July 22, 2002

Britain in 1902 and the U.S. in 2002

For the clippings file...


Charlie's Diary

Political metaphor for the day. Here's a thumbnail picture of a country, as it appears from outside: In the middle of the previous century, this country was an economic superpower, with domestic industries responsibilty for nearly 50% of planetary GDP. Since then, its lead has been eroded by rival second-rank great powers and developing nations, but it still stands at 25-30%. It sits at the heart of a vast free-trade system, although its domestic industries are subtly butressed by regulatory barriers and foreign relations muscle that give them added clout in overseas markets and partial exemption from competition at home...

Sun, 21 Jul 2002

Political metaphor for the day

Here's a thumbnail picture of a country, as it appears from outside:

In the middle of the previous century, this country was an economic superpower, with domestic industries responsibilty for nearly 50% of planetary GDP. Since then, its lead has been eroded by rival second-rank great powers and developing nations, but it still stands at 25-30%. It sits at the heart of a vast free-trade system, although its domestic industries are subtly butressed by regulatory barriers and foreign relations musclethat give them added clout in overseas markets and partial exemption from competition at hime.

As of now it is the pre-eminent military superpower on the planet. It has just abandoned a two-power standard, whereby it must be able to fight two major conflicts simultaneously, but it is capable of projecting force anywhere on the planet almost at will.

The citizens of this country view themselves as naturally superior to those of any other nation on the planet, by virtue of their superior legal and political system and status at the pinnacle of technological and scientific development. The vast majority have never travelled abroad, but they're still pretty sure that they're not missing anything -- and any foreigners who claim otherwise are fools.

There's a messy guerilla war going on in a distant country, where the turbulent natives have been driven out of the cities by retalliatory military action but are sniping at occupation forces from hide-outs in the hills. Opinion at home is outraged at the actions of these turbulent foreigners and demands punishment for their supporters.

The population of this superpower is growing, largely through immigration and demographic change; people from a variety of poor and backward nations are trying hard to get in and partake of the superpower's prosperity, albeit with varying degrees of success. Over the next half century, the population of the nation is expected to grow by 50% or more. At the same time, some minority groups in outlying areas are making waves; it almost seems like they don't want to be part of the same great nation.

On the horizon, relations with the leading European powers are looking turbulent. Peviously friendly to the point of fawning, these second-raters have been feeling their oats of late and peevishly disagreeing with the superpower's foreign affairs people over the appropriate way to conduct relations with the rest of the world. While remaining important, the superpower's leaders are determined to steer their own course -- and to hell with these coat-tail riders.

At home, domestic politics is a little messy; the established two-party system has become acrimonious and disruptive, with one party threatening to veto the other's reform acts. Everyone knows something has to change, and the public are increasingly apathetic or voting for radical third party candidates, but for the time being the tango continues. For now, the chief executive sees eye-to-eye with the conservatives in the upper house, but those damn liberals are threatening to rock the boat -- if they don't fall right out of it first.

What country am I describing?

If you guessed "the United States in 2002" you guessed wrong; this is a portrain of the United Kingdom in 1902. The third Boer war was gathering pace, with elements of civil emergency methods surfacing for the first time -- it was during that war that the British military introduced the use of concentration camps for presumed-hostile civilians for the first time -- while being forced to radically change their tactics in the face of a terrorist/insurgency threat they were ill-equipped to confront with their old tactics.

The economy was enjoying a long Indian summer, partially buffered from the pressure of competition with other developed nations by the huge bulk of the less-industrialised Empire, which acted as a captive market for British goods and as a cheap source of raw materials: one may argue that the anti-globalisation movement is protesting a similar relationship between the United States (and us, here in the EU) and the developing world, today.

The political situation, both in terms of jingoistic patriotism, snide foreign-relations fallout, and tension in the legislature, should require no introduction. One point is worth noting; in 1905 Great Britain startled the world by entering into an alliance with the French Republic and the Russian Empire, overturning the game-tables of centuries during which France and Britain had seen each other as their main imperial rivals, and latterly the Great Game of the 19th century, during which British and Russian agents jostled for territory and the security of British India in the distant statelets of central Asia. (The analogy between Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush's recent rapprochement and the Triple Alliance is too juicy to ignore.)

Incidentally: this is the superpower my grandparents and great-grandparents emigrated to in the early years of the 20th century, to seek their fortune in the wool and cotton trade in Yorkshire and Lancashire. The image of Great Britain as a homogeneous nation is false; Britain was built by successive waves of immigration, over a three thousand year period, and during the 20th century took in roughly 2.5-3 million immigrants. For a country with a population of just 20 million or so in 1902, that figure speaks for itself.

So, what am I trying to say?

Simply this: great powers rise and fall (and indeed there's a good introduction to this topic in Paul Kennedy's "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers"). Britain in 1902 occupied a niche that is eerily similar to that of the United States of America in 2002 -- but, despite the semblance of invulnerable supremacy, just 45 years later Britain stood on the edge of bankruptcy, bombed and exhausted by a war that had cost half a million lives, forced to sell the family silver and relinquish the empire simply to hold things together at home. I hesitate to suggest that by 2047 the USA will be teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and foreign policy collapse, but it would be deeply foolish to expect the status quo to persist in the face of so many precedents; hitherto, every single great power that achieved pre-eminence has collapsed, and there's no evidence that the USA will be any different.

There are, however, two things that worry me. Firstly, there's the possibility that western liberal values might be extinguished in such a collapse. I don't think this is likely -- these values seem to have become intimately entwined in the cultures of numerous other countries, especially in western Europe -- but it's worrisome, especially as the current US government rushes to embrace security at the expense of liberty. A successor superpower that is the 21st century equivalent of the third reich doesn't bear thinking about.

Secondly, and more importantly, there is a big difference between the British in 1902 and the USA in 2002 that may influence the course of international relations after the end of the American century. It's quite simply this: the British civil service was not politicised. Thus, changes of administration and a new Foreign Office minister would not necessarily result in any changes of long-term diplomatic policy. Nor could politicians easily jeopardize relations with other countries by ordering actions which would provide short-term political capital at the expense of the nation's long-term interests. In contrast, American diplomacy always seems curiously short-sighted, directed towards the goal of producing results to brandish at the next election, regardless of the long-term consequences in relations with other countries.

The British foreign office managed a soft landing during their descent from superpower status. Long-term conflicts remained -- the German and Russian rivalries most notably -- but the FO were adept at avoiding short-term measures that alienated their allies. In contrast, the tendency of successive US governments to meddle crudely in the internal affairs of other countries (from the Mossadegh coup in Iran in the early 50's to last week's anti-Cuba declaration by President Bush) seems likely to store up trouble for an uncertain future.

I hope I'm wrong about this, because I'd like to live to see the second half of the next century and more importantly, to enjoy the experience -- but I suspect the history books will mark 2001/2002 as the zenith of American power, before the long slide downhill. Interesting times are coming ...

Posted by DeLong at July 22, 2002 08:48 AM

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