By Ian Morris
Last week, a visit to the London School of Economics gave me the opportunity to participate in some fascinating and important discussions on everything from the origins of agriculture to the future of the U.S.-Iranian relationship. And yet as the week went on, I couldn’t shake the feeling that a truly momentous shift was unfolding right in front of me. Each morning as I walked through Soho to get to the school, I passed under a big banner announcing, “London Welcomes President Xi Jinping.” The Chinese leader had been in town just a week earlier on a visit that British Prime Minister David Cameron had called the beginning of “a golden time” in Sino-British relations.
Britain’s leaders have enthusiastically embraced China. Two years ago, Chancellor George Osborne announced that London would become the first Western hub for trading renminbi and that Chinese banks would be allowed to open branches there. Then in June, Britain ignored U.S. objections and signed the Articles of Agreement of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, widely regarded as a Chinese rival to the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. During Xi’s most recent visit in October, London announced not only that it would ease visa restrictions on rich Chinese tourists but also that the state-owned China General Nuclear Power Group would invest $9 billion in the new Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, despite concerns about China gaining access to nuclear secrets. Meanwhile, negotiations with China continue for a $16 billion investment in High Speed 2, a high-speed rail line linking London to northern England.
Not everyone in Britain supports its flourishing relationship with China. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond came under criticism in October for failing to challenge Xi on his authoritarianism, and British officials arrested three prominent protesters in London during Xi’s visit. I got a taste of the anxiety myself when I drafted a column on the Hinkley Point C negotiations for a British newspaper in 2014, only to have the editor respond that it needed, “less history, more scary stuff about China.” But despite this pushback, a major shift seems to be underway in Britain’s strategic posture — one that appears to be just one part of an even bigger change taking place in the global landscape.
An Island at the Edge of the World
Since about 6000 B.C., when melting glaciers finally raised sea levels high enough to create the English Channel, two fundamental facts have dominated Britain’s strategic position. First, it is an island at the edge of the European landmass; and second, it projects into the northern Atlantic Ocean.
But insularity has rarely equaled isolation. Both archaeology and DNA show that by 5000 B.C., people, goods and ideas were already moving up and down the “Atlantic facade,” stretching from modern-day Spain to Scotland. Southern England was still tightly linked to northern France through ties of ethnicity, economics and culture when Julius Caesar invaded in 55 B.C. However, Britain was still very much the edge of the known world in antiquity and remained so until the 15th century A.D. While the English Channel and North Sea were narrow enough to function as trading highways, the Atlantic Ocean was simply too big for ancient and medieval ships to master. Its vastness formed a barrier that cut the islands off from the real centers of civilization, which stretched from the Mediterranean to China.
This band of civilization had formed the world’s demographic, economic and military core since farming began around 9500 B.C., and for millennia Britain served as a subordinate satellite at the band’s western end. In the last few centuries B.C., northern France heavily influenced southern England, but in the first few centuries A.D. Rome ruled the whole of England and Wales. Then in the mid-to-late first millennium A.D., Germans and Scandinavians settled and plundered much of Britain, before Norway and Normandy invaded England in 1066. By the start of the second millennium, English monarchs (of partly French descent) began pushing back, and for a few short years after 1422 the infant King Henry VI nominally ruled both France and England. By 1475, though, English King Edward IV had formally renounced all claims to France in exchange for cash.
Technology and, above all, the invention of ocean-going ships eventually transformed Britain’s strategic situation. By the 12th century A.D., Chinese shipwrights were building vessels capable of traveling thousands of miles. Arab skippers in the Indian Ocean picked up some of their key ideas and brought them to the Mediterranean. And by the 15th century A.D., Portuguese caravels were nosing their way down the western coast of Africa and across the Atlantic Ocean. In the 1490s, bigger, faster Iberian galleons reached the Americas and passed the Cape of Good Hope to enter the Indian Ocean. The new ships converted the Atlantic Ocean from a barrier around Western Europe to a highway linking it to lands of untold wealth.
Becoming the Center of Global Trade
At first, it seemed as if the new technologies had done little to change Britain’s strategic position. Spain and Portugal, which both combined easy access to the Atlantic with strongly centralized monarchies, were better placed than any other country to exploit the maritime highways. The English, along with the French and Dutch, found themselves shut out of the rich pickings in India, South America and the Caribbean and reduced to trading with the parts of North America that the Spaniards did not want. If anything, Britain seemed more vulnerable than ever to domination from the Continent in the 16th century, particularly when Spain tried to invade it in 1588.
In reality, though, the Atlantic economy that ocean-going ships had created had already begun to improve Britain’s fortunes. The North Atlantic had become the Goldilocks ideal: big enough that very different kinds of societies and ecological zones flourished around its shores, but small enough that European ships could move quite easily around it, trading at a profit at every turn. In this brave new world, the relatively weak governments of England and Holland became an advantage, because they were less able than the powerful Spanish monarchs to expropriate traders’ profits.
Throughout the 16th century, Spanish kings treated the New World and their merchant subjects as a kind of ATM that provided the cash needed to fund wars and dominate Western Europe. But by 1600, they were overextended and bankrupt. English kings, by comparison, struggled to plunder their North American colonists and their traders. Generations of conflict ended in 1688 with a compromise, known as the “Glorious Revolution,” that installed a Dutch king and business-friendly institutions in England. Holland, which did not even have kings, went even further in this direction, and the three great wars fought between the English and Dutch from the 1640s to the 1670s had everything to do with intercontinental trade and nothing to do with European empires.
