THERE have been so many bewildering developments in the world in the last few years that settled ideas about national strength and national security seem to have been overturned. But although many things have changed, the geographical position of the British Isles in relation to Europe has not. It has been a powerful factor throughout Britain's history. Another prime factor has been the growth of the Empire overseas; but the relation of Britain to the other parts of the Empire has undergone various changes since before the First World War.

Until 1914 Britain acted as the center of a large, widely-dispersed empire, on whose behalf defense questions were settled in London. There were already four self-governing Dominions within the Empire, but the Committee of Imperial Defense in London was recognized as chief organ for the formation of defense policy for the whole--a practical arrangement that had not yet given way before the constitutional developments that were taking place.

There were very good reasons for this. In the first place there was no potentially hostile first-class Power outside Europe. Any danger to Britain and the Empire was bound to come from Europe, and thus the United Kingdom would receive the first impact. Secondly, the Empire depended for its safety on the British fleet, which held command of the seas throughout the world, and could thus prevent danger from Europe spreading to the overseas territories of the Empire. Britain's defense problem therefore consisted in maintaining the security of the United Kingdom and the command of the sea. Help for the center could thus flow inwards without interruption, and expeditions could move with certainty to any desired point. The local defense of all British overseas territories other than the Dominions and India was framed on the idea that local forces could withstand the comparatively minor attacks that might develop during a "period before relief," while sea-borne reinforcements were on the way from the nearest military center.

The forces required to maintain the security of the Empire in these circumstances were not large. There were garrisons at the key points on the lines of communication; there was a standing army, partly held at home and partly in India, which was not large in comparison with the world-wide extent of the territories of the Empire; and there was a fleet which had to be sufficiently strong in relation to possible rivals to ensure the command of the sea. The burden of security was not heavy, and could easily be carried.

It is important to note that throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Great Britain and the Empire simply never included in their strategic planning the thought of fighting a war single-handed against a first-class European Power, or of undertaking large land campaigns on the Continent. The very nature of the strength which Britain could deploy precluded this idea. Britain's strength resided in her navy, in her economic resources, and in her ability to take as much or as little of a war as she chose. She was thus ideally placed to endure a long struggle and to animate a coalition of land Powers whose strength could complement her own.

These were the conditions that ruled up till 1914. But in the First World War there came a great change. Great Britain, the Dominions and the Colonies mobilized among them 9,000,000 men, most of whom were engaged in great land campaigns. Behind and supporting these were further millions producing munitions. Gone were the days of limited land expeditions and of the steady maintenance of sea power. In this war, too, appeared the airplane and the submarine, forerunners of the modern menace to the United Kingdom.

There was no going back after World War I. Britain's horizon in major matters of defense was forcibly widened beyond Europe by the rise of Japan and by the ending of the Anglo-Japanese alliance. No longer would it be enough for the Empire to send help to the United Kingdom in a European war. Danger could now fall directly on other parts of the Empire. This development was naturally foreseen in the strategic thinking in London between the wars. It was realized then that Britain might be faced with three enemies simultaneously, at least two of whom were in the front rank, and one of whom was outside Europe and could thus directly threaten the South Pacific or Indian Ocean. We would have allies in Europe, but none elsewhere. No reliance could be placed on the type of collective security possible within the League of Nations.

True, there was British sea power resting on three secure bases--the United Kingdom, the Middle East and Singapore. But the Government was warned by its military advisers that a combination of the three naval Powers--Germany, Italy and Japan--would probably prove too much for us even in alliance with France, unless the United States could be called in to redress the balance; and aid from the United States was a doubtful quantity. The main reason for this weakness was that the industrial strength, the skilled manpower and the naval force which the Empire could deploy was so largely located in the British Isles. The Dominions, though developing rapidly, were still small in manpower and resources. India, though a great source of manpower, had little of the technical skill and independent enterprise required by principals in a world-wide struggle. The Colonies were of insignificant military potential, and were being slowly developed politically and economically under the shelter of British sea power.

When war came in 1939 the unwelcome combination duly materialized, and though the entry of Japan into the field brought the United States in too, American strength could not be made effective quickly enough to prevent the collapse of sea power in the Far East. For two and a half years forces of the British Commonwealth were stretched to the limit attempting to carry on the fight nearly single-handed in so many theaters of war. Indeed, this dispersion of effort persisted to a great extent throughout the later campaigns, so that although in sum the forces maintained by the Commonwealth were very large and absorbed a total of 8,000,000 men, the strength that could be concentrated in any one area seemed small by comparison with that of nations whose efforts could be concentrated.

