The Anglosphere Illusion

The Anglosphere Illusion

Mini Teaser: The proponents of an English-speaking union have overlooked several important considerations--not least of which is national interest.

by Author(s): Owen Harries

During recent months, many have engaged in the pastime of looking back to the beginning of the twentieth century to find parallels with our present circumstances. Thus the position of Britain then--both with respect to its dominance and the first signs of its decline--has been compared to that of the United States today; the significance of the rise of Germany back then has been compared to the anticipated emergence of China as a genuine world power in the near future; and Norman Angell's belief--given expression on the eve of the outbreak of the Great War--that interdependence was rendering war obsolete has been seen as the equivalent of the current faith in the pacific effects of globalization and the spread of democracy.

There is one other parallel that deserves mention. Today, a few thoughtful and eloquent individuals--among them Robert Conquest, writing in the pages of this magazine, and John O'Sullivan in various journals--have been making the case for an English-speaking political union. The argument is that the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and a few other smaller entities have so much in common in terms of political culture, values and institutions that they should draw together and enter into some sort of formal arrangement to act in concert--to create, that is, what some are now referring to as a political "Anglosphere."

Now this line of argument almost exactly replicates one advanced by a group of highly intelligent, well-educated and well-connected young men at the beginning of the last century. The group--sometimes known as Milner's Kindergarten, after its patron, Lord Milner, and sometimes as the Cliveden Set, because of its connection with the Astor family--included among others Philip Kerr (later, as Lord Lothian, Britain's ambassador to Washington during World War II), Lionel Curtis (founder of the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House) and Geoffrey Dawson (to be for twenty-six years editor of the Times, when that newspaper still had great political influence).

The historian Norman Rose has recently written about this group in terms that could be applied almost word for word to today's advocates of an English-speaking union:

"What they meant by 'doing things in the world' was primarily to sustain the Anglo-Saxon fraternity. Dedicated to an intimate partnership between the Dominions and Britain, perhaps federation or even union, and a strengthening of the Anglo-American connection, they aimed in this way to preserve Britain's distinctive role in international affairs."

The similarity extends also to what they disliked and feared:

"For Kerr and his friends, France was the bogeyman of Europe. There was an almost paranoid fear that scheming French politicians would embroil Britain in disputes at variance with its genuine interests."

The ideas propounded by the group reflected both the reality of British imperial power and the fear that, unless girded up, that power was doomed to decline in the not too distant future. This view of things had enough appeal that at the grand intergovernmental Imperial Conference of 1911 a proposal was made--it was formally put by Joseph Ward, prime minister of New Zealand, the smallest and most British of the English-speaking Dominions--for an Imperial Parliament, to be responsible for formulating common foreign and defense policies for the Empire.

The proposal was promptly shot down by Canada and South Africa, both of whom had substantial non-English populations that were not susceptible to the charms of Anglo-Saxon tradition. Indeed, while such an arrangement would have served the interests of Britain, as the strongest party, it was inimical to the quickly strengthening national sentiments of countries that had only just moved from subservient status to independence.

Values and Interests

If the idea of an English-speaking union, based on a common heritage and shared values, was not a goer in 1911, what are its prospects today? A consideration of that question can, it seems to me, usefully begin by considering an episode that occurred almost exactly midway between the Imperial Conference of 1911 and the present: that is the Suez crisis of 1956.

Recall that this crisis erupted a mere decade after the end of World War II. Those Americans and Britons who had worked so closely together to win that war were still running things: Dwight Eisenhower and his generation in Washington; Anthony Eden and his in London. Britain still possessed a vast empire and very substantial armed forces based on compulsory national service. Britain and France were America's principal allies--indeed its only significant ones. The Cold War was going strong. Within a year the Soviet Union would put Sputnik into space, shaking American confidence seriously.

In that year, 1956, the Egyptian military dictator, Gamal Abdel Nasser, seized the Suez Canal from the company that owned it and proceeded to nationalize it. Both the British and French regarded this as an outrageously immoral act. Even worse, they believed it a serious threat to their strategic interests. The British, still having substantial colonial holdings in Southeast Asia, close links with Australia and New Zealand, and a vital interest in Middle East oil, regarded the canal as the "jugular vein" of their imperial system, and Nasser's actions as entirely unacceptable.

