Small Wars Journal

Echoes of the End of the Raj?

Tue, 04/17/2012 - 9:26am

Kwasi Kwarteng, a Conservative member of British Parliament and author offered an interesting op-ed at the New York Times today:

THE Arab Spring, the threat of Iran as an emerging nuclear power, the continuing violence in Syria and the American reluctance to get involved there have all signaled the weakness, if not the end, of America’s role as a world policeman. President Obama himself said in a speech last year: “America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs.”

America’s position today reminds me of Britain’s situation in 1945. Deep in debt and committed to building its National Health Service and other accouterments of the welfare state, Britain no longer could afford to run an empire.

Read it all here.


Madhu (not verified)

Sun, 07/27/2014 - 1:21pm

There is a major difference between the US and the UK and that is our size, the population we have, and the natural resources we control.

The Washington Consensus seems to be unable to de-NATOise itself intellectually and emotionally, and cannot seem to understand we are more in line with India and China in terms of our options. Small islands we are not.

This is also a problem with our Generals who serve more as alliance builders than warriors. No wonder they long for the Cold War. Not just increasing budgets for the Army if we are land focused but then others that are more capable will be our allies just as last time, although we like to forget how much of the success during the Cold War had nothing to do with the US. It had a lot to do with the US, but not everything.

You need only look at a map to see that an East of Suez moment won't happen for the US whether we turn toward the Pacific or turn toward the Western Hemisphere. Relative declining power, sure, but our options are different and always have been.

And those options are AMAZING if we'd only look. But young ones go off to Princeton or Yale or Harvard or Johns Hopkins and learn nothing useful but then are made assistant deputy undersecretary of dums%$^ery and there we go. Good thing the educations are so flimsy.

Given the nature of great powers and the constantly shifting environment (from a DIME perspective) that great powers must influence and are influenced by, it would seem more appropriate to compare the current US “re-focus” not to the “end of the British Raj” but more to the mid-19th Century period of “masterly inactivity” whereby the British would let the Russians wear themselves out along the frontier of the Raj (in & around Afghanistan) allowing the British time to gather enough forces to repel them.

We have spent a decade-plus expending manpower, money, & resources in two regional wars. We are tired but are not in decline….we are set to engage in “masterly inactivity” since we are still powerful enough, influential enough, & indispensable enough to do so. The sky is not falling.


Tue, 04/17/2012 - 7:41pm

The British Empire was never the 'world's policeman' in my opinion, although for a long time it was the world's navy, principally anti-slavery and anti-piracy. Even then large chunks of the globe were not really a national or imperial priority.

The 'End of The Raj' came after 1945, notably with independence for India and Pakistan. For reasons historians are familiar with, notably the 'Cold War', the UK continued to play a role as a regional 'policeman' in the Middle East say till 1956 and South-East Asia till 1967-1972. Due to economic and financial restraints we then downsized and retreated back to Western Europe as an alliance partner, with very little 'policeman' role-playing - not that the military were not busy.

Even before Gulf War One we started to play at being a 'policeman', notably with exercises in Oman and a few short, sharp actions elsewhere outside Europe and the dependencies.

Now who would have predicted, let alone planned, nay even thought about the next step - a return to the 'Raj' - except on the opposite side of The Durand Line.

For the USA the lessons are that not being able to afford 'to run an empire' or act as a 'policeman' does not mean one stops trying - as this short trip down my quick, incomplete "memory lane" shows.

Well, certainly comparing the U.S. to Britain has its parallels, perhaps we should look further back then 1945 for a comparison, as some might say the decline of the British Empire began in 1781, when General Cornwallis accepted General Washington’s terms for surrender? : )


Tue, 04/17/2012 - 10:23am

Certainly the temptation to compare modern-day U.S. to latter-day Great Britain is strong. I suppose that using a wide aperature we could do that. But........during Britain's period of initial retrenchment the world was held together (arguably) with bi-polar politics. It was a zero sum game: Either USSR OR US; Either global thermonuclear war OR status quo....

We don't have that now. We (U.S.) also are not overly dependant on external inputs to our system as is the case with an island nation like Britain.

I see three COAs:

1) status quo, incremental change with continued fracturing of DIME both inside and outside the U.S. (diplomacy, information, military and economic)

2) political adapataion a la the Hegelian dialectic whereby the current flavor of capitalism is countered by an antithesis of some sort

3) radical change brought on by a signficant internal or external event, powerful enough to create the conditions whereby the 'public' (generally dump public=GDP) is cowed into conformity with the new norm

Here is the bad news: the new norm is a Hobson's choice, and will occur in one of the four areas of DIME. What that looks like is this:

D: nationalism OR United Nations rules
I: radical internet/behavior restrictions/changes
M: external or internal WMD events leading to the abandonment of posse commitatus and other protections against encroachment
E: the (too late) realization of the fact of unrestricted economic warfare leading to a radical restructuring of the idea of capital and currency.

I don't know how to avoid any of these three COA's and I don't see a real difference between any of them in terms of end-state. It all works out as Kwarteng observes.