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When do Great Powers cease to be “great”?
Reflections on Britain and its usefulness to the United States

By Dr Michael J. Turner
Roy Carroll Distinguished Professor of British History
at Appalachian State University, North Carolina

In scholarly investigations of Britain’s experience of “decline” as one of the modern world’s Great Powers, a common modus operandi involves both an analysis of problems that were specific to Britain and a comparison of Britain’s international role and capabilities with those of other Great Powers. A useful technique is to pose an over-arching question, one that better enables us to place Britain (or indeed any other Great Power) into an intelligible conceptual framework: When do Great Powers cease to be “great”? This inquiry obliges us to re-interrogate “greatness,” “power,” and “decline,” and perhaps also to revisit certain historical perspectives that are behind current disquiet relating to the changing international order. In the case of Britain, concerns about “greatness,” “power,” and “decline” have become a staple part of popular as well as scholarly discourse, but they are rising to a new intensity because of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government’s Strategic Defense and Security Review of 2010. This was the first such review in more than thirteen years, and it took place in a rapidly deteriorating economic context. The government decided that drastic retrenchment was unavoidable.

Predictably, Prime Minister David Cameron 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”—and Defense Secretary Robert Gates complained that “the more our allies cut their capabilities, the more people will look to the United States to cover whatever gaps are created.” In effect, the review of 2010 provided for a reduction of 8 per cent in the British defense budget over four years (other government departments had their budgets slashed by as much as 25 per cent); 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 7000 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.” In 2011 the total number of active personnel in the main branches of Britain’s armed forces was 175,000. The government planned to reduce the British Army to 95,000, the Royal Air Force to 33,000, and the Royal Navy to 30,000, giving a total of 158,000. This shrinkage in manpower was to be accompanied by a loss of weaponry and equipment—tanks, artillery, aircraft, ships, warheads. The number of civilian staff employed at the Ministry of Defense would also be smaller. In 2011 it was 80,000. It is projected to fall to 55,000 by 2015, and to 48,000 by 2020. Protests continue, from Britain’s allies and, domestically, from Members of Parliament, newspapers, workers’ groups, defense industries, think tanks, and the armed forces themselves. The Conservatives, who dominate the coalition government, and long regarded as strong on defense, have inevitably disappointed many of their supporters. 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 limited resources. The record has not simply been one of periodic cutbacks, however, for policymaking was and is anything but straightforward. If we look at the readjustments that were necessary 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. An argument might be made that Britain has not ceased to be “great.”

When do Great Powers cease to be “great”? There are many criteria we might wish to explore in trying to answer this question. The most important are economic and military criteria, and of course the two are closely connected. Military power has an economic basis; heavy defense spending has a significant impact on the national economy. Britain’s economic performance since the mid-Victorian boom is generally regarded as unimpressive. Measurements such as share of world manufacturing output are used by commentators to emphasize Britain’s “decline” relative to other Great Powers. In 1880, the British share was about 23 per cent. In 1914 it was less than 14 per cent, and in 1938 it stood at around 11 per cent, by which time the United States had over 31 per cent. By 1970, Britain’s share was less than 10 per cent. West Germany produced nearly 20 per cent of the world’s manufacturing output at this time, more than the United States and about double the share of Britain. Assessments of Britain’s military capacity also tend to stress “decline.” If we look at the size of Britain’s armed forces the overall picture is one of steady reduction. The total number of personnel in the British Army, Royal Navy, and Royal Air Force in 1951 was 490,000. In 1975 the figure was 338,000, and it was down to 196,000 in 2005. But although there is a clear trend here, and the figures cited above for 2011 perpetuate it, the picture is complicated by short-term and long-term phenomena which demonstrate that Britain retained a potential military capacity that was greater than the statistics might suggest: for example, the expansion of the armed forces at the time of the Korean War (1950-53), the ambitious rearmament program of that time, national service (conscription), and the development of an independent nuclear deterrent.

Britain’s military establishment remained large and expensive after 1945, which explains the major defense review of 1957 and the resulting Sandys reforms, named after the Minister of Defense Duncan Sandys (the senior British government minister in charge of defense was known as Minister of Defense between 1940 and 1964; in 1964 the office was altered to that of Secretary of State for Defense). 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.

