Being a Great Power is Just a State of Mind

News Abroad


Michael J. Turner is Roy Carroll Distinguished Professor of British History at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. He is the author of numerous books on British foreign policy, including "British Power and International Relations during the 1950s: A Tenable Position?" (Lexington Books, 2009); "Britain and the World in the Twentieth Century: Ever Decreasing Circles" (Continuum, 2010), which was a finalist for Wolfson History Prize; "An International History of British Power, 1957-1970" (Teneo Press, 2010); and "Britain’s International Role, 1970-1991" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

The United Kingdom, partially as a continued consequence of the global financial meltdown and the subsequent austerity measures, now faces some of its most severe defense cuts in nearly a generation. Predictably, Prime Minister David Cameron has insisted that cuts in spending would not reduce Britain’s international influence. Opinions differ about this, and the Secretary of State for Defense at the time, Liam Fox, went public with his own misgivings about “draconian” measures that could have “grave consequences.” Washington was also unhappy: U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton worried about the strength of NATO -- “each country has to be able to make its appropriate contributions.” In effect, the review of 2010 provided for a reduction of 8 percent in the British defense budget over four years (other government departments had their budgets slashed by as much as 25 percent); and the government promised that it would abide by NATO agreements about the share of national income that each member of the alliance should spend on defense. But when the specific measures were announced there was an outcry in Britain. “Biggest UK Defense Cuts since the Cold War,” declared the Financial Times, which went on: “The list of final cuts will include cutting the army by around 7,000 troops; axing the Harrier, the jump jet that helped win the 1982 Falklands War; and scaling back amphibious warfare capabilities to a level equivalent to that in the Netherlands.” A headline in the Daily Mail in January 2012 summed up the somber atmosphere: “Cutbacks shrink the Army to smallest size since the Crimean War.”

This situation has similarities with previous turning points in British defense policymaking. Indeed, the basic problem has been the same since 1945: too many commitments and too few resources. The record has not simply been one of periodic cutbacks, however, for policymaking was and is anything but straightforward. Looking back at the readjustments after World War II, it is not difficult to see that in the immediate postwar years a pattern was established. It can still be discerned today. Britain sought to preserve influence and status as inexpensively as possible -- to reduce spending, give up responsibilities, and accept a different role in the world, but all in a manner that did not fatally damage British prestige. In the main, the effort has been remarkably successful.

Britain’s military establishment remained large and expensive after 1945, even after demobilization, which eventually prompted a major defense review in 1957. Thus resulted the Sandys reforms, named after the Minister of Defence Duncan Sandys. The pressing need for all British governments after World War II was to address the growing gap between commitments and resources, and the Sandys reforms were designed to cut costs by relying on nuclear deterrence and smaller, better-equipped conventional forces.

By 1957, defense spending took 8 percent of the national wealth and the armed forces fielded 700,000 men. The French were spending only 6 percent of their gross domestic product on defense and the West Germans only 4 percent. Sandys proposed that National Service would cease by 1960 and that the armed forces would be cut to 400,000 by 1962. Defense spending was to be held at 7 percent of gross domestic product.

There was plenty of criticism. However drastic they seemed when first announced, though, the Sandys reforms were not radical in practice. Savings on the conventional side were smaller than predicted, the nuclear focus entailed greater dependence on the United States, and the continuation of high defense spending exacerbated domestic economic difficulties. Within NATO Britain remained one of the highest proportionate spenders on defense, as compared to gross domestic product.

Furthermore, the complexity of Britain’s defense requirements meant that cuts in spending were not easily made. Britain was still performing distinct tasks across the globe, more similat to America’s than to those of NATO’s European members. There was the continental commitment, necessitating a presence in West Germany. There was a need for ships and aircraft in the Atlantic and the waters around the British Isles. There was Britain’s own security to attend to, which rested primarily on air defense. There was the nuclear deterrent (the development and procurement of the Trident missile alone, even with help from the United States, took up over 20 percent of Britain's annual defense spending by the 1980s). There were also “out of area” responsibilities, notably in Hong Kong, Belize, the Persian Gulf, and the Falklands.