After some futile negotiation, the British and French, acting in collusion with Israel, decided to seize the Canal back from Nasser. They did so in secret--partly to maintain military surprise, partly because they believed that the United States would be unsympathetic to what they were doing. They acted--very slowly and very ineptly it has to be said--but before they achieved their goal the United States publicly denounced their action and led its condemnation at the UN. Even more decisively, by manipulating the currency and oil markets to create a crisis for Britain and France, and by using the U.S. Sixth Fleet to harass the Anglo-French task force as it approached Port Said, Washington forced the abandonment of the military expedition. The upshot was that these two principal allies of the United States, which were also two of the world's leading democracies, were very publicly humiliated before the eyes of the world. It was a truly traumatic event, especially for the British, whose pretensions to still being a great global power were never to recover.

Why did the United States act as it did? From a mixture of motives. Partly it was a long-standing distaste for and suspicion of European imperialism, of which this crisis was seen as a clear example. Partly it was a Cold War concern not to alienate the Arab countries and drive them into Moscow's arms. Partly it was a realpolitik concern to displace the British and French as the main influence over the oil-producing countries. Partly it was because of the complicating factor of the Hungarian rising, which coincided with the Suez crisis. And, not least, partly it was that the whole thing happened in the middle of a U.S. presidential campaign, which made it more than usually necessary for the Eisenhower administration to appear whiter than white in terms of high principle and clean hands. (Not long after the event, Selwyn Lloyd, the British foreign minister, was to be left gasping in astonishment when John Foster Dulles, the U.S. secretary of state, blandly asked him, "Selwyn, Why did you stop? Why didn't you go through with it and get Nasser down?" A real case of adding insult to injury, one might think.)

I have recounted this episode at length because it seems to me to bear on our theme in two very illuminating respects. First, it happened at a time when the political and cultural ties between the United States and the United Kingdom were very much stronger than they are now. Only a little more than a decade earlier, Britain had hosted over a million U.S. troops on its soil for an extended period; British troops had fought under American generals and Americans under British generals, in what was an extraordinarily intimate arrangement. As well as all that, in 1956 the United States still had what it no longer has: a wasp establishment, with all that meant in terms of tastes and values and affinities. There was no such thing as multiculturalism to cloud the issue; no doubt concerning the superiority of that cultural tradition which derived from America's English origins and which the two countries had in common.
The point is that even in those exceptional circumstances, cultural affinities and shared traditions were not enough to ensure common foreign policy goals, to override hard calculations of national interests. Indeed, that should have become apparent to the British several years earlier, when Harry Truman had abruptly cut off Lend-Lease to Britain almost as soon as the war ended, and when the United States had driven a very hard bargain indeed with Maynard Keynes concerning a loan to prevent the United Kingdom, bled white by a war it had fought from beginning to end, from going bankrupt.

Now if that were true nearly half a century ago, how much truer is it today, when the common culture, political and otherwise, that is being appealed to as the basis of association or unity is so much more attenuated--by massive immigration on both sides of the Atlantic of peoples who are unacquainted with that cultural tradition; by a strident and aggressive multiculturalism that insists that the Anglo-Saxon culture and tradition are no better than any other culture and tradition; and, not least, by educational establishments that do not regard the transmission of a cultural heritage as one of their responsibilities.

In these circumstances, it is surely a serious error to believe that a traditional culture is capable of providing the foundation for a worldwide English-speaking union. After all, in the face of the reckless policies of Tony Blair--whom I have characterized elsewhere as the British Gorbachev, in that he believes that statesmanship consists of taking flying leaps into the future without any clear idea of where one will land--that tradition and that political culture are proving incapable of keeping even the United Kingdom united. Already the term "British" has a diminished application.

Please understand that I am in no way criticizing the United States in pointing these things out. I do so only to try to contest the argument--advanced by some of the most eloquent advocates of an English-speaking union--that cultural compatibility can and should form the basis of a common foreign policy. It cannot. Was it Nietzsche or was it De Gaulle who described states as "cold monsters"? In any case it was Britain's own Lord Palmerston who insisted that "We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow."

That unsentimental formulation is well known. What is perhaps less well known is that Palmerston was doing no more than paraphrasing something said several generations earlier by another statesman. George Washington, in his Farewell Address of 1796, had said: "The nation which indulges toward another an habitual hatred or an habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest."

Any case for a foreign policy union or association of English-speaking peoples will have to be made in terms, not of culture, but of the national interests of the parties involved, and those interests will have to be continually re-interpreted and recalculated as circumstances change.

