Stop Tiptoeing Around Russia
It Is Time to End Washington’s Decades of Deference to Moscow
"In the middle of the twentieth century," declared Richard Cobden, nineteenth-century apostle of free trade, "there will be only two great powers in the world, the United States and Russia, and they will overshadow all the rest." Alexis de Tocqueville had, of course, said much the same thing at much the same time. But the Frenchman's prophecy, it must be remembered, came a generation after his own country's decisive defeat at Waterloo. The Englishman's, though less familiar, is in a sense more remarkable; for it was made in the heyday of Britain's preëminence in world affairs.
This preëminence, though not quite so unchallenged or protracted as nostalgia now tempts us to think, was based upon three material advantages. The first of these was that we were the pioneers of industrial capitalism. Technological ingenuity of a small handful of Scots and Englishmen, combined with an intrepid pursuit of opulence on the part of the entrepreneurial class, made Britain for a time "the workshop of the world." The second of our advantages was the existence of the British Empire. Though romantically alluded to as a "white man's burden," the colonies provided a large and open market for our manufactured goods and significantly augmented our military and diplomatic strength. To these industrial and imperial advantages was added, thirdly, the supremacy of the Royal Navy. This not merely safeguarded our strategic and trade routes in all the world's oceans, but made our island a fortress-as impregnable to Napoleon's flat-bottomed boats as it had been to the Spanish Armada.
Cobden was not alone in discerning the transient nature of these special advantages. "It is a delusion," said the future Conservative leader Benjamin Disraeli in 1838, "to suppose that the Continent will suffer Britain to be the workshop for the world." Other nations, outside as well as inside Europe, were bound to apply and to improve upon the techniques of industrialization which we had pioneered. Many of them-particularly the United States and, later, Russia-would overshadow the advantage of our earlier start by virtue of their greater size, population and resources. Moreover, the very fact that we had started early would subsequently impose upon us both a physical and psychological handicap. Physical, because the earlier you start the larger the legacy of outdated attitudes, techniques and capital equipment you inherit. Psychological, because the advent of competition is bound to reduce your relative position as an industrial power even though your absolute position may be markedly improving.
Those who foresaw the passing of Britain's commercial supremacy had equally few illusions about the future of imperial dominion. The American War of Independence had established fairly firmly in the British mind the proposition that no nation could hope permanently to govern another. "These wretched colonies," wrote Disraeli brusquely and brutally in 1852, "will all be independent in a few years and are a millstone round our neck." He was referring specifically to the Canadian provinces, which did indeed become self-governing fifteen years later. It is true that Disraeli changed his mind, or at least his tune, and that for a brief moment at the end of the nineteenth century, the vision of a federated Empire was much discussed. The discussion reached its climax at the Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 1897 when the Premiers of the imperial territories were sumptuously feted in London. Wilfrid Laurier, the Canadian Prime Minister, jested amidst these junketings that every Jubilee guest would need a new constitution. But no new constitution was forthcoming for the British Empire. Within a hundred years of Canada's achieving her freedom, that Empire "on which the sun never set" had been reduced to thirty minuscule territories with a total population approximately equal to that of Michigan.
More fundamental even than this spectacular change has been the ending of the centuries' long invincibility of the British islands. To invade Britain has, since the days of the Norman Conquest, been a singularly difficult operation. The reason is clear, and was succinctly stated by G. M. Trevelyan at the outset of his great "History of England." "A well- organized State, with a united people on land and a naval force at sea," he wrote, "could make itself safe behind the Channel even against such military odds as Philip of Spain, Louis XIV and Napoleon could assemble on the opposite shore. In recent centuries these conditions have been fulfilled, and although an invading force has sometimes been welcomed, as when Henry Tudor or William of Orange came over, no invasion hostile to the community as a whole has met with even partial success owing to the barrier of the sea." Though this barrier continued to prove an insuperable obstacle in the two twentieth-century wars against Germany, changes in weapons and tactics had already by 1914 shaken our old security. The possessor of the Channel ports could, by long-distance guns, airplanes and submarines, threaten our existence much more formidably than the enemies mentioned by Trevelyan. Today, with the development of nuclear bases and missiles in Eastern Europe, no country in the world would be more certainly menaced with destruction in the event of another war than ours.
