There is something strangely flattering in the Russian and Iranian portrayal of Britain as a Machiavellian intriguer, bending the might of the American empire to its own will in subtle and devious ways. For the truth, alas, is somewhat different. Since the end of the Second World War, Britain has been a subordinate part of the American imperial project, perhaps the equivalent of the Indian Princely States or Nigerian kingdoms of Britain’s own lost empire. Britain provides a touch of exotic glamour through the quaint and picturesque customs of its loyal native rulers, and the now largely ceremonial armed forces it maintains. Yet the policy of indirect rule remains in force: British rulers may arrange their own internal affairs as they wish — up to a point — but the vital matters of defence and foreign policy are not permitted to stray from serving Washington’s interests.
Such fealty to an imperial protector may be the lot of all small states: yet where British exceptionalism truly distinguishes itself is in the eagerness of our elites to serve their master, a yearning for subordination which at times arouses as much contempt as satisfaction in the imperial capital. Britain’s elites have chosen to view themselves as, if not equal partners in the imperial project, then a uniquely favoured ally, elevated in affection above rivals by the Special Relationship. That the Special Relationship is an entirely parasocial one is a truth American securocrats are generally too polite to mention, and too hard for their British equivalents to bear. The results have generally been disastrous: so zealous have our leaders been to prove their mettle in imperial wars, Britain committed itself to tasks in Afghanistan and Iraq that proved far beyond its abilities. This eagerness to go above and beyond Washington’s requirements may now be repeating itself both in Ukraine, where America’s second thoughts about continuing a war rapidly turning sour threaten to leave ultra-hawkish Britain looking dangerously exposed, and in the Pacific, where the Royal Navy has almost entirely refashioned itself for a vulnerable auxiliary role in the looming war with China.
Yet the strangest aspect of this humbling dynamic is how natural it all seems: to even notice it is frowned upon in British defence commentary, but to lament it is utterly taboo. Britain’s postwar slide from equal partner to fawning subordinate was such a gentle and gradual decline that it has — with the exception of a few psychic shocks such as Suez and the Skybolt crisis — gone largely unremarked. It is with the aim of rethinking this unhealthy, unrequited relationship that the journalist Tom Stevenson’s excellent new book, Someone Else’s Empire has appeared. “For what must ultimately be psychological reasons, British leaders and national security clerks have tended to dislike seeing Britain framed by American power,” Stevenson observes, yet this state of affairs is neither natural nor desirable: “it is one thing to station military forces around the world to maintain your empire, but quite another to do so for someone else’s”.
Given the heavy costs and dubious benefits of such a relationship, why should the notionally independent British state not look towards British interests first and foremost? Why should our defence establishment so jealously guard their position as Washington’s loyalest compradors while denying the true nature of their role? Stevenson’s book provides a rare, clear-eyed dissection of Britain’s humbled status. Largely a reworked collection of LRB essays on 21st-century warfare, featuring original reporting from the disastrous fallout of the Arab Spring — and I can personally attest there is no more radicalising argument against the American empire than direct observation of how the sausage is made — the book is at its strongest in its opening and closing chapters on the mechanics of British self-subordination, and its searing essay on Britain’s defence intelligentsia.
Stevenson dissects the strange case of the British securocrat class, the products of our cloistered strategic think tanks RUSI, the IISS and Chatham House, and their feeder school, Kings’ Department of War Studies. As he observes: “Among the British defence intelligentsia, Atlanticism is a foundational assumption. A former director of policy planning at the US State Department and a former director at the US National Security Council are on the staff of the IISS. RUSI’s director-general, Karin von Hippel, was once chief of staff to the four-star American general John Allen. In 2021, RUSI’s second largest donor was the US State Department.” Yet despite their obsequiousness to American interests, British security think tanks have “next to no influence across the Atlantic”. In so far as their strategic counsel has been followed by British governments, the results have been, at best, humiliating and at worst war crimes, dragging Britain into reckless campaigns “of the sort that nations were once disarmed for committing”.
Like the Five Eyes intelligence arrangement, the function of such institutionalised subordination is simply to align the British defence establishment with Washington’s fickle desires of the moment. Yet if the aim is to serve American interests, the results have proved of doubtful benefit to the imperial centre. For despite “the consistency of British servility”, the results for Washington are generally underwhelming. “Even British participation in the Iraq war was often a liability,” Stevenson observes, as in Basra where, after crowing about the Army’s superior abilities in counterinsurgency drawn from experience in Malaya and Northern Ireland, British “soldiers withdrew from the city in a single night like criminals leaving a burgled house”, leaving US troops to reimpose some fragile order. If Britain hoped to win some special favour from the Iraq adventure, American gratitude was not forthcoming. France and Germany were not punished for their refusal to join in, while Britain earned the dubious status of a regrettable partner in a dalliance Washington wished to forget.
