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About this book

Informed by Winston Churchill’s famous metaphor, successive British governments have shaped their foreign policy thinking around the belief that Britain’s overseas interests lie in three interlocking ‘circles’: in Europe, in the Commonwealth, and in the ‘special relationship’ across the Atlantic. Recent administrations may have updated the language in terms of ‘bridges’, ‘hubs’ and ‘networks’, but the notion of Britain as somehow at the centre of things remains a vital idea. In this updated edition of a classic text, David Sanders and David Patrick Houghton examine British foreign policy since 1945 through the prism of these three circles. Taking account of major developments from the ending of the Cold War, through 9/11 and the so-called War on Terror, to Britain’s historic decision to leave the European Union, it provides a masterly account of Britain’s changing place in the world and of the policy calculations and deeper structural factors that help explain changes in strategy.

Combining chronological narrative with careful consideration of the main theories of foreign policy analysis and international relations, this book provide a reliable and comprehensive introduction to the evolution of British external policy, including economic and defence policy, in the postwar period. Characterized by its accessible style and depth of analysis, and now fully updated in line with twenty-first century developments, Losing an Empire, Finding a Role will remain an invaluable guide to British foreign policy for students of international relations or foreign policy at any level.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
The notion that Britain has foreign policy interests in ‘three circles’ was first encapsulated by Winston Churchill in a speech at a Conservative Party meeting in Llandudno, Wales, in October 1948. The speech had a rather small and select audience, perhaps insufficient to the scale of what the Opposition Leader had to say that day – even though only a small part of his speech explicitly mentioned circles. The problem Churchill addressed was a thorny one. But it was absolutely central to the thinking of those who were contemplating Britain’s future in 1948, and it has remained so since. How could Britain retain a seat at the top table in an era of relative economic decline, in which the international system was becoming increasingly hardened into two great ‘poles’ focused on the United States and the Soviet Union? How could the country punch above its weight, as Douglas Hurd would later put it, given that Britain was massively in debt to the United States and had almost been broken by the economic, political and psychological demands of the war? The Cold War had not yet really begun and there was still something called ‘the British Empire’. Churchill, moreover, was unaffected by the sense of long-term absolute and relative decline that is so commonplace in Britain nowadays, and the country was not yet seen as the ‘mere’ middle-range power it is today. Nevertheless, the issue he addressed was a timeless one, and it has been retained and ‘updated’ by politicians of both main political parties over the years.1
David Sanders, David Patrick Houghton

Chapter 1. British Foreign Policy Traditions

Abstract
A revolt was going on against central rule by a ruthless and distant government. The government was responding by putting down all protest with extreme violence. Helpless citizens were being slaughtered in droves – men, women and children – as the central authority sought to quell all challenges to its rule. Western observers looked on appalled, as accounts of the mass killing appeared in the Western media. In Britain, humanitarians called for military intervention to stop the slaughter. In contrast, pragmatists quietly noted that Britain had no major national interest in trying to intervene in what was principally ‘a domestic affair’. Some suggested that reports of atrocities were being exaggerated, while others noted that it was not entirely clear who was committing these acts. Questions of moral culpability became confused, as media reports began to appear of reprehensible acts committed by the initial victims in acts of apparent retribution. The above paragraph could easily stand as a description of the humanitarian crisis still going on in Syria at the time of writing, as the regime of Bashar al-Assad sought to put down challenges to the rule of his personal family dynasty. It would do equally well as an account of the genocide in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, as Bosnian Muslims and Croats were slaughtered by Serbs led by the genocidal Slobodan
David Sanders, David Patrick Houghton

Chapter 2. From Potsdam to Cold War: Relations with Europe and the Superpowers, 1945–55

Abstract
This chapter examines the development of Britain’s foreign policy in Churchill’s ‘Atlantic’ and ‘European circles’ in the decade after 1945. The simultaneous examination of these two areas of policy is by no means accidental. As will be seen, developments in both circles were intimately related, not least because successive British governments were convinced that a revitalised ‘special relationship’ with the United States was essential if Western Europe was to be effectively defended. Britain’s main problem in this context, of course, was that the ‘Big Three’ allies had not emerged from the war united. As the previous chapter indicated, even before Potsdam British fears of the coming Soviet threat in Europe were already taking shape and, despite the closeness of Anglo-American relations in the technical and military spheres, there were certainly significant political strains in the ‘special relationship’ which gave cause for concern. As things turned out, relations with the Soviet Union were to deteriorate progressively over the next ten years and as a result Britain’s military links with Western Europe were to be substantially strengthened. Relations with the United States were actually set to worsen before they improved after July 1946. This chapter begins by describing Britain main economic and military problems in 1945. The second section examines the events in Europe which transformed American perceptions about the need to withdraw from Europe and led the United States to restore.
David Sanders, David Patrick Houghton