Decolonization therefore played a major factor in Britain's defense reposturing. A pivotal date for Britain was 1957, when Prime Minister Harold Macmillan ordered a cost-benefit analysis of Britain’s overseas possessions. This would in due course affect the pace of decolonization and the nature and extent of Britain’s global reach. Arguably the biggest shift had already been made, with the granting of independence to India in 1947. This had massive strategic ramifications and immediate consequences in terms of imperial communications, revenue, and manpower. It removed the central link in the chain and exacerbated the problem of reconciling different political and military methods in different regions.

The loss of many of Britain's colonies underlines the importance of perception. What others thought Britain could do mattered more than what it could actually do. If the loss of the Empire meant that Britain would have a more difficult time projecting power in distant regions of the world (though the Falklands War demostrated that a long-distance independent striking capacity remained into the 1980s), the fact that Britain had a nuclear strike capability (the atomic bomb from 1952, the hydrogen bomb from 1957, and thereafter American-made weaponry) was vital. It meant that there were two centers of nuclear decision-making in the West (three after the 1960s, when France developed its own nuclear deterrant and withdrew from NATO's military structure, but that's another story entirely), which kept the Soviets guessing. Britain was better able to manipulate perceptions.

Using this strategy, Britain’s influence and status were sustained into the twenty-first century. Britain had problems, but it suffered nothing like the political and economic breakdown experienced by the Soviet Union. British power did not collapse. Britain was able to adapt and to retreat where and when necessary. The USSR did not demonstrate this ability. In fact, over the years Britain has almost perfected the art of damage limitation so as to manage “decline.”

The history of the world since the end of World War II offers plenty of evidence that the other Great Powers respected Britain’s position. If Britain was no longer an important player on the world stage, why would the other powers have cared about what the British thought, or wanted, or proposed? Britain remained a Great Power because that is the way the other Great Powers perceived and treated Britain.

If a power is “great,” what does this mean? What is “greatness”? One quality of “greatness” is independence, the ability to make independent decisions and take independent action. It is probably in this respect that we can see most clearly where Britain faced limitations after 1945. Of significance here are the alliances to which Britain was a party. When a power shares interests with other powers, it is appropriate and sensible to work together. Joint action does not necessarily involve a loss of independence. But alliances do not always work well, and Britain’s experience, particularly since 1973 with the European Community/European Union, has not been a happy one. Even today there is disputation, largely about Britain’s loss of sovereignty.

One of the main signs that a Great Power is ceasing to be “great” relates to the nature of its alliances, and in Britain’s case the nature of its most important alliance, that with the United States. Though the “special relationship is not exactly the same as other alliances, the basic point about aggregation and restraint remains valid: one power joins with another to enhance its own status in the world and also to influence its alliance partner. During the 1950s the “special relationship” did work in these ways for Britain. Over time, the advantages of the relationship to Britain have waned. Looking at the period since World War II as a whole, though, Britain could not have done without the “special relationship.” Britain’s “decline” would have been quicker and more obvious without it. Punching above Britain's weight would have been more difficult.

Nevertheless, dependence within a relationship does affect prestige, potential, influence, capability, and probably also the quality that encapsulates all these things in the international order, “greatness,” which remains a somewhat nebulous concept; but just because it is nebulous, we cannot assume that it does not exist. It exists in the minds of those who claim to possess it, and it exists in the minds of those who see it in others. It is a matter of perception.

The substantial cuts embarked upon by the Cameron government will certainly affect British capabilities, but does this mean that “greatness” has been lost? Perhaps Britain will continue to project the required image and sustain a perception of “greatness.” If the past is any guide to the future, the success of this endeavor cannot be ruled out.

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