Two hundred years ago this June, with the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, the United Kingdom successfully inaugurated a grand strategy that would last, through thick and thin, right up until the 2008 financial crisis. Today, with Europe on the brink of turmoil, it is clear that Britain’s remarkable geopolitical run is at an end. But instead of marking the U.K.’s senescence, the changing of the strategic guard augurs a remarkable and liberating new era of global significance.
Simply put, for those back-to-back centuries, the singular task of the British Empire was to prevent the emergence of a single dominant nation on the continent of Europe — a hegemon, in the parlance of international-relations theorists. Whatever the price paid, whatever the burden borne, the British refused to budge on this point, aware that they were under threat not only of invasion but also of economic isolation. They knew that, despite the Empire, the end of independence for the European nations would hasten the end of Britain, whether it was Napoleon, Hitler, or Communism that brought it about.
All that appeared to change, of course, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, and the undoing of the USSR. An end to the specter of Soviet hegemony, however, only opened the possibility of a new challenge. Just such an eventuality rolled around in 2008, when the West realized that the continent’s economy — and perhaps the world’s — depended completely on the economic domination of Europe by Germany. Since then, in a remarkable run, Berlin has effectively controlled the destiny of every country in Europe, plus Britain. And Britain has done nothing to stop it — indeed, it is now Britain’s policy to ensure that German hegemony is uninterrupted by Greeks, Russians, or anyone else.
To be sure, signs mount by the month that Europe’s patience for German supremacy of any kind, even purely financial, is running out. But no other power capable of leading Europe’s destiny poses the remotest threat to British vital interests. Russia may wish to absorb as much of its former empire as it can, cowing the Germans and bullying the Poles in the bargain; but France, which commands a degree of moral authority in European politics that Germany cannot, is growing more nationalistic, not less — a potent firewall against Putinist expansionism run riot. Indeed, French domination of Europe is more likely than any other, and the French are as close to the British now as they have ever been. Shaping continental politics in their image will not put them at odds with their cross-Channel allies.
For the United Kingdom, the upshot of the new European geopolitics is a degree of uncertainty — and freedom — unprecedented in modern times. It is therefore no surprise that the debate over Britain’s membership in the European Union is approaching a fever pitch. But a full-blown vote on “Brexit,” as the Financial Times’ George Parker reported, would throw Britons into chaos, right at the moment they ought to unite around a fresh grand strategy to replace the old. Ditching the EU, whatever its merits, would do little to reveal what’s next for the U.K. That cart must not come before the horse.
Prime Minister David Cameron, however, has vowed to permit a referendum on the question by the end of 2017, so the clock is ticking. Fortunately, the new grand strategy awaiting Britain is enough of a no-brainer to be adopted swiftly and safely. Liberated from the onus of equalizing Europe’s powers, Britain is now capable of turning its attention away from Europe without turning its back on Europe. And that means returning its heart and soul to the world.
Talk of a newly global role for Britain is not without peril. Some will remind us the British no longer have an empire, or one worthy of the name. Others will remind us the British did have an empire, complete with blood, brutality, and exploitation, never mind its relatively commercial purpose. Still others will caution (as Christopher Hitchens did) that the collapse of Britain’s empire set the world up for decade upon decade of post-colonial violence, from the partitioned Raj to partitioned Palestine to partitioned Cyprus and beyond.
Yes, but. Britain is older, wiser, and made up of different people now. Although the chastened, reduced kingdom has lowered its horizons considerably, a global role still resonates with the island nation teeming with immigrants and sharing a language with billions worldwide. And at the end of the day, as a Briton might say, one must resolve to do something.
That something, it is wise to believe, will approximate the form of the so-called Anglosphere. Analysts and opinion-mongers do not quite agree on the full extent of the Anglosphere — at its core, the U.K., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand; but probably also Singapore, India, and substantial chunks of Africa. Nor do they quite agree what precisely it is for. For some, it’s an alternative to NATO; for others, an improvement on EU solidarity; for others still, it’s the best way to keep Atlanticism alive and well at time when continental Europe is moving further out of America’s orbit.
That’s why at least one great enthusiast of the Anglosphere wants to rename it. Daniel Hannan, author of Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World, puts the problem this way: “If your society is based on personal freedom, sanctity of contract, the rule of law and representative government, you qualify, whether your parents were born in Penang or Pinner.” The Anglosphere’s critics “understand this point,” he observes, “but they affect not to. When they hear the word Anglosphere, they reflexively fling accusations of racism and colonialism. The result is that people from non-British backgrounds, however committed they are to the ideal, often feel they have to apologize for, or at least explain, the word itself.”
At any rate, there are a few clear facts about Anglophonia-or-whatever, and they are these: First, it is prospering, from its relatively pluralistic assimilation of a high volume of immigrants to its facility with industrial and post-industrial production. Second, the zone matches its economic functionality with cultural competence, including reproductive stability and linguistic ascendancy. Third, and finally, it cultivates a kind of cosmopolitanism that’s unafraid to get its hands dirty, so to speak; while many Americans simply wouldn’t dream of living abroad, much less swapping citizenship, many of Anglophonia’s most enterprising take a far more open and worldly view of human flourishing.
Those virtues all beckon toward a new global strategy that could fulfill both the identity and the potential of the British people. Having just celebrated the 200th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans, the least we Americans can do is encourage them.
― James Poulos is a columnist at The Daily Beast. He writes for The Week, The Federalist, and other publications, and tweets at @jamespoulos.