History is littered with nations that have been broken forever by the stress of lesser changes than those I have outlined. But the British are a very old, a very tough, and on the whole a pretty sophisticated people. We are not so easily broken. There are of course weak sisters among us, as there are in every community. And the weak sisters often have strong voices- advocating a "holiday from history" or telling us our day is done. At the other extreme we still have a few robust Canute-like figures who refuse to acknowledge contemporary realities and bellow at them to go away. Neither group must be taken to represent the broad consensus of British opinion. Most of us by now have shed outdated delusions of grandeur and are looking for ways of adjusting our society to the last third of the twentieth century. But most of us understand also that there can be neither prosperity nor security for Britain if we simply retreat into our shell and attempt to ease domestic problems by abdicating from our world responsibilities.
After all, it is nothing new for the British to find themselves inferior in strength to their great antagonists. They always have been. Sea power, as I have said, gave us a marvelous self-protection. But none of the strong, aggressive powers, whose domination of the Continent it has been British policy to oppose over a period of four hundred years, could have been defeated by Britain alone. We were never much more likely to win a war against Spain or France or Germany on our own than we would be today against a major power. We depended, as we do now, on having allies. We depended on creating a league of defense or, in the language of diplomacy, a balance of power.
Is it too fanciful to suppose that, in pursuing this policy, we were profiting from the memories of our earliest history? Numberless generations of grammar-school boys across the centuries must have construed that passage in Tacitus where he describes how the Britons, faced with Roman aggression, were weakened by their internal divisions. "Nothing has helped us more in war," wrote the Roman historian, "than their inability to coöperate. It is but seldom that two or three states unite to repel a common danger; fighting singly, they are conquered wholesale." What was true of Britain then became relevant to Europe later. Time after time a policy of uniting to repel a common danger preserved the Continent as well as ourselves from tyranny. Today the common danger has become global instead of continental. But the principle remains the same.
In the great confederacy against Communism, the broadest shoulders have borne the heaviest burden-and those shoulders, as the nineteenth-century prophets foretold, are America's. But Lord Avon was obviously right to point out in a recent issue of this review that the burden would be "more tolerable to Atlas if friends both sympathize and do what they can to share and lighten it."[i] At the present time it is, of course, in Southeast Asia that the burden weighs heaviest and the involvement is deepest. There can be no question but that the gradual and reluctant intervention of American forces was essential to preserve South Viet Nam from armed conquest. But far more is at stake in that struggle than the future of South Viet Nam itself. For unless aggression is held there, the Communist tide will be free to roll on to Thailand, to Burma and ultimately to Malaysia.
It is almost certainly true-and the argument has been increasingly heard in Britain in recent months-that the ultimate balance of power in Asia must be held by Asians themselves. But until the great (or potentially great) Asian powers have both the economic capacity and the political will to contain or restrain Communist expansion, the burden rests upon us. By "us" I mean primarily America. But now that Malaysia has been preserved by British defense operations from the "confrontation" mounted by Indonesia, Britain too must retain in the Indian Ocean sufficient resources to help when help is called for. As The Economist recently put it: "Britain may not be a superpower by American and Russian standards; but it is a super-pike in the Indian Ocean pond." We have direct responsibility for the internal security and external defense of many territories east of Suez, and treaty obligations both bilateral (like that to Malaysia) and multilateral (like those to SEATO and CENTO). How long and in what strength Britain should stay east of Suez is certainly still a matter of serious debate. Whether we should stay is not.
However, as the threat to peace and security shifts from Europe to other theaters, we may well need to reconsider the commitment under which we have maintained substantial land forces on the Continent. We certainly cannot be expected to suffer a perpetual drain on our balance of payments in order to do so. Our NATO allies must be asked to take a global view of the vital interests of the Western Alliance. They must make it possible for us to contribute, and they might themselves be encouraged to contribute, to the defense of those wider interests. This does not mean that there is any disposition in Britain to doubt the continuing importance of collective defense to maintain a balance of power in Europe. Still less, of course, do we share the Gaullist heresies or believe that defense can be adequately secured in the modern age by bilateral arrangements. On the contrary, if a NATO mobile force were to assume responsibilities outside the NATO area, an integrated system of defense would become doubly important.
Britain's responsibilities in the world are by no means confined to the problems compendiously described as the cold war. The Empire is gone. But in its place we have created a new Commonwealth, stretching over every ocean and continent and comprising a quarter of humanity. Some cynics have suggested that a main purpose of this Commonwealth is to enable us to feel that, in changed circumstances, we still enjoy the reflected splendor of our imperial past. If that were really a main purpose, or indeed a purpose at all, the British would by now have surely given it up as a bad job. For in truth, there is scarcely a feature of the old Empire that the new Commonwealth reflects or retains.
