Small Wars Journal

The Myth of Britain’s “Managed Decline”

Longtime SWJ friend, and Senior Editor of Bellum of The Stanford Review, Tristan Abbey argues that “American declinists are wrong to see the unraveling of the British Empire as a roadmap for a “soft landing” at Doublethink. “The British no more managed their decline than we designed our ascent.”

... The record shows that Britain’s decline was far from graceful, much less “managed.” The British were reactive, not far-sighted, and inconsistent rather than careful. Imperial descent, while preordained in certain respects, unfolded in fits and starts over the course of decades. If the British experience does indeed “hold some valuable lessons,” as Rachman and his colleagues suggest, it is as an example of what not to do.


Madhu (not verified)

Fri, 11/13/2015 - 11:39am

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)

"simplifies mixed up groups...." why is discussing the heterogeneous nature of minorities hard for your system? Left over colonial thinking that mixes up with class? Is it the Parliamentary system or am I being stupid?

Madhu (not verified)

Fri, 11/13/2015 - 11:36am

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)

Americans so rarely pay attention to the close intermingling of British and American elites, except for the crazies. And the British tend to pay attention to American influence on the British but not the way the elites work with and on each other so it goes both ways. More anti-intellectualism.

Madhu (not verified)

Fri, 11/13/2015 - 11:33am

So, American scholarly British Studies is a thing. I did not know that. Turns out, 90 percent of my comments here fit under the rubric of British studies, not AfPak or counterinsurgency or anything else. The old Anglophilia, which, in my case, probably feels like the opposite, but it is not. I remain fascinated with your political system. Another turn of the gobal order, another time period like the 50s when you are feeling your way in changing times. Nothing to do with retreat or engagement, just hard to balance so many competing agendas:

Is this from Wikipedia on Xenia Wickett accurate at all?

<blockquote>From early 2004 to August 2005, Wickett served as Director for South Asia at the U.S. National Security Council (NSC).[4] Prior to her NSC post, Wickett served as a Foreign Affairs Specialist in the Bureau of South Asia at the Department of State. Her major portfolios included counterterrorism, nonproliferation, Kashmir, and other law enforcement topics. During her tenure at the Department of State, Wickett was also a Special Advisor at the Homeland Security Group, and an officer in the Bureau of Nonproliferation. Shortly after September 11, 2001, she was detailed from the Department of State to the Office of the Vice President (OVP) to help launch the Office of Homeland Security Affairs.[5]</blockquote>

Ashton Carter and Xenia Wickett both worked on the Indian nuclear deal for the US? Wrong or right? I misread things a lot.

Modi in the UK said something about the UK being its gateway to the EU, didn't he? Just schmoozing or a different way of dealing with one another?

I always thought their story wasn't really over yet.

And Xenia Wickett also wrote in that Chatham House article that the US should pay Pakistani ministries directly. Useful for British interests, if nothing else, but couched in language that it would be good for the U.S.

The British Saudi lobby, Pakistani lobby, Indian lobby, China lobby, etc., etc., etc.

Well, I bet the BBC will do a more thorough job of talking about the India lobby in its indirect slippery way than it ever talks about the Pakistani or Saudi lobby,

Modimania? Who says? Among segments of Indian diaspora but they no more represent the whole crew than Labour's cozying up to British Kashmiris in the 90s. Why do you do this, use one group as a representative of the whole? Does this relate to being a monarchical society and having a hereditary aristocracy? Does that play into your strange multiculturalism which simplies mixed up groups into the representative brown?


Tue, 05/01/2012 - 9:02am

Worth a peek:

Which ends with:'The British strategy represents a classic case of a nation accepting reversal, retaining autonomy, and accommodating itself to its environment while manipulating it. All the while Britain waits, holding its options open, waiting to see how the game plays out and positioning itself to take maximum advantage of its shifts in the environment.

It is a dangerous course, as Britain could lose its balance. But there are no safe courses for Britain, as it learned centuries ago. Instead, the British buy time and wait for the next change in history'.

Vitesse et Puissance

Wed, 02/15/2012 - 1:00pm

This article ought to remind us that "decline" is as much a state of mind as a state of being. Devolution of empire, was at bottom, the choice of a democratized and sovereign British polity. What is most striking about the demise of British presence east of Suez is how quickly the Americans came in after the British withdrew. The Middle East is not a place where power vacuums last long. What is entirely missing here is the substantial contribution made by the UK to the defense of NATO Central Europe all throughout the Cold War period. What, indeed, holds Britain back from national greatness ?


Wed, 02/15/2012 - 6:19am

An interesting article by Tristam and as a British "armchair" observer for a few decades of the UK's strategic decline a few comments are needed. At the end a few on the US's management of it's strategic power.

In the sense of 'what not to do' where did we go wrong? Yes we hung to some colonies too long, we actually fought to retain very few post-1945; we spent a small fortune on an East of Suez military capability, which was not that capable, although flexible for short-term actions. Did those policy areas dominate national decision-making? No. Economic management has dominated. Our national structures worked reasonably well: JIC, SIS, the military, FCO etc.

The UK has consistently for centuries oscillated between a 'Continental Commitment' to Europe and a 'Maritime Outlook' to large parts of the world. Yes in 1967 we announced the end of an 'East of Suez' role, primarily forced upon us by economic difficulties, yet within a few years had military commitments there again - who would have thought the British Army would be on the other side of the Durand Line?

Since 1945 the UK has not fought a war for national survival. We have fought 'Small Wars' aplenty and sometimes agreed to fight alongside the USA. Indeed of late more readily fought alongside the USA.

In 1982 we fought, reluctantly, to regain the Falkland Islands, largely for reasons of national prestige, honour and we were confident we'd win.

Throughout our post-1945 history the British public have rarely been keen on any strategic commitment outside western Europe; not to overlook large protests over Suez and Gulf War 2. There was incredible public anger at the invasion of the Falklands and Mrs Thatcher's government would have fallen if no action was taken.

Invariably our commitments have been small, primarily frigates, helicopters, the SAS and infantry - and cheap politically and economically.

Read 'Withdrawal From Empire: A Military View' by General Sir William Jackson, pub. 1986, for a good overview; note written before the Cold War ended.

As the UK oscillated between where to apply its strategic power it appears the USA is set on changing focus to the Pacific from Europe - within well understood parameters, yet set alongside "caring" about large parts of the world where it has little knowledge, with few language and cultural skills. Plenty of intentions, with little real capability beyond military might.

I fear the USA has yet to agree, within government, what not to do. As for the American public, however fickle, if not tired of a 'Long War', they appear to prefer being charitable e.g. aid and want to keep the body bag count low if we really, really have to go to places we do not understand.

Mark Pyruz

Wed, 02/15/2012 - 3:40am

The Germans really couldn't comprehend the British reaction to its own continental imperial ambitions eastward, in the late 1930s to early 1940s. Historically, the English had secured Scotland, Wales and Ireland, and had subjugated many parts of the world by force. The Germans looked to do the same on the European continent but more in the manner of the American westward imperial expansion ultimately achieved a few dozen decades before, with the German expansion greatly speeded up using the latest, modern technology.

When Germany knocked France out of the war, it offered Britain generous peace terms. The British rejected the terms out of hand, and what followed was a European catastrophe, and Britain becoming a second rate power.