The Rebirth of Realism and the Lessons of History: The British Example (1)(2)

January 22, 2003

The Rebirth of Realism and the Lessons of History: The British Example (1)(2)

Realists look to history and the structural nature of the world as their blueprint for conducting foreign policy.

Realists look to history and the structural nature of the world as their blueprint for conducting foreign policy. In the nature of the world they found themselves in, post-Waterloo Great Britain eerily mirrors the conditions facing the United States at the dawn of the twenty-first century. As these circumstances reflect the present American situation, a closer understanding of the methods of the time ought to lead to a template for present American action.

First, the United States of today and post-1815 Great Britain are in a strikingly similar historical situation. As the dust settled on the field of Waterloo in June 1815, Great Britain found itself, much like the United States after the Cold War, the preeminent power on the globe. Post-Waterloo Great Britain stood as the victor in a series of wars and as primus inter parus at the dawn of a new era; such a historical reality explains why it was a status quo power, wedded to the perpetuation of the post-Napoleonic international system. As such, British geopolitical strategy remained generically the same as all ordering powers since the dawn of civilization- to prevent the emergence of a global rival.

Second, the world the British found themselves in was uni-multipolar in structure, much like our own. In terms of military, economic, political, cultural, and diplomatic power, the British were first among equals but far from being the sole significant power. This structural reality required that the settlement of critical international issues required action by Great Britain, but generally with the aid of some combination of other major powers. For instance, when fighting alone against the Boers (1899-1902) the British found an adversary who threatened to erode domestic British imperial sentiment. But in a coalition with France and Austria-Hungary during the Crimean War (1854-1856), Britain easily defeated Tsarist Russia.

Coalitions of the willing, diplomatic combinations designed to secure a specific purpose, proved to be the diplomatic tool of choice. Hence, the British modus operandi was often a hybrid: to behave multilaterally where possible, and unilaterally where necessary. Harvey Sicherman has described Benjamin Disraeli, British Prime Minister from 1874 to 1880 as knowing "how to create an international coalition around a common objective, and how not to lose his way in the warmth of its company." (2) Current U.S. strategy mirrors the British approach. Secretary Rumsfeld recently stated, "The mission determines the coalition, the coalition does not determine the mission."

Third, Great Britain and the United States' common geopolitical position has defined the emerging threats of their respective eras and identified the best way to defend against such a challenge. Both Great Britain and the United States are "islands" lying off of the main Eurasian continental mass, capable of offshore intervention. The threat of a rising hegemon that could dominate Europe formed the basis of British foreign policy, evidenced by British military opposition to the Spanish Armada, the Sun King of France, Napoleon's legions, Wilhelmine Germany, Nazi Germany and the USSR. Great Britain's outsider status rendered balancing the most effective diplomatic tool for arresting the appearance of a European hegemon. Thus, Great Britain always politically supported the secondary power or grouping of powers, hoping to halt the dominance of a rival with the potential to unite Europe against the island power. For example, Great Britain led a coalition of Russia, Austria-Hungary and Prussia against the mighty Napoleon, then advocated generous peace terms to a defeated France in an effort to balance against Alexander II's powerful Russia, before eventually joining with France and Austria-Hungary to defeat Russia in the Crimean War.

Given the British geostrategic position, British military domination was founded primarily on the strength of the Royal Navy, which from 1860-1910 was as strong as the next three or four naval powers combined. This dominance was based on a particular military advantage-speed of reaction time in a crisis. Great Britain could bring more force to bear, more quickly and over more of the world, than any other great power of its time. For while Russia, China and France possessed vast land forces, only Britain had the ability to quickly transfer effective fighting forces anywhere, making it the world's only genuine global power in the nineteenth century. Given this overwhelming advantage, the statesmen of London remained confident that any challenge to their global predominance could be seen off long after it had presented itself, thus rendering a hyperactive foreign policy unnecessary.

Such a strategy was enormously economical. London had watched through the centuries as Spain, France, Austria and the Netherlands exhausted themselves in an endless series of continental wars. Great Britain, by contrast, had the luxury of only using military force in Europe when the international system itself was threatened. Ironically, Great Britain's great strategic mistake, beyond fighting an endless series of minor colonial wars that sapped its strength, came in recognizing far too late that it was a rising Germany, and not traditional colonial rivals France and Russia, that presented a hegemonic challenge to Europe in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

Today, in terms of geopolitics, America remains committed to preventing the rise of a hegemon although the definition of such a danger has expanded. As Henry Kissinger has observed, "The domination of a single power or either of Eurasia's two principal spheres-Europe or Asia-remains a good definition of strategic danger for America."

Fourth, Great Britain was the undoubted economic leader of its time. In 1860 Great Britain accounted for 53.2 percent of world manufacturing output-slightly more than America's share in 1945. The unchallenged global reach of London, militarily, politically and commercially, enhanced its widespread economic potential, giving Great Britain a strong vested interest in keeping trade relations open and free.

There is another more subtle yet equally important advantage that emanated from Great Britain's economic superiority and consequent advocacy of free trade-the benefits that flowed to other countries from such a policy. Trade is never a zero-sum game; many countries and the world in general benefit from the overall prosperity that an increase in free trade brings. Great Britain's advocacy of a more open world-one with increased free trade, open sea-lanes and the suppression of pirates or any other force imperiling such openness-gained it political acquiescence from other states for its dominant role in the world, as benefits flowed beyond the immediate environs of Whitehall and its Empire. Its free trade policies won over countries that may have otherwise chosen to challenge British supremacy.

Fifth, Great Britain stood at the center of global cultural influence-what Joseph Nye has famously called ‘soft power.' As Zbigniew Brzezinski notes, Britain, "also derived a great deal of its staying power from the perception of cultural superiority." It was in convincing a grudging and often antagonistic rest of the world of this ‘superiority', often at a subconscious level, that cemented an invaluable British advantage. When a Maharajah sent his children to be educated in the British public school system, seeing it as the best in the world, this was a surer sign of imperial victory than all the troops stationed in India. For the children's cultural points of reference became at least partially British, their standards naturally reflected British norms, their aspirations about the way the world did and ought to work, British imperial conceptions.

Such power mirrors the present American experience; the U.S. is far and away the number one film and television exporter to the rest of the world, and its universities, especially at the graduate level, are the envy of the globe. As a result, many of the most talented foreign students flock to the U.S., where they imbibe American culture firsthand. Many more billions are exposed to American norms through its mass culture. From Jazz to Bogart to Homer Simpson T-shirts, from the sublime to the absurd, the rest of the world literally buys into America in a way that it does no other country.

The Britain of Castlereagh and the United States of Rumsfeld share a staggering number of similarities: a historical experience of defeating a revolutionary power over many years; military might centered around speed of reaction time; a common geopolitical position of being an "island" off the Eurasian landmass; inhabiting a uni-multipolar world in which they are the preeminent powers; possessing the world's most dynamic economies; and serving as the repository of most of the world's soft power.

1) Having just defeated an aspiring revolutionary hegemon (Napoleon and the USSR respectively) foreign policy should be primarily directed around stopping the appearance of another.

2) The ordering power should only get directly militarily involved if a threat develops at the global or regional levels, and threatens the maintenance of the favorable status quo. There is no need for a hyperactive foreign policy; due to the concept of imperial overstretch, there is indeed much to recommend against such a course of action.

3) An emerging threat from a possible hegemon can be defined with some precision: that of a rival uniting either major section of the Eurasian landmass. Pursuing balance-of-power politics, allying the preeminent power with the second greatest regional power or powers against the emerging threat, should always be the diplomatic gambit of choice.