Courtesy Reuters

How Strong Is Britain?

THE power of England was so long regarded as a great and fixed quantity that the spectacle of its undeniable decline is as confusing as it is disturbing. The star which shone so brightly is now revealed as a nova in descent, but we are at a loss to know what magnitude to ascribe to it. In referring to the world power constellation we still speak of the "Big Three," but also of the "Big Two." Similarly, we like the term "bi-polar" because it is arresting, and we eschew "tri-polar" because it would be a barbarism. But the preference does not argue a conviction that the former term is descriptively more accurate.

It would, of course, be a mistake to assume that the two Powers which are indisputably great represent whole and equal numbers. The ratio of power between the Soviet Union and the United States is not easily determined, yet each of those nations is unquestionably able to control militarily very large sections of the globe. Each of them would be unquestionably difficult to conquer even by a coalition of all the remaining Powers. But can the same be said of England, that England which on successive occasions saved herself by her efforts and Europe by her example? The example she still provides may be praiseworthy enough in other respects, but it no longer appears to be the kind which can promise salvation to others. On the other hand, the practice of writing off British power was born well before the recent war, and unfulfilled predictions do not age gracefully. We have to start afresh.


Since our appreciation of decline is, by definition, a sense of contrast between existing visible weakness and presumed condition of great strength in the past, it is worth our while to examine briefly some of those historical presumptions. The fact is that Pitt's valedictory summed up the extent of British power much more accurately than did many later historians, on whom Mahan's insights had

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