What was the reference point? When had Britain last been able to balance spending, manpower, and defense responsibilities at home and abroad? During the 1920s and 1930s, there had been a time when this balance had apparently been achieved. At one stage defense spending had taken only 3 per cent of the national wealth and the armed forces numbered less than 300,000. By 1957, defense spending took 8 per cent of the national wealth and the number in the armed forces was 700,000. The French were spending only 6 per cent of their GDP (gross domestic product) on defense and the West Germans only 4 per cent. 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 per cent of GDP.

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.

After 1945, defense spending reached a peak of 11 per cent of GDP during the Korean War. From 8 per cent in 1957 it fell to 7 per cent in the mid-1960s. In 1970 it was 6 per cent, in 1978 4.7 per cent. Then there was an increase, owing to NATO’s decision of May 1977 that its members would boost their spending by 3 per cent annually from 1979. During the mid-1980s Britain’s defense spending fell back again, from 5.4 per cent of GDP to 4.7 per cent. In absolute terms Britain’s defense expenditure was about the same as that of West Germany and France, but as a proportion of GDP it was higher. The figures for 1986 were 4.7 per cent for Britain, 4 per cent for France, and 3.3 per cent for West Germany. Britain’s economy was therefore subjected to greater pressure, and within NATO Britain remained one of the highest proportionate spenders.

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 reminiscent of America’s than 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. There were also “out of area” responsibilities, notably in Hong Kong, Belize, the Persian Gulf, and the Falklands.

The need to balance commitments and resources was as pressing in the 1980s as it had been in the 1950s, and a defense review in 1981 provided for sweeping cuts, especially in the Royal Navy. The Falklands War of 1982 meant that some of these plans were cancelled or postponed, yet the mode of expenditure was not greatly changed and navy, army, and air force still had to compete for shrinking funds.

As mentioned above, Britain’s decision to remain in the nuclear game entailed growing dependence on the United States. This was confirmed by the Nassau Agreement of December 1962, under which Britain was able to purchase Polaris missiles at a favorable rate. The agreement was a sign of the mutual regard between the British and American leaders of the time, Harold Macmillan and John F. Kennedy. Not until Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s did a similar closeness recur. The Polaris force was updated during the 1970s, at great expense, and in July 1980 the Thatcher government confirmed that Britain would be purchasing Trident from the United States at a cost of about £5 billion. It soon became clear that the Reagan administration regarded Trident as a temporary weapon, which would be deployed until an improved version, Trident II, became available in the late 1980s. The United States offered Trident II to Britain in October 1981.

This became a source of great contention in Britain. It was argued that Britain could not afford Trident II and did not need it; that it would not be possible to exclude it from future arms control negotiations; that it would provoke a Soviet reaction; and that British public opinion would not accept it. By January 1982, however, Thatcher had concluded that Britain’s need for a credible deterrent made Trident II the best option. The government admitted that it would exceed the nation’s defense requirements, but insisted that strategic cooperation with the Americans had to be facilitated, which meant that it was important to have the same weapons.

The bargain brought Britain into a closer alignment with the United States. Trident II was expected to cost £10 billion. The government was fortunate in that much of the expenditure on Trident was postponed, which eased the budget problems of the early 1980s, but eventually more money had to be devoted to Trident. By the end of the 1980s about 8 per cent of the defense budget (more than £1 billion a year) was being spent on Trident, and this outlay was expected to continue for seven years. In fact the cost was even higher, for a careful scrutiny of the defense estimates reveals that the government excluded some of the expenses associated with Trident. Perhaps 20 per cent of the total defense budget was taken up by Trident in this period, which helps to explain the continuing calls for its cancellation.

So far we have been considering some of the military and economic aspects of Britain’s Great Power status after World War II. We ought also to factor in decolonization. A pivotal date for Britain was 1957, when 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.

Empire features in many accounts of Britain’s international role in the twentieth century and Britain’s “decline” as a Great Power. But because Britain withdrew from empire, since it was not the political, financial, diplomatic, or strategic asset it once had been, we might conclude that decolonization was meant to preserve status. It did not signify the acceptance of a lesser international role. Rather, it was a shrewd and advantageous reallocation of resources and commitments. The British stopped doing some things in the world in order to continue doing other things which had become more important to them.