It is not an assembly of like-minded nations under British leadership. On the contrary, agreement can be found only on very limited fronts or on the most general expressions of opinion. It does not enjoy (though "Whitaker's Almanac" still insists it does) "a broadly common pattern of institutions, legislative, executive and judicial." Either as a result of personal ambitions or the paramount need for a strong executive, most of the new nations have moved far away from the careful balances of British democracy. Again, the Commonwealth is not, and is not seeking to become, an exclusive economic or trading bloc. Almost without exception its members desire the widest possible expansion of multilateral arrangements. Least of all is the Commonwealth a defensive alliance. To Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Pakistan we are linked in collective security pacts, and to Malaysia by defense agreement. But most of the African and Asian members pursue that "system of neutrality and impartiality" which John Adams enjoined on the United States in the days of its youth.
No, the Commonwealth does not pander to British self-deception, nor to any wistful imagining that the past has not gone beyond recall. What it does do is to hold out to the British people contemporary ideals that are worthy of their effort and sacrifice. In this way it fulfills the need so strikingly expressed by John Strachey in "The End of Empire/' where he wrote: "Nations which have known empire may simply break their hearts if they do not find a higher ideal than personal enrichment by which to live." The British can find this higher ideal in the Commonwealth because the Commonwealth sits astride two of the most dangerous divisions in the modern world-the gulf between the white peoples and the colored, and between the rich nations and the poor. These divisions present a moral challenge which the Commonwealth both highlights and provides opportunities to bridge.
It was against this background that Britain herself had to take the agonizing decision to limit the flood of immigrants from the Commonwealth which began a dozen years ago. The decision was right, because it made it easier for the common sense and morality of the British people to assert themselves in face of what was, to most of them, a new problem. By reducing the potential size of the social difficulties involved, it increased the likelihood that immigrants could be absorbed into our community with tolerance and without friction.
But a very different problem presented itself to the white communities in Africa, whose capital and skill had built prosperity, and who feared the consequences of political power for an African majority. In Kenya a successful settlement of this problem was achieved. And because of the settlement in Kenya, a settlement in Zambia became possible. If now there is a basis for optimism about Rhodesia, it is because of what I once called "the infection of peace spreading southwards." There can be little doubt that the possibility of a reasonable settlement already exists. It is for Britain and Rhodesia alike to show the statesmanship and the moderation by which the opportunity may be seized.
The Commonwealth structure itself enables peoples of infinite variety, race and culture to work together in confidence. The creation of the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Commonwealth Foundation are recent examples of this strong coöperative spirit. So are the educational, legal and medical conferences which harness the individual experiences of member countries to the common good. It would be appropriate if Britain's own responsibilities for economic development in the Commonwealth were to be shared more equally among the sovereign members, some of whom enjoy living standards as high or even higher than our own. Meanwhile, thousands of British men and women are serving in the developing countries of the Commonwealth as teachers, doctors, nurses, engineers, agriculturists and technicians of every kind. Tens of millions of pounds-as much as can be spared without placing an intolerable burden on our balance of payments-go yearly to build up the economies of these new nations. No country in the world is so liberal as Britain in providing them with access to her markets. But it is not enough for one country to be liberal in this respect. What is needed above all is a much freer system of world trade and an improved world monetary system to sustain it.
Britain herself must live by world trade-and the more world trade there is, the better we can live. We are the world's largest market for foodstuffs and rely on imports for nearly all our industrial raw materials. To pay for these we have to export goods and services currently representing one-fifth or more of the gross national product. Of the output of our manufacturing industries alone, about two-fifths goes abroad. For many years British exports have been described as "the Achilles' heel" of the economy, and unending "league standings" have been produced illustrating Britain's declining share of world trade. As I have already explained, this development is neither particularly new nor wholly avoidable nor (so long as world trade is itself expanding) necessarily undesirable. Certainly there was nothing on earth which could have preserved to Britain the share of world trade she enjoyed in the nineteenth century when her competitors were few, or in the immediate postwar years when many of them were prostrate.
A much newer and equally striking development has been in the geographical distribution of British exports. In 1932, when the Ottawa Agreements enshrined the principle of Imperial Preference, the industrialization of what are now called the Commonwealth countries was in a very early stage. So it was still possible to agree on a pattern of trade in which Britain exported manufactured goods to the Commonwealth and received mainly primary products in return. But now the situation is much changed. The development of its own industries has become an ambition of almost every Commonwealth country, old and new. Thus the value of British trade preferences has been eroded by the quite legitimate desire of Commonwealth countries to protect their growing industries or to develop new channels of trade outside the Commonwealth.