To sum up the position as it appeared in the course of the war, the strength of the British Commonwealth could be stated in the following terms:

1. A center in the United Kingdom possessing 20,000,000 men and women of working age and experience, homogeneous and of first-class quality for fighting or for industrial production.

2. Subsidiary centers in the Dominions and India, of varying industrial and military strength but animated by a strong common purpose.

3. Raw materials of comprehensive range and quantity to sustain a considerable war effort.

4. Possession of intermediate territories to provide the bases for a system of control of sea communications.

5. Naval power based on the largest merchant fleet in the world.

6. Skill, experience and knowledge of the conduct of worldwide affairs and of organization on the largest scale.

On the other side of the balance sheet there were certain weaknesses:

1. The undue dispersion of centers of effort and of resources with consequent vulnerability to separate attack.

2. The unwelcome dependence of the main center on imports both to sustain life and to keep industry active. This is clearly a grave economic weakness in wartime when industry must concentrate on armaments and cannot produce the exports with which to pay for the needed imports.

3. The proximity of the main center to the European mainland and thus its vulnerability to severe bombardment.

4. The difficulty of concentrating potential strength at a distance from the main center.

From these factors there emerges a picture of a loosely-knit organism, entirely dependent upon free communication for survival, but, given a reasonable freedom of communication, possessing great strength in terms of manpower, industry, raw materials and experience. The more the burden of the maintenance of free communications could be lightened the greater the strength that could be developed. (An example was the reopening of the Mediterranean to traffic in 1943; the saving of effort previously absorbed in sending everything round the Cape of Good Hope was most beneficial.) An instance of a different order was the system of lend-lease, which enabled the supply of goods for each theater and for each country to be organized largely from the nearest source irrespective of payment difficulties.


We must now concentrate our attention on the present and the future. How has British strategic thinking developed since the war?

When complete victory is achieved in war the victors are rather apt to imagine that their problems have been solved, and that they can return home and resume their interrupted normal life. They do not at first realize that war, in a few years of stress, brings about changes that might otherwise have taken a long time to mature. There can be no going back to prewar life. With nations, as with individuals, the life to which we return is different. So it is that Great Britain's strategic picture has considerably altered since the war, not perhaps in any unexpected manner, but rapidly and decisively.

The first change is a constitutional one. India, Pakistan and Ceylon have become Dominions, and Burma has left the Commonwealth. In the process, most regrettable tensions have developed between India and Pakistan. These tensions, added to the difficulties caused by the policy of the South African Government, have shaken the previously secure position of the Commonwealth on the shores of the Indian Ocean. The great reserves of manpower and the bases that were provided within the Indian sub-continent may or may not now be available to the British Commonwealth. They may be otherwise engaged, particularly as the policy of the Indian Government on the world stage seems to have diverged considerably from that followed by the other members of the Commonwealth.

The next great change in the situation is the consolidation of Russian power and its extension through the satellite states and Eastern Germany deep into Europe. Opposite this must be put a factor of equal importance--the emergence of the United States as a World Power permanently interested in European affairs.

The United Kingdom, from its geographical position, has a vital interest in ensuring that no one nation shall dominate the whole of Europe. Britain has fought several great wars to defend that interest, and would have to fight again in the same cause. We have always been successful in the past because there were other powerful states in Europe with which we could combine against the aggressor. A quite new situation for us has been created by the elimination of all Powers of the first rank in Europe, other than Russia, and the substitution for them of a weak coalition supported by the United States, a non-European Power. This new situation in Europe is of such importance that I shall have to return to it again later on.

The third great new factor in the situation is the advance of Asia to a position of primary importance on the world stage. Before the war, the whole of Asia except Japan was of secondary influence in strategic thinking. China was torn by internal dissensions. Southeast Asia was quiet, and was regarded merely as a source of economic wealth. The Indian Ocean was a British lake. Now all that has changed, and the whole continent is in a ferment, with China emerging as a real Power after a revolutionary unification, and with the clash of races and of political aspirations disrupting the life of the southeast Asian states and colonies. This would perhaps not be so serious for the British Commonwealth if it were not for the opportunity that is offered throughout Asia for Russian Communism to keep the ferment going and to hinder the processes of recovery and settlement.

