How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
From U.S. President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” to Brexiteers’ “Global Britain” and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “Great rejuvenation of the Chinese people,” nostalgic nationalism has become a major force in politics around the world. Appeals to past national glories animate far-right populist movements in Europe, fueling Russian President Vladimir Putin’s expansionism in his neighborhood, and animating Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman ambitions. Such a world is prone to conflict. Yet nostalgia can still be consistent with some form of international cooperation, especially where culture, history, and values overlap. And in that context, the re-emergence of an Anglosphere—a long-held dream for many proud Britons—is no longer so far-fetched.
The idea of the Anglosphere dates back to the collapse of the British Empire. In his voluminous History of the English-Speaking Peoples, former Prime Minister Winston Churchill weaved through 2,000 years of history a thread of Anglophonism that then inspired the Euroskeptics who opposed the entry of the United Kingdom into the European Economic Area in 1973. In their view, London should have rather focused on the Commonwealth, integrating with what Churchill once called its true “kith and kin.” More recently, nostalgic nationalism, including nostalgia for the Commonwealth, dominated the Leave campaign, with Boris Johnson, now foreign minister, stating that when London joined the Common Market, it betrayed “our relationships with Commonwealth countries such as Australia and New Zealand.”
But the dream of creating an Anglosphere has stimulated the imaginations of non-Brits too. Despite their growing activism in the Indo-Pacific region, both Australia and New Zealand have always been attached to the Anglo-Saxon world. In his 2009 memoir, Battlelines, Tony Abbott, the former Australian prime minister, enthusiastically praised Canberra’s alliance with Washington and its ties with London. Canada, given its French cultural heritage, has been more ambivalent about its commitment to the Anglosphere. But Erin O’Toole, a candidate for the Canadian Conservative Party leadership, has made one of the key planks of his campaign his determination to “pursue a Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand trade and security pact.”
The Anglosphere’s time may have arrived.
In short, the Anglosphere’s time may have arrived.
FROM CANADA TO CANBERRA
The Anglosphere is nebulous. It stretches from the Atlantic to the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and includes those countries—Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States—that share Anglo-Saxon culture. This political community represents six percent of the world’s population, a quarter of global GDP, and 40 percent of total military spending. It boasts some of the highest GDP per capita in the world.
Legal systems of Common Law, a relentless defense of democratic principles, English as first language, common business practices, and traditional support for free trade are the glue that holds together countries that are geographically so distant. Cultural ties lower transaction costs between countries and foster trust. No wonder that, in making foreign direct investments, the United States shows a strong preference for Anglo-Saxon countries, with about 23 percent of total American foreign direct investment going to Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.
In finance, technology, science, and trade, the Anglosphere already plays a dominant role, albeit in an informal way. But there are also formal means of cooperation, including the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing group; the Air and Space Interoperability Council, which aims to make members’ defense systems interoperable; and the Rhodes Scholarship, which brings students from around the world to study at Oxford University. More recently, New Zealand has offered to send London its top trade negotiators to augment the British civil service as it prepares to renegotiate hundreds of trade agreements with the rest of the world. And a recent poll found overwhelming support within Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom for granting nationals reciprocal rights to live and work freely among the four countries.
In finance, technology, science, and trade, the Anglosphere already plays a dominant role, albeit in an informal way.
The time seems ripe for the Anglosphere to intensify cooperation among its members through trade deals, military arrangements, and joint programs in a variety of fields. London is already working on a free trade agreement with Australia and is likewise looking to strike a deal with Trump’s America. (Of course, the United Kingdom will be unable to sign bilateral trade agreements before actually exiting the European Union, which has jurisdiction over trade.) Britain hopes that, with stronger ties, the Anglo-Saxon countries will end up setting standards for the whole world. Prominent members of the Leave camp have explicitly pushed for an invigorated Anglosphere. And with Brexit and the Trump presidency shifting the balance in global politics, it would be worth it for the other Anglophone countries to explore all the possible options for benefiting from this new global order.
To be sure, the Anglosphere would never be a European Union among English-speaking nations. After all, it would be the by-product of a time when states seek to regain full sovereignty, cooperating when interests coincide but competing when they diverge. The institutions of the Anglosphere would be open and not exclusive, allowing each nation to pursue its regional goals independently. So, for instance, Australia would be free to work on trade relationships with its Asian partners after Trump has dismissed the Trans Pacific Partnership. London, meanwhile, would be free to entertain post-exit relations with Europe.
The British-American historian Robert Conquest wrote in 2000 that the Anglo-Oceanic political association would be “weaker than a federation, but stronger than an alliance.” The first part of this statement is indisputable; members of the Anglosphere are, by definition, sovereigntists. The second is questionable. The Anglosphere is unlikely to become a traditional alliance (in defense, for instance, NATO will remain the alliance of choice for the United States and the United Kingdom). Rather, it would be a community of states with preferential relations in a variety of fields who would work to set the global agenda.