A generation after Ottawa, the Continent overtook the Commonwealth as Britain's biggest customer. Between 1958 and 1964 the total value of our exports to the Commonwealth remained almost stationary. The proportion of our trade that they represented fell from 38 to 29 percent. In the same period the total value of our exports to Western Europe (E.E.C. and EFTA) practically doubled. The proportion of our trade that they represented rose from 24 to 34 percent. These new facts of world trade were one of the reasons which decided the British Government-in 1961, right in the middle of the period for which I have quoted statistics-to negotiate on entry into Europe. For there could be no doubt that this continuing trend emphasized the central importance of tariff advantage in Europe to our future as a commercial power.
A second new and striking development has been in the commodity composition of British exports. A very high proportion of what we export today consists of goods that before the war were either unheard of or undeveloped. Melancholy treatises seeking to prove "the economic decline of Britain" are apt to demonstrate how, a half-century ago, we had 62 percent of the world's trade in shipbuilding, and in the sixties only 16 percent; 26 percent of the world's coal trade, and today only 6 percent; 40 percent of the world's trade in cotton spindles, and now only 11 percent. But against these facts, which belong to Britain's past, must be set other facts which belong to the world we now live in: the fact that Britain is the world's largest exporter of radioisotopes and one of the world's largest exporters of electronic equipment and components, that half the world's ocean shipping is equipped with British radar, that more than half the world's gas-turbined aircraft are powered by British engines, that one British firm alone has produced more than 90 percent of the world's submarine cable.
These examples point clearly to where our economic future lies. The old skills in the old craft industries may long be needed. But if Britain is not to turn into an Old Curiosity Shop, they are not enough. We must keep abreast and compete on level terms in all the new, revolutionary processes- electronics, automatic equipment, computers, miniaturization, supersonic flight, space development, telecommunications. In this way we can not only maintain a position as an industrial leader but also apply these new techniques with great benefit to our more conventional branches of production. But the characteristic of the kind of manufactures I have mentioned is that they require very heavy capital outlay on research and development, compensated by large-scale production which can be absorbed only by a sophisticated and continental-sized market. The United States has such a market. Russia is developing such a market. Only in a united Europe can the individual European countries find such a home market. It is therefore precisely in this direction of advanced technology that Europe offers Britain its greatest economic attraction.
No one supposes that the mere act of joining the European Community would provide a panacea for Britain's economic ills. Inside or outside Europe, we will certainly need to improve our rate of growth, and we shall not do that unless we adopt the right policies at home. We need new tax incentives to encourage individual men and women to earn more and to save more. We need a new attack on restrictive business practices so as to keep competition keen and prices down. We need a new drive to expand management education of all kinds and at all levels. We need new trade-union laws to prevent pointless strikes and provide a code of sound industrial relations. We need new systems of training and retraining so as to secure the best use of our most precious asset-the skill, resourcefulness and character of our working people. We need new techniques of organization to increase the efficiency of government and public services. Indeed, were I not committed to a predominantly nonpartisan analysis for a predominantly non-British audience, I should be tempted to add that we need a new Government too.
Even so, there are some things-and they are among the most important things- which Britain cannot do for itself and by itself alone. Our balance of payments, for example, has been a recurring worry for twenty years and more. How difficult it will be for us to solve this problem depends quite largely on whether we can persuade other countries, including the United States, to join in creating enough world liquidity to match the expansion in world trade. There can, of course, be no question of reducing sterling's role as a key currency without the assurance of something better to put in its place. But it is a matter of urgent concern to us that our currency can come under severe strain for reasons outside our direct control, and force upon us internal policies which check our rate of growth.
Concluding this article as I do in the midst of the umpteenth economic crisis that Britain has suffered since the war, it would be neither surprising nor shameful if doubts assailed me about the future of my country. But even on a dark day, to quote Boswell, cheerfulness is always breaking in. The critics may dismiss this cheerfulness as "relentless frivolity." But since when was it a reproach to be known as Merrie England? And for all our trials and tribulations we have some causes left to be "merrie." Mine is still a very good country to live in. Its institutions are popular. Its justice is even-handed. Its press is free. Its tolerance and gentleness are still a byword. Its standard of living is among the highest in the world. It leads in many branches of pure science and applied technology, and excels in more than one of the arts. It has continued to shoulder large and proud responsibilities, to the Alliance and to the Commonwealth. Now it waits for the first favorable opportunity to augment its status and influence by helping to create a new power grouping in Europe-coöperative with the United States, but rivalling it in size, skills and resources. The conviction grows daily that Britain's responsibilities can best be maintained if she returns to the Continent of which she was once geographically, and has always been spiritually, an integral part.
[i] Anthony Eden, Earl of Avon, "The Burden of Leadership." Foreign Affairs, January 1966.