Bandwagoning and Balancing

The second point to make about the Suez crisis is that, immediately after it, the French and the British did make such a recalculation--and drew diametrically different policy conclusions from the experience. The French conclusion was that never again should they depend on the Americans. There thus began the pattern of--from an American point of view--infuriating French behavior as a prickly, independent, ungrateful, undependable, critical associate of the United States, always concerned with creating arrangements that would lessen its dependence on American power and challenge the dominance of Washington.

The conclusion drawn by the British, on the other hand, was utterly different. It was that never again must they get on the wrong side of the Americans; that the idea of trying to act as an independent force, or with partners other than the Americans, was not a good one. In his inquest on the Suez venture, prepared in 1957 for the chiefs of staff, General Keightley, the commander of the Anglo-French Force, concluded that "it was the action of the United States which really defeated us in attaining our object. . . . This situation with the United States must at all costs be prevented from arising again." All subsequent prime ministers have concurred.
Theorists of international relations have coined the term "bandwagoning" to describe the policy of states attaching themselves to a dominant power, accepting its leadership and adopting its policies in the hope of sharing the benefits accruing from its dominance. Ever since Suez, Britain has been the biggest practitioner of bandwagoning in our time--though it has gone to great trouble to disguise the fact and to preserve its dignity by much talk about Greeks and Romans, and a special relationship.

In fairness, it should be said that as long as the Cold War was a going concern, this policy was a sensible one, since the United States and Britain agreed on the fundamental and overriding goal of containing, frustrating and, if possible, defeating the evil empire. Any differences were confined to second- and third-order questions. But since the end of the Cold War and the emergence of the United States as the sole superpower, things have become a bit more complicated.

Bandwagoning with one superpower to thwart another and much less attractive superpower was one thing; bandwagoning with the sole superpower, the undisputed hegemon, is quite another. It goes against the long-established British tradition of attempting to balance--either alone or by the creation of a coalition--any power that is, or threatens to be, dominant. This, the classic principle of balance of power, has been the central tenet of British policy for the last four centuries. Its logic has been summed up succinctly by the Israeli statesman, Abba Eban: "The alternative to a balance of power is an imbalance of power, which has usually provoked wars and has never consolidated peace."

Why has Britain now abandoned the principle of balance in the case of American hegemony? Several reasons suggest themselves. One is the sheer force of habit acquired over the decades of World War II and the Cold War (and the importance of habit in politics is something never to be underestimated, particularly in the case of people who don't think very much). A second is the complicating factor, already discussed, of a shared political culture and language, which encourages ways of thinking about the relationship that are different from the realism of power politics. A third is Britain's European dilemma--in? out? halfway in? or what?--which makes the U.S. connection especially attractive, in that it can be taken to extend the range of available options, and get Britain off the hook of opting for either complete immersion in Europe or isolation on its fringe. And then there is the widely accepted, and comforting, belief that while non-democratic hegemons are nasty brutes, to be viewed with the greatest suspicion, democratic ones are benign and non-threatening (at least as far as other democracies are concerned) and therefore do not need to be balanced.

No doubt all these factors have played a part. The crucial question is: Will the policy of giving an overriding precedence to the American connection serve British interests? The answer, I'm afraid, is up to a point, yes and no, or it all depends. If Britain tries to make culture and values do the work that only national interests can do, it will fail for the reasons I have already outlined. Again, if Britain assumes an identity of interests between itself and the United States, it will be disappointed. The interests of the United States are truly global, those of Britain regional. For Britain, its relationship with the United States is paramount; for the United States, its relationship with Britain is only one among many, and, necessarily given Britain's comparative weight, less important than some others. In the next few decades it is almost certain that East Asia--China, Japan, the Koreas (soon perhaps reduced to the singular)--is going to loom larger in American calculations than any other part of the world. Britain will play no significant part in that unfolding drama.

Even in the case of Europe, where both countries have very serious interests, the problems for Britain and the United States are very different. For the former, the question of how to relate to the changes occurring in Europe is urgent and sharply divisive domestically. How it is answered could result in political exclusion from a region in which Britain has been intimately involved ever since it came into existence--or, on the other hand, in its inclusion in a political entity run on lines largely incompatible with its own political culture and obnoxious to many in Britain.