The attitude of the British Commonwealth in the face of these great new factors requires some explanation. Ever since the First World War the Dominions have declined to play their part in the peacetime military responsibilities that have fallen on the United Kingdom. They have always been more ready to collaborate in a world organization than to commit themselves to joint action within the Commonwealth in support of a policy that they have felt would be largely formulated in London. This aloofness on the part of the Dominions, the product of a desire to establish their real independence as sovereign states, persisted until after the end of World War II. The Committee of Imperial Defense was abolished, and for it was substituted bilateral machinery between the United Kingdom and the Dominions severally. The degree to which this machinery developed depended upon the extent of the defense problems that affected the two parties jointly. For example, the United Kingdom and Canada collaborate closely in all matters affecting the security of the North Atlantic, whereas Canada takes no part (except in a general sense as a member of the United Nations) in the discussion of events in Southeast Asia or of defense measures required there. These are left for discussions among the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.

This is not necessarily a source of weakness, as willing collaboration among free partners is better than a closer form of coordination having in it an element of coercion. But it does to some extent prevent the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth and Empire from exerting their full influence in parts of the world when strength in peacetime is an important factor. Nevertheless, the situation is changing gradually under the impact of events. Australians are operating in Malaya and in the occupation of Japan, and Canadians, New Zealanders and Australians are taking part in the Korean campaign. But there is still no unified policy within the Commonwealth, and its members act as individual states and not as a unit.

I have dealt at some length with this aspect of Commonwealth relations because it affects materially the thinking which has to be done in London, and also the actual disposability of British strength. In the present situation of the Commonwealth and Empire--with self-governing Dominions and Colonies in various stages of progress--it would obviously be much more economical if the peacetime military burden so largely borne by the United Kingdom could be decentralized. For example, suppose Australia and New Zealand could provide all the force required to fight Communism in Southeast Asia; suppose Canada could take over military responsibility for Hong Kong; and suppose India, Pakistan and South Africa could provide the military strength required in Africa and the Middle East. In those circumstances it would be possible for the greater part of the military forces of the United Kingdom to be concentrated for action in Europe. There seems little prospect that such a division of duties and responsibilities will be accepted. As a result, a great part of the disposable United Kingdom strength has to be spread around the world--in Gibraltar, in Malta, in the Middle East, in Africa, in Malaya and in Hong Kong. It was this dispersion that led to the difficulties in the early part of World War II, to which I have already referred; but these difficulties may be even greater in future if the reservoir of army formations in India, both British and Indian, is no longer available.

The question naturally arises whether there could not be some contraction in the many overseas commitments for which British troops have to be provided in peacetime. If all British troops could be withdrawn from the Middle East, for example, there would be a great easement in men, money and transport. But it is hard to see how this could be done. The Middle East is not only a most important link with the communications among the different parts of the Commonwealth, but it contains vital oil supplies. It is also the connecting link between Asia and Africa, and contains the gateway to the Indian Ocean. The states of the Middle East are weak and poorly developed. They could do little to guard themselves against infiltration or open conquest from the north. Unless Britain provides the stiffening, and holds the base from which large forces could operate in an emergency, some other Power would have to do it. The United States is the only one which could relieve Britain of the burden. Similar considerations prevent the withdrawal of other garrisons.

The truth is that under the constant menace of Russian Communism, the various military commitments which each of the Western Powers undertakes are in the interests of all. The French in Indo-China, the British in Malaya, and the forces of the United Nations in Korea are all engaged in the essential task of stemming the Communist tide in vital areas. It is the duty of the nations of the free world to review the whole position and, recognizing their mutual interest in maintaining free territories intact and sound, to allocate forces to the best advantage. The problems and burdens of one are the problems and burdens of all. This notion does not absolve each of us from making a full contribution to the united effort, and in this wider conception the British Dominions would be ready to play their part. It does mean that as far as possible force should be economized by using it where it can be most easily deployed.


What part can the United Kingdom itself play? Her power in peace or cold war, and her potential power in full war, have been largely obscured in the last five years because of her economic difficulties. Many people jump to the conclusion that because Britain has had to be supported, first by an American loan and then by Marshall aid, her military capabilities have gravely deteriorated. This is not so, and in fact all through this period Britain has maintained forces far in excess of any that have previously been maintained in peacetime. Since the war Britain has never had less than 700,000 men under arms, and recent measures are once more raising the total figure. Conscription has been in continuous operation since 1939. The population of military age has not declined, and industry is producing considerably more than before the war. British jet aircraft lead the world, and there is no slackening of naval preparedness.

