December 23, 2001

How to build a successful empire

Posted in International Economy · 3 comments ·
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Next week is the 400th anniversary of the battle of Kinsale in which the English monarchy defeated Gaelic Ireland. This English victory marked the beginning of the remarkable story of the British Empire.

For almost four centuries, from the time of Queen Elizabeth I to Elizabeth II, Britain managed to rule over huge swathes of the globe. Rarely can an empire have garnered such huge strategic and economic rewards for so little effort.

While France, Austria, Prussia and Russia committed millions of troops and treasure to fruitless European battles, the British watched from the sidelines, never once taking on any of the other great powers head to head. Instead, the British focused on a powerful navy that could be used to blockade the ports of other great powers once they had been truly weakened by costly land wars. Another favoured British strategy was to enter the fray at the eleventh hour.

This was the case during the land war against Napoleon, when the British committed ground troops only after the real fighting had been done by Prussians, Russians and a host of other European scrappers. When it changed tack in 1914 and tried to slog it out with the continentals, the facade crumbled. In fact, in the five years after World War I, victorious Britain lost more of its original pre-1914 landmass than did the vanquished Germany.

Up to 1918, the extraordinary power of the British Empire owed more to smart diplomacy than to military prowess. And, like any good bully, the British possessed a canny understanding of who to pick its fights with. It also copped on to the fact that real global power is measured by how far you can project that power.

The British ability to project its power all over the globe was the key to understanding who was top dog. The world became accustomed to this status quo, which might explain why much later, Britain sending a flotilla to the Falkland Islands, or Malvinas, was regarded as less preposterous than Argentina invading the Hebrides when geography would suggest that both moves are rather similar.

Fast-forward to today and we see that America needs to make a long-term strategic decision, not only about how to react to the attacks on the Twin Towers, but also to the extraordinary outbreak of anti-Americanism across the globe, which Americans finally came to realise after September 11.

The world’s only superpower — or “hyperpower” as French Foreign Minister Hubert Vendrine more aptly says — has to satisfy itself that extraordinary dominance in economic and military terms is making it more secure.

Now many American scholars conclude that the opposite is the case: the more dominant the US becomes and the more it projects its power, the more enemies it fosters and the less secure its citizens become.

By extension, given the overwhelming economic might of the US, if its “grand design” for the globe is confused, the so-called ‘New World Order’ that served as the backdrop for the 1990s boom will change. Any change to the US’s role in the world will have serious economic and financial implications for all of us.

History tells us that serious powers have a choice between domination and maintaining a rough balance with the other great powers. The US, since the end of the Cold War has preferred the former. It likes to be all-powerful. The official rhetoric calls this “leadership”, but it is more like omnipotence.

The US State Department even termed its foreign policy “adult supervision”. This means that the US seeks to look after the interests of its allies to such an extent that its allies in the industrial countries will never feel the need to challenge it. This is an enormously expensive exercise and has ensured that the US spends more every year on arms than the next top seven countries put together (including Russia and China).

This need to take responsibility for everyone at all costs can be seen very clearly in US policy in the Middle East. The US gets most of its oil from Alaska, Mexico, Canada and Venezuela and only receives 25 per cent of its yearly supply from the Persian Gulf. Yet it spends $105 billion per year defending the region.

The reason it does this is that Japan gets 90 per cent of its supplies from the Arabs, while western Europe gets over 70 per cent. The US reckons that ensuring safe oil for its industrialised allies will keep Europe and Japan in a state of foreign policy torpor and prevent either regions from playing the type of power games that would threaten the US.

The Americans are also gambling that the resurgent China will become dependent on Arab oil and if the US can keep the price down for China, it will prevent China from feeling the need to challenge America militarily.

However, trying to keep all your potential rivals suppressed by such a blanket policy eventually reaches its limits. Other powers do not remain pliant indefinitely, nor do events unfold in quite the way the superpower planned.

For instance, the US involvement in the Balkans, by exposing the limits of European foreign policy ambitions, finally pushed the EU into seriously considering the idea of a European army. Similarly, the apparent total dominance of the US has pushed Russia and China — formerly implacable foes — into each other’s arms with the Shanghai Treaty earlier this year. These alliances and initiatives will continue to build as long as America remains the world’s only “hyperpower”.

In the meantime, America’s policy of `adult supervision’ means that it bears the brunt of the cost of policing the world as well as the brunt of the recipients’ anger. Thus, America suffers much of the cost with very few benefits in terms of domestic or international security. In addition, resentment against the US grows.

Over time, this policy is not sustainable. Perhaps it is time the US began to regard itself as a power among powers and allowed other powers to flourish and sort out their own problems. This is precisely what the British did.

Instead of trying to be the biggest power around, the British played the role of “balancer”. By taking advantage of its island status and remaining offshore, the British could play the kingmaker role with relative ease. Thus France and Spain could reduce each other’s armies and coffers to ruin, while the British underwrote the war financially and stepped in at the end, siding with the winner. In this way, it earned itself the derogatory but accurate title of “perfidious Albion”.

Such a role of “offshore balancer” is possible for the US. It is also an island (albeit a continental one). Why should the US be in Yugoslavia sorting out Europe’s problems? Or why not allow Russia to settle disputes in Afghanistan, its own back yard? Why up the ante in Taiwan when the Chinese dispute with Taiwan is unfinished civil war business? Why keep Japan subjugated rather than allow the Japanese a military that would minimise America’s involvement in the North East Pacific? These are the types of questions the US must ask itself.

If the events of this year have changed anything, they have changed the relationship the US has with its neighbours. The debate at the moment appears to be whether the US becomes more committed on foreign policy or whether, after it catches Osama bin Laden, America follows an isolationist role.

Americans need to be pragmatic. The post-1990 policy of “adult supervision” of other powers is not tenable. Maybe, looking at how the British kept in pole position for almost 400 years following the battle of Kinsale, might provide a blueprint for the Yanks.


  1. John O Callaghan

    There is an error in your article. The British empire
    expanded after WW1 as they took over territory from the
    Ottoman and German empres.

  2. [...] relationship with core Europe or something looser with Britain as our key ally, the article from ten years ago this week on the nature of empires and diplomacy is still valid. Remember this was written three months after [...]

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