Vladimir Putin, a man who styles himself a Russian nationalist and neo-imperialist, famously lamented the collapse of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical disaster of the [twentieth] century.”
Putin was wrong. It was the collapse of the British Empire that proved disastrous for the world—and particularly for U.S. foreign policy.
Before the end of the British Empire, as Derek Leebaert details in his thrilling new history, Grand Improvisation: America Confronts the British Superpower, 1945-1957, the United States pushed an otherwise-stable British Empire into premature collapse. In so doing, feckless American elites forced the United States to assume the mantle of global super-cop, a role that most Americans would never support. The collapse of the British Empire also consigned both the Middle East and Africa to its current round of instability, by denying these regions to the British, who were seeking to develop them as they did India.
With the existence of the British Empire, the United States usually could defer to British preferences on world affairs, avoiding entanglements in the various tribal and ethno-religious animosities that have come to define U.S. foreign policy in the postwar era. The British Empire constituted what American leaders ranging from Hubert Humphrey to George C. Marshall viewed as the United States’ “outer defense” perimeter.
For nearly the entirety of America’s existence as an independent nation-state, American policymakers had often outsourced their international security to their English-speaking cousins in the powerful British Empire. A famous example of America doing just that is the Monroe Doctrine. Proclaimed to the world by America’s fifth president, James Monroe (though written by Monroe’s brilliant secretary of state, John Quincy Adams, son of America’s second president, John Adams), this doctrine was intended to prevent rapacious colonial empires in Europe from creating any new colonies in South America that could challenge the United States.
When the declaration was issued, the United States had no way of enforcing this claim. So, despite Washington’s assertion that the United States effectively would protect South America from future European adventurism, the Americans implicitly relied on the British Royal Navy to enforce this edict. By the time of the Cold War, Britain had come to be a kind of big brother for Americans on the world stage—a situation that the Joint Chiefs of Staff (and most American leaders) were more than happy to permit.
Auditing an Ally
Contrary to popular opinion, the British were never intending to go quietly into that good night and meekly hand off their centuries-old global empire to their naïve upstart cousins in America.
In his retelling of those fateful 12 final years of the British Empire, Leebaert also dispels the notion that the British Empire folded under its own weight by revealing a previously classified document—NSC 75—crafted by the Truman Administration’s own National Security Council.
Written in July 1950 in response to a series of financial shocks in Britain, the Truman Administration sought essentially to audit their Cold War ally. The Americans had been giving billions of dollars to the British while simultaneously making military decisions predicated on the British Empire’s staying power in the Cold War. Given the economic setbacks that Britain had endured, despite American support, Washington wanted to confirm that their support did not constitute a sunk cost.
NSC 75 was the most comprehensive assessment of an ally the U.S. government had ever undertaken. What’s more, it proves that the British Empire was strong in the 1950s, despite the brief financial shocks it had experienced. More interestingly, was NSC 75’s conclusion that any attempt by Washington to assume the British Empire’s role in world affairs; to take the Soviets on alone, would end up breaking the American economy as well as its Armed Forces. The authors of NSC 75 further asserted that the American people were unlikely to support such an endeavor.
Shedding the Protective Skin
Of course, the British Empire did collapse—infamously in the aftermath of the sordid Suez Canal Crisis. The crisis broke the British Empire by essentially pitting their bankers, the Americans, against London. After the pro-Soviet nationalist forces of Egyptian leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, nationalized the Suez Canal, a joint British-French-Israeli force attempted to retake the Suez Canal Zone and reassert control in Egypt. Yet the British did not consult the Americans.
When the fighting began, an irate President Dwight D. Eisenhower foolishly sided with the Egyptians against the British. Eisenhower threatened Britain with insolvency unless London abandoned its neo-colonial endeavor. In essence, Washington pushed the British Empire into the dustbin of history, thereby committing one of the most self-harming geopolitical acts in American history.
Thankfully, the United States was able effectively to resist the Soviet threat and defeat it. Yet, as Leebaert argued in another book, The Fifty-Year Wound, the United States lost something of itself in that conflict; it had become a hideous parody of the British Empire it had displaced. Even after the victory in the Cold War, the Americans maintained themselves as the new global empire, enjoying what the late Charles Krauthammer called America’s “unipolar moment.”
Unfortunately, like the British of old, the Americans found themselves increasingly enmeshed in tribal, ethno-religious blood feuds in lands once dominated by the British Empire. Unlike the British, though, the Americans did not possess the foreign policy experience or political will effectively to resolve these problems. Thus, all of the negative consequences that NSC 75 predicted finally became a reality for the United States.
This could have been avoided, of course, if the United States not dithered over which side to back during the Suez Canal Crisis. Those who viewed Britain as representing an “outer defense” layer for the United States were correct. In effect, the British Empire was the protective skin around the vital United States. Eisenhower’s decision to assert a new “declaration of independence” from British authority amounted to an insuperable laceration in the once-protective skin around the United States. After that, the United States became a permanent warfare state, as James T. Sparrow dubbed it, thereby undermining the vision that America’s Founders had for the country.
Most of America’s recent foreign policy woes have emanated from places like the Mideast, Africa, and also Asia. These three regions were once backyards of the British Empire and the British understood how to craft meaningful solutions to seemingly intractable conflicts in these regions.
The Americans, on the other hand, had no experience or patience for resolving conflicts there and, have become endlessly mired in increasingly bloody wars abroad—all of which have bankrupted the United States and broken the back of its military.
While American leaders viewed their British allies as a continual nuisance, it is likely that standing united with Britain during the Suez Canal Crisis would have led to a far cheaper victory in the Cold War for America.
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