American declinists are wrong to see the unraveling of the British Empire as a roadmap for a “soft landing.”
The stubborn idea of American decline is a complicated animal. President Obama has decried it, arguing in his latest State of the Union that declinists “don’t know what they’re talking about.” Robert Gates has a more nuanced view, saying that our influence “wanes and waxes depending on the international environment,” and in any event the notion that our military power is in decline is simply “ridiculous.” For others, such as Georgetown University’s Rosa Brooks, the matter is simply obvious: “Obama surely knows that the issue of America’s decline is real. He should unapologetically tell it like it is.”
Those who believe American decline is inexorable argue that the best we can hope for is a controlled, soft landing. “There may very well be no coming back,” Jack Cafferty warns. An op-ed in the Financial Times last October by Gideon Rachman spells out the case in some detail, arguing that the United States should take its cue from the way the British “managed” their imperial unraveling after World War II:
Admittedly, America’s relative decline is likely to be much less abrupt than the falling-off experienced by Britain after 1945. . . . What the UK discovered after 1945 is that a decline in national power is perfectly compatible with an improvement in living standards for ordinary people, and with the maintenance of national security. Decline need not mean the end of peace and prosperity. But it does mean making choices and forging alliances.
Whether or not the United States is in decline, Rachman’s advice is based on a fanciful reading of history. The British no more managed their decline than we designed our ascent.
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In Iraq, during the summer of 1958, the coup came fast. The king, crown prince, and prime minister were all executed in swift succession, and the British lost access to certain air bases. Within days, the United Kingdom deployed thousands of paratroopers to shore up the other Hashemite kingdom, Jordan, in case a plot was underway there as well. Three years later, Iraqi forces threatened an invasion of newly independent Kuwait, prompting Britain to once again deploy forces as a deterrent.
These interventions contravene the image most people have of the post-war British Empire. The conventional narrative is that the empire and its defenders are quickly cast aside after World War II. Winston Churchill is voted out; India, granted independence; the other colonies, wound down; and the troops, brought home. A slightly modified version of this story begins with the Suez crisis of 1956: Britain, Israel, and France seize the canal in Egypt, the United States throws a fit, and the British withdraw, revealing once and for all that it will now play second fiddle to the Americans.
Far from “abrupt,” Britain’s retreat from empire unfolded over the course of some three decades. Because the national leadership did not have a consistent or coherent plan for its imperial commitments, a cycle emerged: Britain would reaffirm a determination to maintain its military presence in a certain country and then reverse itself within a few years or even a few months after the political conditions changed or military risks became too great. This happened in Palestine, Egypt, the Persian Gulf, and elsewhere.
From 1945 to the 1970s, British troops found themselves deployed across the world in various capacities. Special forces, light infantry, the famed gurkhas, and other units waged intensive counterinsurgency operations in Malaya, Oman, Kenya, and Aden, now part of Yemen. They deployed to Borneo to fight the Indonesians, to Belize to deter the Guatemalans, and to Cyprus to quell Greek Cypriot guerrillas. (This is to say nothing of the campaigns in Northern Ireland and the Falkland Islands, the Persian Gulf War, and stability operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.)
Such a global presence required more than just troops and guns, though. These missions—from Latin America to Africa, from the Middle East to the Far East—required the deployment of tens of thousands of soldiers and the logistical support of a global network of bases from Gibraltar to Singapore. The massive complex in the Suez Canal Zone, for instance, was roughly the size of Wales. At various points many of these bases were even reinforced in the post-war period.
The ultimate outcome was the decline and fall of the British empire, of course, and in retrospect we can all say it looked obvious enough from the outset in 1945. But a pattern of reaffirming and reversing commitments, worldwide deployments, reinforcing overseas bases, and waging prolonged counterinsurgencies does not denote a nation that had decided to manage its own decline.
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The notion that the British were somehow masters of “making choices and forging alliances” is also laughable. In 1957, Defence Minster Duncan Sandys announced a reduction in British military forces and a new strategy. Units were scrapped, tens of thousands of soldiers were cut, the draft was eliminated, and nuclear capabilities expanded. It was only in 1967, however, that Defence Minister Denis Healey announced the decision to reduce commitments by pulling out from “east of Suez,” a decision that prompted much opposition from conservatives. Even then, the commitment to the protectorates in the Persian Gulf was reaffirmed (and later reversed). Reducing capabilities while maintaining commitments is not a recipe for success.
Britain’s behavior overseas wasn’t so much governed by careful decision-making—rather, the British simply found themselves overtaken by events largely beyond their control. For example, they misjudged the rise of Egyptian nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser. This led to the loss not only of Suez but also Britain’s Hashemite allies in Iraq, who fell to Nasser’s disciples; the pro-British king of Libya also fell to a Nasserite named Muammar Qaddafi in 1969. Other coups and insurgencies took them by surprise and budget-crunching economic downturns at home gutted their military capabilities.
As for alliances, we need look no further than the Baghdad Pact of 1955. The intention of this organization was to create an “outer ring” of pro-Western states in the Middle East, from Turkey in the west to Pakistan in the east. On the map and in theory, the effect would be to shut out the Soviets from the region. With members like Iran and Iraq, it should come as no surprise to the reader that this alliance was rather hollow. Furthermore, the British were excluded from the ANZUS Pact, which linked its Commonwealth members Australia and New Zealand with the United States.
The record shows that Britain’s decline was far from graceful, much less “managed.” The British were reactive, not far-sighted, and inconsistent rather than careful. Imperial descent, while preordained in certain respects, unfolded in fits and starts over the course of decades. If the British experience does indeed “hold some valuable lessons,” as Rachman and his colleagues suggest, it is as an example of what not to do.
Tristan Abbey is senior editor of Bellum: A Project of The Stanford Review.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Andrew Stiles
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Kathlyn Ehl