None of this applies to the United States. Washington may or may not have been clever in encouraging European unity over the last five decades, but the emergence of a united Europe is not going to constitute an unmanageable, life-threatening problem for it. Given the distance it is behind currently, and given its terrible demographics and the problems inherent in keeping a necessarily fragile unity intact, Europe is not going to be a serious power rival to America. And given its dirigiste, welfare-oriented, protectionist inclinations, it is unlikely to constitute an economic threat that a market-oriented United States cannot handle.

Indeed, it should be acknowledged that, from an American point of view, from here on the worst outcome of the European venture might well be its catastrophic failure. For it has been an elite-run project, carried on in the face of popular hostility or indifference, and if it should collapse, the current political elites of Europe would be thoroughly discredited. As Henry Kissinger has observed, this in turn would open the door to extremists of both the Left and Right, who would be unpleasant--though again not life-threatening--for America to live with. Already, many in Europe see the United States as a domineering, interfering hyperpower, endangering not only the interests but the identity of Europe. How much stronger would these sentiments be in an atmosphere poisoned by a sense of failure and impotence?

Britain has declined to act in its traditional role of balance maintainer with respect to the United States. Could that change? Traditionally, such balancing was done by the creation of coalitions; but there is no way that Britain is going to join with France (or Europe) and Russia and China against the United States. I would like to suggest, however, that there is another way in which Britain could act as a balancer: a balancer from within the camp of the dominant power rather than from without. Or, to change the metaphor, if it is going to stay on the bandwagon it could perform the valuable function of urging the need for careful steering and a judicious use of the brakes.

The British should reflect on the experience of their own country as the only hegemon that did not attract a hostile coalition against itself. It avoided that fate by showing great restraint, prudence and discrimination in the use of its power in the main political arena--by generally standing aloof and restricting itself to the role of balancer of last resort. In doing so it was heeding the warning given it by Edmund Burke, just as its era of supremacy was beginning:

"Among precautions against ambition it may not be amiss to take one precaution against our own. I must fairly say, I dread our own power and our own ambition; I dread our being too much dreaded. . . . We may say that we shall not abuse this astonishing and hitherto unheard of power. But every other nation will think we shall abuse it. It is impossible but that, sooner or later, this state of things must produce a combination against us which may end in our ruin."

I believe that the United States is now in dire need of such a warning. A decade ago, Margaret Thatcher admirably urged a hesitant President Bush to take decisive action in the Gulf. It was the right thing to do, given the vital importance of the Gulf, the uncertainty accompanying the ending of the Cold War, and, perhaps, the character of George Bush. But in the years since then the problem has been different. What we have seen has been a pattern of indiscriminate and irresolute--but unrelenting--busyness, of interfering and lecturing, of a promiscuous though largely ineffectual use of force and of sanctions. It is a pattern of behavior that is alienating an increasing number of states and that, if persisted in, will ultimately be dangerous for the United States.

I believe that the most useful role that Britain can sensibly play as a friend and ally of the United States is to urge discrimination, prudence and restraint on it. For it is those qualities and only those qualities--not a faith in American exceptionalism--that will in the long run enable the United States to avoid the usual fate of assertive hegemons.

I have restricted myself so far to discussing the concept of an English-speaking union from the point of view of Britain and the United States. But as I have spent over a third of my life in Australia and intend to return there, a brief concluding word on that country may be in order.

When I first arrived in Australia in 1955, many in that country still spoke unaffectedly of Britain as "Home", though they might not have ever been within ten thousand miles of it. But even at that time affection coexisted with a robust Australian nationalism, and it would have been a mistake to interpret that usage as reflecting a desire for a return to some sort of political unity with the United Kingdom.

It would be a much more egregious error to conclude today--as I suspect some advocates of an Anglosphere do--that the result of the referendum on the monarchy held in 1999 in any way indicates that the majority of Australians now would be receptive to any such arrangement. The result of the referendum reflected a combination of satisfaction with the status quo and confusion in the ranks of the republicans, rather than any desire to enter into a new, Western-oriented system. Australia continues to attach pragmatic importance to its alliance with the United States. But a combination of its much strengthened economic links with Asia, the British withdrawal from "East of Suez", and the scant regard shown by Britain for its ties with Australia and other ex-Dominions when it entered what was then the European Community in 1973 mean that the ties with Britain are much attenuated.

As the children and grandchildren of Australians who fought with and for Britain in two world wars line up in the "Others" entrance queue at Heathrow, while the descendants of the Germans and Italians whom their fathers fought come in through the "British and Europeans" gate, few of them are thinking of an English-speaking union.

Essay Types: Essay