As Stevenson remarks, “passionate Atlanticism proceeds on the assumption that the interests of American power are necessarily coterminous with those of Britain”, an unexamined belief that, if applied in reverse, America’s defence establishment would laugh at in amused horror. Even America’s one true foreign infatuation, with Israel, is now looking shakier than ever before: and there too, when the great ship of US foreign policy eventually changes course, our political establishment will follow in the slipstream, presenting their abrupt about-turn as a decision made in London. Yet the prospect of freeing ourselves from such an unequal relationship, unsatisfactory to both parties but surviving through sheer institutional inertia, is unlikely to come from Whitehall.
Unlike the US, which sustains the vigorous debate on foreign policy natural to imperial centres, the British defence intelligentsia “is a monolith. There is no prospect of significant disagreement between, say, IISS and RUSI on any significant question of foreign policy. Dissident work on military history and contemporary security is rare.” The price of admission to this sphere is a bending of the knee “so consistent, both over time and between political factions, that one must wonder whether Britain retains an independent foreign policy at all”.
Fortunately for the rest of the world, “Britain isn’t projecting power so much as decadence.” Through the strange alchemy of the MOD’s procurement system, British defence spending is not transmuted into effective military force. Indeed, “the main countervailing force to British militarism has been British economic malaise”, and as an arm of the British state, the MOD is not immune to its vices. Britain’s plummeting GDP is seen, by Stevenson, as a potential safeguard against disastrous foreign adventures. It must be said, however, that lack of capability has never yet prevented our leaders from hurling themselves into conflicts they cannot win, and there is no sign of this dynamic changing.
Rather, the dismal likelihood is that it will take a painful strategic shock, greater in magnitude than the failures of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, to force our leaders to apprehend the nature of their place in the world. Yet there are alternatives, cutting our strategic coat to our economic cloth, that may avert such a rude awakening. Open defiance or abstinence from our supporting role in the empire is not politically likely: yet a quiet commitment to a humbler part would achieve much the same effect without provoking any diplomatic awkwardness. Indeed, Stevenson’s proposal that “the British military could be reoriented towards island defence and away from the problem of maintaining expeditionary functions with declining economic power” is not significantly different from the suggestion of our pre-eminent strategic thinker, Sir Lawrence Freedman, that Britain avoid costly expeditionary adventures and refocus itself on Europe’s northwestern flank.
A Royal Navy reconfigured for a primary focus on securing the North Atlantic seaways would, indeed, be viewed more positively by Washington itself than an expensive, vulnerable but ultimately symbolic role in distant Asia, even if this newly-limited horizon would cause our rulers grief. The Ukraine war shows the necessity of quickly being able to mobilise a large army of civilians, to produce munitions in vast quantities and dominate the battlefield through artillery and cheaply-produced drones: all capabilities Britain lacks, even as it pokes the Russian bear with a recklessness the Pentagon itself shies from. Stevenson’s urging that “avoiding expeditionary war must become a strategic priority” is surely correct, yet his claim that “territorial disputes arising from remnant imperial possessions, from Gibraltar to Belize to Montserrat, must also be avoided” goes too far. The yearning to throw ourselves headlong into America’s imperial wars must be discarded, but the defence of British citizens, no matter how far-flung, must surely remain the central plank of British defence thinking.
But ultimately, given the leaders we have and the worldview they have not yet shaken off, Britain has hitched its security to America’s wagon, and change, when it comes, will come from the imperial metropole. A Trump victory next year is more likely than not, and a question mark looms over Nato’s very existence. Here the trends toward strategic defeat followed by inward retrenchment look clearer every day. In Ukraine, the growing likelihood of an eventual Russian victory will present a great strategic shock to Europe, highlighting that American defence guarantees are severely circumscribed by the volatility of the empire’s domestic politics. The looming competition with China over mastery of the Pacific presents the greatest challenge military America has ever faced: Washington’s prospects of success look doubtful. From Africa to the Middle East, the flirtation of America’s client states with its strategic rivals has blossomed into committed relationships.
The sun is setting on the American empire as it once did on our own, and history will force on our defence establishment a reckoning with reality that they have long avoided. Perhaps Europe will be left to fend for itself in a newly-dangerous world, or perhaps we will be drawn tighter into the embrace of America’s smaller and more clearly-defined core empire. Whatever history has in store for us, the nature of Britain’s strategic relationship with its imperial patron means that these decisions will not be made in London. Empires make the rules, and their clients accept them, however vanity forces them to mask the hard realities of power. The weak, as ever, will do what they must.
This piece has been amended to correct a misattribution to Tom Tugendhat, MP.
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