Chapter 3. The Road to Suez: British Imperialism, 1945–56

Abstract
Throughout the 19th century, Britain’s dominance as an imperial power extended well beyond those territories that were administered from the Colonial Office and the India Office. In addition to the formal Empire of the colonies and dominions, London also exercised considerable economic and political influence in China, Latin America and the Middle East. By 1914 Britain’s position in China and Latin America had been undermined by commercial and naval competition from Germany, Japan and the United States. However, the consolidation of Britain’s informal empire in the Middle East progressed steadily as the government took effective control of Egypt in the early 1880s and then acquired possession of the ‘mandates’ over Iraq and Palestine in 1920. This chapter reviews the major developments in both the formal and the informal empire between the end of World War II and the Suez debacle of 1956. The story of the period, somewhat paradoxically, is simultaneously one both of withdrawal and of retrenchment. The first section examines the build-up of forces that led to the rapid withdrawal of British authority in India and Palestine in the late 1940s. It is argued that these withdrawals derived principally from indigenous pressures for autonomy that in the years immediately after 1945 grew irresistibly.
David Sanders, David Patrick Houghton

Chapter 4. The Wind of Change: The Empire Circle after 1956

Abstract
In the years after 1956, Britain progressively withdrew from the Empire ‘circle’. Although the pace of withdrawal varied – at times accelerating and on occasion even going into temporary reverse – it nonetheless proceeded inexorably. At the root of this process, of course, was the relative decline in Britain’s international economic position which had begun well before World War I. However, while Britain’s relative economic decline might have been a necessary condition for the downgrading of the Empire, it was never a sufficient condition for such an eventuality. Crucially, in the period after 1956, economic weakness was complemented by two other processes that encouraged withdrawal: the increased intensity of indigenous nationalist pressures for real local autonomy and the seemingly autonomous shifts that were taking place in the pattern of Britain’s overseas trade. In the decade or so after Suez, the juxtaposition of these three factors produced tremendous pressures for a strategic shift in Britain’s external policy. Fortunately successive governments after 1957 were sufficiently well schooled in the principles of realpolitik to recognise not only that the economic significance of the Empire had diminished but also that Britain’s traditional military position within it could no longer be sustained.
David Sanders, David Patrick Houghton

Chapter 5. The Uncertain Search for a New Role: The European Circle after 1956

Abstract
As noted in earlier chapters, throughout the post-war period successive British governments found it increasingly difficult, in the face of Britain’s long-term relative economic decline, to sustain the strategy of maintaining British influence in all three of Churchill’s ‘circles’. In Chapter 4 it was suggested that, from the mid-1950s onwards, partly as a result of indigenous nationalism and partly because of the diminishing importance of Britain’s imperial trade, Britain’s involvement in the Empire circle was gradually reduced. As will be seen in Chapter 6, by the 1960s, with the process of decolonisation well under way, Britain was also becoming less important to the United States as a strategic ally in the global struggle against ‘communist expansionism’. The obvious corollary to this reduction of influence in both the ‘Empire’ and ‘Atlantic’ circles was for the focus of Britain’s foreign policy to shift towards Europe. It was increasingly recognised in the years after Suez that it was here that Britain’s primary economic and political interests were located; that if Britain wished to retain a significant voice in world affairs, then it would have to do so in concert with its allies in Western Europe. The strategic shift towards Europe was not accomplished without great difficulty, however. Significant problems were encountered in the 1960s as Britain attempted to institutionalise its European connections. And even after Britain finally ‘joined Europe’ in 1973, its residual commitments and responsibilities in both the Empire and Atlantic circles frequently served to reinforce the widely held impression that the British were fundamentally ‘reluctant Europeans’, only partially committed to the ideals of European cooperation that the original six members of the European Union (EU) had so strongly – and productively – embraced.1
David Sanders, David Patrick Houghton

Chapter 6. The Changing ‘Special Relationship’, 1956–2016

Abstract
As was seen in Chapter 2, the ‘special relationship’ between Britain and the United States was forged during the vicissitudes of World War II. Yet as that chapter also showed, in the late 1940s that relationship received a severe buffeting. The abrupt termination of Lend-Lease in September 1945 seriously weakened an already overstretched British economy. The passage of the McMahon Act in August 1946 unilaterally ended five years of intimate Anglo-American nuclear collaboration and obliged the Attlee government to initiate its own independent programme of nuclear research. American diplomatic pressure was an added factor in provoking the British withdrawal from Palestine in May 1947.1 And the US government’s insistence on sterling’s free convertibility in July 1947 produced a catastrophic run on the pound.2 Notwithstanding the considerable Anglo-American collaboration that took place both inside NATO after 1949 and under the auspices of the UN peacekeeping force in Korea after 1950, the special relationship continued to experience traumas throughout the early 1950s. The exclusion of Britain from the ANZUS defence pact between the United States, Australia and New Zealand in September 1951 was interpreted in London as clear evidence of Washington long-term intention to increase its influence in the Pacific at Britain expense.
David Sanders, David Patrick Houghton