TRUMP AND MAY
The special relationship between Washington and London would be key for turning the Anglosphere into a concrete political project. On paper, Trump is the best ally British Prime Minister Theresa May could hope for. The new American president praised Brexit and predicts other exits from the European Union. By leveraging a preferential diplomatic relationship with Washington, London hopes to secure a better Brexit deal. Symbols matter in politics; Churchill’s bust is now back in the Oval Office after having being replaced by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s during the Obama administration.
Unlike Trump, however, May is against a progressive weakening of the institutions of the EU, which remains an essential economic partner for London. Moreover, a medium-sized open economy like that of the United Kingdom has incentives to push for increased market access abroad for its goods. All that clashes with Trump’s protectionist stance. In this sense, London is closer to Berlin than to Washington.
However, since the Anglosphere well serves the interests of both countries, the governments will likely find compromise on trade, security, and defense. Outside the European Union, and without an alternative in the Anglo-Saxon world, the United Kingdom would count little in the global arena. At the same time, the Anglosphere could alter the geopolitical balance in Trump’s favor, attracting countries such as India, Israel, South Africa, Singapore, Hong Kong, and other former British colonies. With China and Russia increasingly assertive in the global arena and with the European Union deeply embroiled in internal crises, maintaining close ties with a united and prosperous region such as the Anglosphere would be appealing both in economic and security terms.
Besides the special relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States, within the whole Anglosphere there is momentum behind reinforcing bilateral relationships. In his recent trip to Washington, even Justin Trudeau, prime minister of Canada, whose political style is very different from Trump’s, declared, “No neighbors in the entire world are as fundamentally linked as we are.” Both Canberra and Wellington are working hard to forge a strong relationship with a post-Brexit London. And despite a less-than-amicable first call between Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, the White House emphasized “the enduring strength and closeness of the U.S.-Australia relationship."
Eventually, the sum of these stronger bilateral diplomatic ties might lead to a more cohesive and united Anglo-Saxon community. Bilateral deals and partnerships could expand to involve all the members of the group. Repeated and frequent interactions on specific issues could eventually give rise to formal institutions with responsibility in those fields. Global problems would be approached and framed from the perspective of the Anglosphere world, which would push for solutions that are in its collective interest. At the same time, of course, each country would continue to retain its voice and independence.
To be sure, the Anglosphere rests on fragile foundations. First, there is a problem of leadership. Washington would be the most obvious leader, but the other members of the Anglosphere would risk being swallowed up by a nation representing 70 percent of the population and economy of the new political community. Not surprisingly, some prominent Brexiteers such as the writer James Bennet and Andrew Roberts, a visiting professor at King’s College, favor CANZUK, which brings together Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, as the first post-Brexit option. However, given its small proportion of the Anglosphere population, this association of states would be globally irrelevant.
Second, it will be hard to agree on a common strategy when it comes to China. Washington will play tough with Beijing, while London, which joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, will presumably be softer. Australia, Canada, and New Zealand will follow suit. Although the rationale of the Anglosphere is to preserve national sovereignty, China is too big a challenge for the members to act in an uncoordinated manner.
Third, the United Kingdom will oppose Washington’s potentially accommodating stance toward Russia. And finally, Trump himself represents a mixed blessing for such a project. Without the United States, the Anglosphere loses meaning, but should Trump antagonize allies in Europe and Asia with overly aggressive policies, he would become a burden.
If the Anglosphere comes together as a political project, it could signal the emergence of a new model of globalization.
If the Anglosphere comes together as a political project, it could signal the emergence of a new model of globalization, centered on cultural homogeneity, with regional clusters converging around common cultural factors, and without a rigid underlying institutional structure like the European Union. Even now, according to the Economist, two countries that share a common language trade 42 percent more with each other than those that don’t. Meanwhile, two countries that once shared imperial ties trade a massive 188 percent more. Gone would be the idea of a flat world. Goods, knowledge, and people would move smoothly within culturally similar areas. Outside of them, a variety of barriers, from walls to suffocating regulations, would inhibit the flow. With fewer trade exchanges and less specialization in production, productivity would further slow down and innovation would stagnate. But governments would enjoy more freedom to protect the weak within their borders from external forces.
Given the complex interaction of historical, political, and economic factors, it is hard to predict how countries will pool together. The World Values Survey, which explores the values and beliefs of nations, identifies eight culturally defined macro-regions. One of them is the Anglosphere. Europe is split along Catholic-Protestant lines. Russia, for its part, could exploit historical and cultural affinities with the former Soviet bloc to create a Eurasian free-trade zone. In Asia, the Confucian tradition brings together China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, though it is hard to believe that the conditions for such a macro-region will exist any time soon. Other potential groupings include South America and Africa.
Depending on circumstances, the coming together of culturally homogeneous zones might be spontaneous (Europe and Anglosphere) or coercive (Russia and Asia), and the interactions between regions could be characterized by either conflict or peace. Nostalgic nationalism will likely reinforce tensions and frictions between regions that are culturally distant, especially when standards of living differ greatly. But it can bring culturally similar countries closer together. Indeed, nostalgic nationalism is already reshaping the global order, but it will not necessarily lead to outright isolationism or conflict. There is room for new forms of cooperation to flourish.