In this Stratfor article George Friedman continues his series reviewing the major geopolitical powers by examining Britain's strategic situation. He points out that Britain's long run as the preeminent global power was undone by the rise of first Germany, and later the United States.
Germany's challenge was adversarial, culminating with the two world wars of the 20th century which, in spite of Britain emerging from each victorious, greatly diminished her standing.
Much of this was because Britain had to rely on her colonies to a greater extent, which gradually changed the relationship between her and the colonies.
The rise of the united states was far less contentious, but in the the aftermath of WWII Britain had slid behind the U.S. in power none the less. Her strategy since has been to maintain enough military power so that it can be the most reliable of American allies, while at the same time heavily engaging itself in the affairs of the EU.
The beginning of the article is excerpted below, with a link to the entire article at the end of the excerpt.
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By George Friedman, May 1, 2012
Britain controlled about one-fourth of the Earth's land surface and one-fifth of the world's population in 1939. Fifty years later, its holdings outside the British Isles had become trivial, and it even faced an insurgency in Northern Ireland.
Britain spent the intervening years developing strategies to cope with what poet Rudyard Kipling called its "recessional," or the transient nature of Britain's imperial power. It has spent the last 20 years defining its place not in the world in general but between continental Europe and the United States in particular.
The Rise of Britain
Britain's rise to its once-extraordinary power represented an unintended gift from Napoleon. It had global ambitions before the Napoleonic Wars, but its defeat in North America and competition with other European navies meant Britain was by no means assured pre-eminence. In Napoleon's first phase, France eliminated navies that could have challenged the British navy. The defeat of the French fleet at Trafalgar and the ultimate French defeat at Waterloo then eliminated France as a significant naval challenger to Britain for several generations.
This gave Britain dominance in the North Atlantic, the key to global power in the 19th century that gave control over trade routes into the Indian and Pacific oceans.
This opportunity aligned with economic imperatives. Not only was Britain the dominant political and military power, it also was emerging as the leader in the Industrial Revolution then occurring in Europe. Napoleon's devastation of continental Europe, the collapse of French power and the underdevelopment of the United States gave Britain an advantage and an opportunity.
As a manufacturer, it needed raw materials available only abroad, markets to absorb British production and trade routes supported by strategically located supply stations. The British Empire was foremost a trading bloc. Britain resisted encroachment by integrating potential adversaries into trade relationships with the empire that it viewed as beneficial. In addition, the colonies, which saw the benefits of increased trade, would reinforce the defense of the empire.
As empires go, Britain resembled Rome rather than Nazi Germany. Though Rome imposed its will, key groups in colonial processions benefitted greatly from the relationship. Rome was thus as much an alliance as it was an empire. Nazi Germany, by contrast, had a purely exploitative relationship with subject countries as a result of war and ideology. Britain understood that its empire could be secured only through Roman-style alliances. Britain also benefitted from the Napoleonic Wars' having crippled most European powers. Britain was not under military pressure for most of the century, and was not forced into a singularly exploitative relationship with its empire to support its wars. It thus avoided Hitler's trap.
The German and U.S. Challenges
This began to change in the late 19th century with two major shifts. The first was German unification in 1871, an event that transformed the dynamics of Europe and the world. Once unified, Germany became the most dynamic economy in Europe. Britain had not had to compete for economic primacy since Waterloo, but Germany pressed Britain heavily, underselling British goods with its more efficient production.
The second challenge came from the United States, which also was industrializing at a dramatic pace -- a process ironically underwritten by investors from Britain seeking higher returns than they could get at home. The U.S. industrial base created a navy that surpassed the British navy in size early in the 20th century. The window of opportunity that had opened with the defeat of Napoleon was closing as Germany and the United States pressed Britain, even if in an uncoordinated fashion.
The German challenge culminated in World War I, a catastrophe for Britain and for the rest of Europe. Apart from decimating a generation of men, the cost of the war undermined Britain's economic base, subtly shifting London's relationship with its empire. Moreover, British power no longer seemed inevitable, raising the question among those who had not benefitted from British imperialism as to whether the empire could be broken. Britain became more dependent on its empire, somewhat shifting the mutuality of relations. And the cost of policing the empire became prohibitive relative to the benefits. Additionally, the United States was emerging as a potential alternative partner for the components of the empire -- and the German question was not closed.
World War II, the second round of the German war, broke Britain's power. Britain lost the war not to Germany but to the United States. It might have been a benign defeat in the sense that the United States, pursuing its own interests, saved Britain from being forced into an accommodation with Germany. Nevertheless, the balance of power between the United States and Britain completely shifted during the war. Britain emerged from the war vastly weaker economically and militarily than the United States. Though it retained its empire, its ability to hold it depended on the United States. Britain no longer could hold it unilaterally.
British strategy at the end of the war was to remain aligned with the United States and try to find a foundation for the United States to underwrite the retention of the empire. But the United States had no interest in this. It saw its primary strategic interest as blocking the Soviet Union in what became known as the Cold War. Washington saw the empire as undermining this effort, both fueling anti-Western sentiment and perpetuating an economic bloc that had ceased to be self-sustaining.
From Suez to Special Relationship
The U.S. political intervention against the British, French and Israeli attack on Egypt in 1956, which was designed to maintain British control of the Suez Canal, marked the empire's breaking point. Thereafter, the British retreated strategically and psychologically from the empire. They tried to maintain some semblance of enhanced ties with their former colonies through the Commonwealth, but essentially they withdrew to the British Isles.
As it did during World War II, Britain recognized U.S. economic and military primacy, and it recognized it no longer could retain its empire. As an alternative, the British aligned themselves with the U.S.-dominated alliance system and the postwar financial arrangements lumped together under the Bretton Woods system. The British, however, added a dimension to this. Unable to match the United States militarily, they outstripped other American allies both in the quantity of their military resources and in their willingness to use them at the behest of the Americans.
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