Chapter 7. The International Economic Dimension

Abstract
In some respects it might appear unnecessary to delineate a separate area of a nation’s foreign policy and designate it as ‘economic’. After all, not only are self-evidently political strategies frequently shaped by economic objectives and constraints, but decisions about economic policy are equally often guided by political criteria. In spite of the undoubted connections between ‘the economic’ and ‘the political’, there is still a distinctively economic area of British foreign policy which – if only because of its rather technical nature – merits separate investigation. As will be seen, in terms of foreign economic policy the post-war era can be conveniently partitioned into two distinct phases: from 1945 to 1968, when the ‘reserve’ role of sterling was finally abandoned; and from 1968 to the present day, when the role of free markets has expanded relative to the power of the state.1 During the first phase, successive governments sought to restore Britain’s prewar international economic position by continuing to play a dominant and would-be guiding role in the international financial system. During the second phase, a less ambitious and rather more reactive strategy was adopted, a strategy that was in reality far better suited to Britain’s reduced economic circumstances.
David Sanders, David Patrick Houghton

Chapter 8. British Defence Policy

Abstract
Defence policy is that aspect of external policy concerned with maximising the nation-state’s security interests. It consists in the construction of alliances and the development of military strategy designed to deter and/or counter potential foreign aggression. To the extent that foreign policy generally is also concerned in part with security calculations, a number of defence-related themes have already been discussed in previous chapters. This chapter seeks to draw these different themes together by summarising the major changes that have characterised British defence policy since World War II and by outlining the main causal factors which provoked them. As will be seen, one especially significant development of this period was the shift away from the defence of the Empire circle that was associated with the 1968 decision to withdraw from ‘East of Suez’. This shift enabled successive governments to concentrate their defence efforts in the combined European and Atlantic circles – areas where Britain’s primary economic interests were increasingly located. Another significant development in recent years has been that Britain’s participation in global defence affairs has become increasingly dependent on operating within bilateral coalitions or inside multinational alliances like NATO or the United Nations. We therefore focus on the ways in which coalitions and alliances have since become a central focus of British defence policy since the 1990s. Britain has, though, also maintained its own independent nuclear deterrent since the 1950s. Why did UK policymakers – working in an era of increasing austerity – feel that this was not only necessary but essential to Britain’s defence, and does it remain so today?
David Sanders, David Patrick Houghton

Chapter 9. The Relevance of Foreign Policy Theory

Abstract
In the introduction to this book it was indicated that the present study would seek to explain the major developments in Britain’s post-war foreign policy at two different levels. On the one hand, it would examine the calculations that underpinned the foreign policy decisions of successive governments, paying particular attention to the ‘Realist’ world-views of the policymakers themselves. On the other, it would simultaneously attempt to identify the most significant underlying ‘structural’ factors that seem to have influenced Britain’s changing international position, again making particular use of the Realist model.1 Given this intrusion of Realism at both the decision-making and structural levels of investigation, it was acknowledged from the outset that the analysis provided in this book adopted a broadly state-centric, Realist approach, although the view taken was mostly implicit rather than explicit. It is clear from the foregoing chapters, however, that some of the other theoretical perspectives outlined in the Introduction have also proven useful. In these circumstances, the purposes of this chapter are to review the main theoretical perspectives that could have been used in order to analyse Britain’s post-war foreign policy and to assess the relevance of each of these perspectives to the particular analysis conducted here. Not surprisingly, a substantial part of the discussion is devoted to an exposition of Realism, the approach that has featured most significantly in previous chapters.
David Sanders, David Patrick Houghton

Chapter 10. British Foreign Policy in the 21st Century

Abstract
At the time of writing, Britain appears to have cut off one of its own major strategic choices: namely, the historical move towards Europe, which had been motivated in large part by the economic interests that derive from trade. Only time will tell what results from the ‘Brexit’ vote, of course, but from our own perspective the referendum decision that the UK should leave the EU may prove to be a strategic error even more serious than Anthony Eden’s at Suez (examined in depth in previous chapters). Eden’s foray into latter-day gunboat diplomacy failed to achieve its own objectives and accelerated the loss of Empire, but it did not pose the existential threat to the UK’s future that Brexit did. Cameron’s error was much more egregious. Eden failed in 1956 to understand how Britain’s strategic position had changed. Cameron, however, was much better informed and understood the strategic position very well. He knew that Britain possessed vital interests within each of Churchill’s ‘three circles’: in the Commonwealth and the third world; in the special relationship with the United States; and, especially, in Europe. He also knew that for over 40 years Britain’s European strategy had been predicated on its membership of the EU, and that continued membership of the EU was clearly the best way of maximising Britain’s economic and political interests in Europe and beyond. Cameron gambled (recklessly in our view) that a referendum on EU membership would produce a Remain outcome when any competent political analyst could have told him that UK public support for the EU was strongly moved by external ‘shocks’ like the 2007/8 credit crunch and the Eurozone crisis after 2009. It was (at least in retrospect) sheer folly to call a referendum when the EU itself was suffering from the continuing effects of the Euro crisis and the world’s worst refugee crisis since World War II. Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, faces an even more limited menu of choice as a result. ‘Equally, the ascendancy of Donald Trump to the US presidency potentially threatens a global economic system which has existed since the end of WWII’.
David Sanders, David Patrick Houghton
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