the Soviet Empire that was quickly developing. The United States was the lone super-power that could provide the counterweight to resist the Soviet challenge. The formation of NATO provided the basis of a European alliance led by the United States. Under the American nuclear umbrella, the Europeans developed new civil societies and provided a bulwark against the Soviet Empire on the European continent.
The collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1991 opened up a new world and new possibilities. O’ Sullivan observed, “The totalitarian epoch begins to seem a diversion from more persistent international trends. These include the rise of India and China, the relative decline of Europe, the spread of free trade and globalization, and the emergence of the United States as global hegemon- the policeman, banker and consumer of last resort.”
O’Sullivan notes, “Judged against the longer timescale, the most significant event of the 20th century was transfer of this unique world authority from the British Empire to the American Republic.” In reviewing the past, we can now design the policy of the future.
The passing of the baton from Great Britain to America was not a self-conscious policy but a logical progression of events. At critical moments in the past century, British and American statesmen chose to cooperate with each other while disavowing themselves of different options. What made this alliance work was the common heritage of both nations. As John O’ Sullivan observed, “Because their common heritage of liberal democratic ideas – expressed in the 1941 Atlantic Charter – made such cooperation easier, more fruitful, and even natural.”
Joseph Chamberlain’s original vision is now becoming a reality. Combining the Atlantic option of an American alliance with Great Britain with the emergence of Chamberlain’s original imperial design has the potential of changing the world for the better. The Anglosphere is the combination of both factions.
The Atlantic unification provides the Anglosphere with both the political and military muscle to enforce the peace and provide the impetus to the spread of freedom. The independence of India and the coming war on terror provides the basis for the reformation of the imperial design in a loose-fitting alliance that will see India becoming an integral part of the Anglosphere.
The next step for American policymakers is to pursue these changes. John O’ Sullivan concludes, “Building a new coalition of the English-Speaking peoples – one that includes India as well as “white dominions” in a post-racist age and that persuades the British themselves not to abandon their own Atlantic option for a narrow Europeanism – is the next task.”