Meanwhile, Britain’s insularity continued to dominate its strategic thinking, but the fact that it projected into the North Atlantic was increasingly coming to be more important than its location near the Continent. Understanding this, a handful of 18th-century Britons undertook one of the most profound strategic reorientations in history. Rather than seeing Britain as the western end of Europe and using overseas trade to fund wars that could improve the country’s position relative to the Continental powers, they began to see Britain as the hub of an intercontinental trade network. From this perspective, the only reason to fight a war in Europe was to prevent any single power from dominating the Continent, since a dominant land power might then be able to challenge Britain at sea.
The story of how they achieved their goals is too well known to need retelling, but by 1815 Britain had managed to establish a balance of power in Europe and an overseas empire on which the sun never set. Bringing together huge concentrations of capital, precocious industrialization, a vast merchant marine, unrivaled financial expertise, a fleet bigger than any other three navies combined, and an Indian army that could act as a strategic military reserve made Britain the first genuinely global power in history. Unlike any previous empire, Britain derived most of its wealth not from plunder or tax but from its dominant position in global trade, and it used its military and economic muscle to protect free trade and open markets. Long before the “golden time” in Sino-British ties dawned, Britain’s relations with China were entirely a product of this muscle. China’s emperor rejected a British trade delegation in 1793, but 50 years later his descendant was unable to resist any longer after British ships sank his fleet, seized Hong Kong and moved to blockade the Grand Canal, threatening Beijing with famine. The “unequal treaties” that followed, giving Britain a monopoly over trading rights along much of China’s coast, remained in force until the 1940s, and China did not recover Hong Kong until 1997.
The story of how Britain’s 19th-century system broke down is even better known. Free trade allowed some of Britain’s commercial partners — most important, the United States and Germany — to industrialize their own economies. On the one hand, their growing wealth allowed them to buy more British goods and to raise British revenues even further, but on the other it made them rivals in international markets and rich enough to challenge Britain militarily.
After about 1870, Britain’s financial and military lead over its rivals steadily shrank, and with it, the country’s ability to police the international order and to deter other great powers from trying to unite Europe. In 1914, Germany’s leaders decided that their own strategic position was so parlous that they had no choice but to risk war with the world’s policeman. Even if they did not initially aim to master Europe, their war goals rapidly evolved in that direction. Britain and its allies defeated this challenge, but only at a ruinous cost, and a second German offensive (much more explicitly aimed at Continental mastery) could only be overcome with the power of the Soviet Union and the United States.
Same Interests, New Tactics
In 1962, former U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson famously said, “Great Britain has lost an empire and not yet found a role.” But that was not entirely true. Lord Palmerston, Britain’s foreign secretary, had been nearer the mark in 1848 when he said, “We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual friends … [only] our interests are eternal and perpetual.”
For more than 400 years, Britain’s strategic interest had been to engage vigorously in global trade while preventing the rise of a single dominant power on the European continent. In the 17th century, that required all-out naval conflicts with the Dutch. In the 18th century, it required all-out naval conflicts with France as well as colonial expeditions and occasional Continental land wars. In the 19th century, it mostly meant policing the world’s sea-lanes and trying to conduct the Concert of Europe. Between 1914 and 1945, it meant total air, sea and land wars with Germany and an increasing reliance on the United States; and from 1945 into the 2010s, it meant even deeper dependence on American economic and military strength, combined with a delicate diplomatic dance with what we now call the European Union.
British leaders constantly had to recalibrate the balance between their American and European interests. In the 1950s-1960s, they found themselves leaning too far away from Europe and being shut out of the Franco-German alliance that headed the European Economic Community. In the 1970s, they found themselves leaning too far in the other direction, entering the renamed European Communities on disadvantageous terms in 1973. Since the 1980s, they have leaned away from Europe again, renegotiating their financial contributions in 1984-85, opting out of the euro in 1992, joining the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 against Western Europe’s strong objections, and committing in 2013 to an in-out referendum on the European Union within the next four years.
Seen in this light, the dawning of a “golden time” in Sino-British relations takes on new meaning. British interests remain focused, as they have been for centuries, on balancing between Europe and the wider world, but Britain’s special relationship with the United States is just one vehicle for pursuing that balance. There are no eternal allies.
Since about 2010, British governments have begun wondering whether the American alliance is still the best way to maintain their nation’s position in the world. Their interest in becoming “China’s strongest partner in the West,” as Osborne has put it, need not mean that Britain is drawing further away from Europe, since both U.S. President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart insist that they want to see Britain remain within the European Union. Nor does it need to mean that Britain is turning its back on the United States. But it does, nevertheless, represent a significant rebalancing. Britain, with the world’s fifth-biggest economy (in nominal terms) and, by many judgments, its fifth-strongest military, is by any reckoning an important ally of the United States. But the most significant aspect of Britain’s apparent strategic realignment is surely the fact that it is not the only country that is engaging in such activity. Whether we put the blame on the foreign policy vacillations of the Obama administration, the recklessness of the Bush administration, or the steady growth of Chinese economic and military might, even such long-time American allies as Australia, South Korea and Israel are looking for new friends.
The United States has been the world’s greatest power for nearly a century, and for more than a quarter of that time it has dominated the international order more completely than any power in history. But there are growing signs that the ground is shifting under our feet, and few are more revealing than the banners with which London welcomed China’s president in October.