By George Friedman
The fundamental problem for Britain has always been continental Europe. The danger to Britain was that a single, powerful entity would arise that could do two things. First, it could ally with the Scottish elite to wage war against England on land. Second, it could build a naval force that could defeat the British navy and land an invading force along the English shore of the Channel. The Romans did this, as did the Normans.
Successive powers arose in Europe that saw an opportunity to defeat England and later Britain. The Spaniards attempted an invasion in the 16th century; the French in the 19th century; the Germans in the 20th century. Each was defeated by treacherous waters and the Royal Navy. Many other potential invasions were never launched because the navies didn’t exist. They didn’t exist because of the British grand strategy, the core of which was that the nearest landmass, continental Europe, would always place Britain at a demographic disadvantage in a war. The population of Europe was the base of armies vastly larger than that which Britain could field. Therefore, the central strategy was to prevent such a force from landing in Britain.
Building a naval force able to challenge the British was enormously expensive. Only a very wealthy country could afford it, but very wealthy countries lacked the appetite. Other countries, seeking to increase their wealth, competed with other aspiring countries, diverting resources to land-based forces and making it impossible to build navies. The fact that the continent was fragmented first between kings and emperors, and later between nation-states, was Britain’s primary line of defense. The wealthiest nations were constantly fending off attacks from neighbors, while the poorer countries plotted strategies for enhancing their position through war. As a result, there were a succession of great continental powers: Spain, the Netherlands, France and Germany. None was strong enough for long enough to divert resources to taking Britain.
The Grand Strategy
British grand strategy, therefore, is to maintain a large naval force, but beyond that, to do what it can on the European continent to discourage hegemony on the mainland by preventing coalitions from forming, or by fomenting rivalries. In other words, the British grand strategy was constant involvement on the European continent, with the primary goal of diverting any nation focusing on naval development. These actions could involve trade policy, supporting various dynasties or nations, using the ability to blockade, or inserting limited ground forces to support a coalition of forces. British strategy was an endless kaleidoscope of tactics, constantly shifting relationships and actions designed to secure the homeland by maintaining insecurity on the continent. Britain didn’t create insecurity. That was built into the continental geopolitical system. Britain was successful at taking advantage of and nurturing the insecurity that was already there. Britain was always part of Europe, as for example its participation in the Napoleonic wars and the Congress of Vienna. At the same time, it stood apart from Europe because its geography gave Britain another base on which to stand.
The British Empire came into being as a byproduct of this grand strategy. The various imperial naval powers that came into existence were undermined not by naval force but by land conflicts. Spain, the Netherlands and France all developed navies able to carve out empires. But diversions on the continent limited their ability to expand those empires, and drained their ability to exploit them effectively. The British, united after the early 18th century and impervious to European manipulation, were able to sustain an imperial enterprise that constantly expanded and enriched Britain.
The reality of Europe also facilitated British leadership in the Industrial Revolution. Continental manpower, resources and inventiveness were no less than those of the British. But the British had far greater security for their enterprises, less diversion to military production, and a dynamic and growing empire to support industrialization. As a result, Britain developed another powerful tool for managing the continent: exports of manufactured goods and technologies.
What ultimately undermined the British grand strategy was the unification of Germany and the rise of the United States. German unification created an industrial force that could rival Britain commercially and dominate the continent militarily. In World War I, Britain followed a strategy that flowed from its grand strategy, intervening with ground forces to block Germany from imposing a continental hegemony. The cost to Britain far outweighed expectations. The grand strategy failed Britain by forcing it into a vast land war on the continent, taking away the option of selective involvement and manipulation. Britain had to use main force, which negated its geographic advantage.
Also weakening Britain was the emergence of the United States as a power that could field a million men in Europe and create a naval force that was second only to Britain’s. The truce that ended World War I did not end Britain’s problems; it merely delayed them. Within two decades, a re-emergent Germany once again challenged for European hegemony, and Britain’s survival become dependent on the intervention of the United States. In exchange for U.S. support in World War II, Britain all but gave up its empire when it was forced to abandon almost all of its naval bases in the Western Hemisphere in exchange for lend-lease. Having been trapped twice in the one thing she could not do — a European land war — Britain emerged hostage to the United States, now a junior member of its anti-Soviet coalition.
Crafting a New Strategy
The United States then took on the British role on a global basis. Britain was no longer the chess master, but a piece on the board — an important piece, but one that had lost its room for maneuver. Britain had to craft a new grand strategy out of the wreckage of the old. There was, however, a core that remained in place, which was the doctrine of the balance of power. Now, instead of being the major balancing power among other nations, Britain sought to balance its own power between two more powerful entities: the United States and the Soviet Union.
Because of its new position, Britain did not have the option of isolation. Its economic system required access to markets and products, and its strategic position required leverage on the European continent. So in 1973, Britain joined the European Economic Community, and in 1991 agreed to join the European Union. Britain always resisted full integration into the EU, however. In the era after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there were two poles for British strategy: Europe and the United States. Total dependence on either one could lead to disaster. Europe was led by its old nemesis Germany. The United States was a nemesis as well. Only by having relations with both could Britain hope to retain room for its own maneuver. The two wanted different things. The EU wanted a defined economic relationship with elements of a political one. The United States was open to economic relationship but particularly wanted British participation in its wars. Britain could satisfy both, cling to both poles and thereby find its own space.
The British Dilemma
The problem that Britain faces now is a European Union that doesn’t resemble what the founders imagined, or what existed 10 years ago. Where it had been seen as becoming a pillar of the international system along with the United States, it has morphed into political discord and uncertainty. The United States also has internal problems that were unexpected, but not of the consequence of Europe’s.
Britain’s problem now is being drawn too deeply into dependency on the United States. Such dependency on any country is rarely in a nation’s interest. What Brexit represents is Britain’s distrust of the viability of the European system and a desire to operate independently of it. That is difficult for Britain to do, so the United States is the pole that attracts, if total independence of all coalitions is not an option — which it is not.
This is the British dilemma. The German geopolitical imperative for expansion and the American need to dominate the North Atlantic have taken the old geopolitical reality and radically shifted its grand strategy. Europe is moving toward its historic disunity and class hostility. But Britain is not in a position to manipulate that for its own security. The North Atlantic is no longer Britain’s path to an empire. Depending on Europe is difficult. Relying on the United States is possible, but the U.S. is likely to once again exact a price. What that price is, however, is unclear. The only other alternative is for Britain to try to lead an alternative economic bloc out of the train wreck of Europe. As Europe’s second-largest economy, this is not an impossibility.
But in the end, Britain is an island, and Scotland is restless. The Germans are united and not altogether predictable. The U.S. is both friendly and avaricious, and its tastes are fickle. Finding a balance between Europe, however fragmented, and the United States might seem to be best option, but geopolitics tends to force unexpected choices on countries. Who in 1900 would have thought that Britain would be facing the choice it is facing today? Only those who understood what Germany was and what the United States was going to become.