Empire is often included in institutional explanations of “decline,” along with the role of the government, the nature of the British state, tension between interventionist and laissez-faire policies, heavy defense expenditure, and the delay in drawing back from a global presence. Some historians prioritize the comparative aspect, arguing, for instance, that West Germany and Japan did better than Britain economically from the 1950s because they developed more successful styles of capitalism and closer relations between the state, business, and labor.

Other explanations of “decline” center on war. The main concerns here include the direct cost to Britain of World War I and World War II, the changes wrought by war to international trade and investment, and the relative effects of war on Britain and on Britain’s economic, political, imperial, and military competitors.

There have also been cultural explanations of “decline.” Historians focus on innate British conservatism, passivity in the face of new challenges, resistance to innovation, and inadequate education and training. The result, we are told, is that the foundations of Great Power status were allowed to decay.

Another set of explanations has been alluded to already: these are the economic determinants, which include entrepreneurial failings, inadequate investment, class divisions, the shortcomings of capitalism, and the dominance of financial interests (especially the City of London) over the manufacturing sector.

Perhaps the least controversial explanations are those that we might call chronological explanations. According to this line of argument, Britain’s “decline” was just a matter of time. For any Great Power, “decline” is always relative, and a process not an event. Britain had been the dominant world power but could not remain so indefinitely, and as other powers became stronger “decline” for Britain became a chronological probability. 

Even as we evaluate these different criteria and claims, however, we ought also to consider the way that “decline,” or “greatness,” or “power” are contingent upon perception. A lot depends on manipulating perceptions.

When we started out, there were the waverers and the faint-hearts … those who believed that our decline was irreversible, that we could never again be what we were … that Britain was no longer the nation that had built an Empire and ruled a quarter of the world. Well they were wrong … We have not changed. When the demands of war and the dangers to our own people call us to arms, then we British are as we have always been: competent, courageous, and resolute. We know we can do it; we haven’t lost the ability. The faltering and the self-doubt have given way to achievement and pride. What has indeed happened is that now once again Britain is not prepared to be pushed around. We have ceased to be a nation in retreat.

These are the words of Margaret Thatcher, trying to sound like Winston Churchill (indeed, he was quoted in her speech) on July 3, 1982, in her address at Cheltenham after Britain’s victory in the Falklands War. To Thatcher, her cabinet colleagues, her party, her supporters and admirers, “decline” had been stopped, and it cannot be denied that the Soviets, Americans, and others took Britain’s wishes and opinions much more seriously after the Falklands victory. Does this not suggest that, like beauty, “decline” is in the eye of the beholder? It is at root a matter of perception.

Yet the Falklands crisis did not bring about a permanent change in the international order to Britain’s benefit; and, as historians have been pointing out since the Thatcher years, we should not confuse “decline” with “declinism.” Although the 1970s are known for the notion, vocabulary, and even acceptance of “decline,” certain economic and social criteria indicate that Britain was not performing far below other industrial nations. Accusations about “decline” were often politically motivated. Thatcher and the Conservatives used “declinism” as a party weapon, much to their own advantage.

This underlines the importance of perception. What others thought Britain could do mattered more than what it could actually do. The fact that Britain had a nuclear strike capability (the atomic bomb from 1952, the hydrogen bomb from 1957, and thereafter American-made weaponry) is vital here, not least because it meant that there were two centers of decision-making in the West, which kept the Soviets guessing. Britain was better able to manipulate perceptions.

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.”

Washington could do things against Britain’s wishes. So could Moscow. So could the European Community, NATO, the United Nations, the G7, and the Commonwealth. But no government or organization could ignore Britain’s wishes on matters that directly affected British interests. Britain still had influence. Douglas Hurd, British Foreign Secretary from 1989 to 1995, used the phrase “punching above its weight” to describe Britain’s performance in international affairs, in a lecture at the Royal Institute for International Affairs in 1993. It is true that Britain has punched above its weight. Since 1945, the British have enjoyed a role and a status beyond their real economic and military strength. Resources and opportunities, limited as they were, were used effectively. Britain did decline relative to other Great Powers, but the decline was resisted, minimized, controlled, hidden, denied, slowed up, and deferred as well as it could have been in the prevalent international circumstances.

