A British Empire could rise again…on American coat-tails

Aaron Ellis 10.07am

The rise and fall of great powers is a familiar theme of history and a regular concern for politicians. Yet few appreciate that a country can rise and fall and rise again.

During the past millennium, England has held and lost many empires, and gone from one of the known world’s foremost powers to its weakest and back again. An Anglo-Saxon chronicler lamented in the late tenth century that England’s navy was not what it was just sixty years previously, “when no fleet was ever heard of except of our own people who held this land.”

England can be one of the world’s foremost powers once more, but it is a long-term ambition, and I will be long gone if and when it is achieved.

We are only a secondary world power today and, since the 1940s, we have been dependent on the United States for our security. Trident is not the only thing for which we rely on Washington: half of the material processed by the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) comes from American sources. We could not have intervened in Libya without the help of the US military either, no matter how fiercely the Prime Minister believed that venture was vital to national security.

In order to justify the many benefits we enjoy from our close relationship with the Americans, Britain tries to make herself useful. Yet we will find this more and more difficult to achieve as successive administrations in Washington "pivot" to the Pacific, and as successive governments in London try to keep the defence budget as respectably low as they can.

So how could Britain make itself useful? There is an option: take responsibility for those parts of the world the US can no longer afford to look after.

Not only would this justify perks such as intelligence sharing and the nuclear deterrent, it would also give time to develop these and other capabilities ourselves or wait for emerging powers to develop them and realign ourselves accordingly. It also offers Britain an opportunity to build her influence in those regions vacated by the Americans in the twentieth century.

By limiting ourselves to a few “spheres of influence”, Britain can also prove itself useful to the US without overstretching. Moreover, if the British are to be “deputy” to the American “sheriff”, we must choose parts of the world where we have real interests at stake. This requires thinking strategically and making tough choices in defence and foreign policies. We would also have to put our money where our mouth is on the subjects of “hard” and “soft” power.

There are several regions the Americans could turn over to Britain. For instance, rather than evenly divide its navy between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the US plans to shift its emphasis to the latter in the next eight years (with a 60:40 ratio). Britain could make up the difference and gradually take on full responsibility for the Atlantic. This would require us to build up our own naval power.

We could also relieve the US of responsibility for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The British have a better relationship with Islamabad than the Americans do, putting us in a better position to oversee security in the region once troops depart Afghanistan next year.

Britain has tangible national security interests at stake: the head of MI5 has said that half of the terrorist plots against the country come from Pakistan. With the latter paralysed by political crises and its army suffering an ideological crisis, it is unlikely that figure will go down in the foreseeable future.

Yet if we were to assume the burden of security in that region from the US, we would have to try to match their presence. This won’t merely be about “hard power” (i.e. US counterterrorism), but also about diplomatic presence and financial assistance. One expert has described British aid to Pakistan as a “drop in the ocean” compared to America’s.

Though British politics is becoming increasingly eurosceptic, Washington would like to see us play a bigger part in the continent’s security, preferably by helping to forge a better working relationship between NATO and the EU. The always-sharp Christopher Coker has suggested the UK can earn real gratitude here, “provided we are seen to be a useful European ally to our European friends.”

This entire approach is ambitious in the long term but prudent in the short to medium terms. In order to sustain the special relationship throughout the twenty-first century, it sticks to the theme of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard: if we want things to stay the same, things shall have to change.

As for the twenty-second century, it offers an opportunity for the United Kingdom to lay the foundations for yet another rise to the top of the world.

No Englishman should have any less ambitious a vision.

Follow Aaron on Twitter @AaronHEllis