Only two factors cast doubt upon the power of Britain to exert a war effort equal to, if not greater than, she did in the last war. These factors are economic and geographical, and can most easily be exposed by asking two questions. How can Britain keep a great war effort going if she cannot pay for the large imports of food and raw materials that would be required? And could Britain survive the bombardment that seems likely to fall upon her, including, as it well may, atomic bombs and long-range rockets?

The first question can be easily answered. Lend-lease or its equivalent would be essential, otherwise most of Britain's industry would have to continue making goods for export to pay for imports. If payment difficulties can be solved, then British industry will be able to concentrate on war production. The second question is more debatable, and no one can be certain of the answer. The only opinion that can be given with confidence is that Britain will be quite ready to put things to the test if the need arises. Nevertheless, the question has a considerable effect on British strategic thinking. First, it points to the absolute necessity of keeping any potential enemy as far away as possible. Russia must not be allowed to come nearer than the Elbe, and if possible must be thrust further back. Secondly, the air defense of Western Europe, and of the British Isles, must at all times be efficient and complete. The supreme significance of the European theater for Britain, to which I have referred above, is thus clear. More than at any time in our history is there the need to gather all available resources to meet the main danger.

I hope I have succeeded in showing how profoundly different the defense problems of a widely dispersed and loosely organized empire are from those of a highly concentrated continental nation such as the United States. The United Kingdom is still carrying by far the largest share of the defense responsibilities of the Empire, and its peacetime strength is so dispersed that Britain finds difficulty in furnishing two regimental combat teams for Korea over and above the forces deployed in Germany, the Middle East, Malaya and Hong Kong. This stretching of British resources arises from the nature and location of the danger. Russia, her satellites and China occupy an immense, continuous block of territory. The periphery of this block comes close to many areas where British interests lie--in Europe, the Middle East, South Asia and the Far East. But it is not only British interests that are thus threatened. Many other free nations find themselves in jeopardy. But despite the danger, at least we know clearly who our enemy is. What is unusual for us in Britain is that we know who are the friends and allies that we can count on to be with us at the start should war come. British strategic requirements are clear, and our strategic objectives are based on our reading of the danger.

We believe that the men in the Kremlin are out for world domination. They do not differentiate between peace and war; they seek to attain their end by whatever method is appropriate at any given moment. All free nations are their prey. This being so, all free nations must unite for mutual self-defense. It is just as important for Britain to help save the next selected Communist victim as it is for other nations to help the United Kingdom maintain her vigor and potential power. No further members of the free world must be allowed to succumb, and in due course the tide of Communism must be pressed back. Hence we in Britain believe that the Atlantic Treaty must be the forerunner of analogous organisms in other areas, all falling within the general scope of the United Nations. In the face of the overriding menace, lesser differences of opinion must yield. There can be no place for neutrality.

Holding these views, the United Kingdom, the Dominions and the Colonies are all capable of great contributions. The contributions of each independent member of the Commonwealth will vary, and there is no central authority which can direct them all. Speaking only for the United Kingdom, one is safe in saying that our military policy will aim at securing the following principal ends: first, the utmost security for the United Kingdom itself. This requires the creation of sufficient land and air strength in Western Europe to ensure the inviolability of everything now outside the iron curtain, and the preservation of the British Isles from crippling air attack--our first priority. Second, the maintenance of free communication by sea throughout the world. Third, the preservation of the Middle East and thus of Africa. Fourth, the destruction of Communist influence in Southeast Asia. And fifth, the contribution of force to secure respect for the decisions of the United Nations.

None of these ends can be achieved by Britain's unaided efforts. The United Kingdom must therefore work through the United Nations, and in direct collaboration with friends and allies, toward the assembly of sufficient force. It is no longer enough for us to think in terms of the defense of the British Empire. It is the British Empire, and the free world of which it forms a part, that must be defended by our efforts linked with those of other like-minded states.

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  • MAJOR GENERAL SIR IAN JACOB, Military Assistant Secretary to the British War Cabinet, 1939-46; now Director of Overseas Services of the B.B.C.
  • More By Major General Ian Jacob