The phrase “punching above its weight” was also used in a BBC report of 1999, when British troops arrived in Kosovo: “This boxing metaphor says much about Britain’s sense of identity: national pride is tinged with a suspicion that we don’t quite deserve our place at the top table of world affairs.” David Cameron was rather less equivocal when justifying his government’s defense policy in the House of Commons on October 19, 2010: “Britain has traditionally punched above its weight in the world and we should have no less ambition for our country in the years to come.”

This idea of “punching above its weight” reminds us again of the importance of perception, and suggests a means of addressing our main question: When do Great Powers cease to be “great”? They cease to be “great” when the other Great Powers no longer regard or treat them as such. So Britain will cease to be “great” when the other Great Powers decide no longer to listen to Britain, or seek British help and cooperation, or ask for advice or approval, or respect British national interests. This has happened at specific times and on specific issues, but it has never become a fixed characteristic of the international order; and although that order has changed a lot since 1945, Britain has retained a constant role within it. 

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 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.

Historically, alliances have taken various forms. Today they also come in different shapes and sizes and do many different things. They can be instruments for capability aggregation, or instruments designed to restrain, and they can also be based on other needs and aims. They can involve formal treaties, or not. They can sometimes be based primarily on a long record of practical cooperation, and it is this feature (habit and interest) that lies at the core of the Anglo-American “special relationship,” by far the most important relationship Britain has had in the modern period. An enduring pattern was set for Britain’s dealings with the United States during the 1950s. The events of that decade reveal much about the nature of the “special relationship,” the tests it was able to withstand (or not), and the advantages and disadvantages it held for the British. Moreover, the 1950s represent a time when the post-World War II international order was quite fluid. Power relationships were still unsettled and there was potential for them to change.

How did the “special relationship” operate during the 1950s? It cannot be denied that in some respects it operated against Britain’s interests. Despite problems and disagreements, however, there was capability aggregation for Britain and Britain did have the ability to restrain the Americans. The “special relationship” brought enhanced security for the British Isles and Britain had access to considerable economic aid. Britain used its links with America to put pressure on third parties. The “New Look” strategy adopted in 1954 by the United States and NATO, which entailed greater reliance on nuclear weapons, suited Britain because it was already a nuclear power; also there were direct, bilateral nuclear exchanges with the Americans when restrictions were removed in the late 1950s, and, because Britain was America’s only nuclear ally, extra influence. Meanwhile, the consolidation of NATO in the mid-1950s involved major diplomatic successes for the British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, who repeatedly outshone U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. Eden also had a decisive role, unlike Dulles, in negotiating the Geneva Accords on Indochina in 1954. In addition, the 1950s saw London persuade Washington that the British version of European integration (inter-governmental) was just as valid as the continental preference (supra-national). During the Korean War the British managed to prevent a larger conflagration, pushing the Americans to rule out the use of nuclear weapons and contributing to the removal of American general Douglas MacArthur, with whose performance as commander-in-chief in Korea the British were dissatisfied. Britain’s formal recognition of communist China over U.S. objections offers another sign of independence, and this tendency can also be seen during the coup in Guatemala in 1954. Guatemala was in Washington’s sphere of influence and Dulles repeatedly warned the British to keep their noses out, but London put great pressure on the Americans to prevent them from going too far and provoking an even bigger reaction against the Western Powers.

Here is a portrayal of Britain as active and influential in global affairs during the 1950s and as one of the world’s greatest powers (along with the United States and Soviet Union). A pessimist might counter this optimistic impression by pointing to the Suez affair of 1956. Suez is widely regarded as a disaster for Britain. To some, it marks the end of Britain’s Great Power status, a terrible humiliation, a loss of prestige and influence, after which Britain lurched into a heavier reliance on the Americans, who had forced Britain to back down over Suez. Without doubt Suez was a serious blow. But Britain did not suddenly lose the ability to act independently on the world stage, or immediately rush into a headlong retreat from empire; and the “special relationship” was quickly restored (American leaders admitted that they had made a mistake in turning against the British). NATO was unaffected; protest in the Commonwealth died down; and within months of the Suez operation there was further British military intervention in the Middle East, this time with American assistance.

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 its 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.

Copyright © 2012 Dr Michael J. Turner

Available from - Britain and the World in the Twentieth Century: Ever Decreasing Circles by Dr Michael Turner

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