My old teacher and mentor, Elie Kedourie, Professor of Politics at the University of London liked to say that Clio, the Greek muse of history had a great sense of humor and irony. This thought comes vividly to mind rereading one of the most important books ever written on the causes of the decline and disintegration of the British Empire in the first half of the 21th century, Correlli Barnett’s The Collapse of British Power.
Barrett’s enormous and still controversial masterpiece was published in 1972. Yet today it has a greater relevance than ever. For every time “Britain” is mentioned in the text, cross the word out, then replace it with “the United States” or “America” and his explanations for British decline and fall apply and explain even more presciently the current dilemmas of the United States.
Barnett gave as major reasons for the collapse of British power strategic over-extension after World War I when the British, already administering an empire covering one quarter of the entire land territory and one quarter of the human race, stretched even further and saw themselves as the global hyper-power and police, charged with maintaining a true World Order across the entire planet.
Today, those words and conceptions have an especially eerie and contemporary ring.
By claiming to be the global hyper-power, Barnett cogently argued, the British instead guaranteed that they could not even remain as an international superpower. They overextended and exhausted themselves. They over-stretched and exhausted their land combat forces in a plethora of minor wars and counter-insurgencies around the world, most notably in Iraq, Palestine, Ireland and Afghanistan – all regions that have today an astonishingly contemporary ring.
In the end Britain’s imperial leaders extended their network of guarantees to the tiny, unstable and narrowly parochial states of Central and Eastern Europe, ensuring their inevitable strategic collisions with first Germany and then the Soviet Union - again, strategic misconceptions that echo with especial relevance today.
Barnett most of all explored the crumbling and collapse of Britain’s once awesome industrial base. He put this down to a fatal, blind – indeed deluded - reliance on the workings of the free market without any government intervention, encouragement or protection for strategic industries.
Britain practiced Free Trade from 1860 to 1931 except for the four years of World War I at the very same time its arch rivals Germany, the United States and Imperial Japan applied high industrial and agricultural tariffs and successfully developed their modern industries and rural economies, dramatically raising the standard of living of their peoples in the process.
The British then, like the Americans today believed in Free Trade as an economic panacea blind to the avalanche of empirical, practical evidence to the contrary.
Like modern Americans, they laid exaggerated importance on theoretical university education in the humanities and on liberal theories of economics and politics, while their ruling elites were pathetically ignorant of what today are known in the United States as the STEM subjects – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.
It is therefore no coincidence that Margaret Thatcher, the only British leader to revive and stabilize her country’s economy and international standing since World War II, had worked professionally as a research scientist in the chemical industry. Thatcher also regarded Barnett as her favorite historian and raised him to the House of Lords as a Life Peer, an almost unprecedented honor for an academic British scholar.
Today Thatcher is gone but Barnett lives on at a remarkable 91. He followed up his 1972 masterpiece with three searing sequels on how the British threw away the manufacturing advantages they still enjoyed after being rescued in World War II by the alliance and support of the United States and the Soviet Union. Those three later books, The Audit of War: The Illusion and Reality of Britain as a Great Nation (1986), known in the United States as The Pride and the Fall; The Lost Victory: British Dreams and British Realities, 1945-50 (Macmillan, 1995) and The Verdict of Peace: Britain between her Yesterday and the Future remain definitive works today. They are known collectively as The Pride and Fall Sequence.
Ironically, Barnett greatly admired the America of the first half of the 20th century and held it up as an example of wise industrial, social, economic and strategic policies that Britain should have emulated but did not.
Instead the opposite happened, the Americans following the end of the Cold War plunged precisely into the same mad and futile dreams of eternal global leadership as the British had done, dragging them inexorably into one vicious, morally reprehensible and financially exhausting little “colonial” war after another to crush emerging national, social and economic movements around the world. They failed repeatedly.
Eventually these self-righteous and moralistic – but never moral – policies propelled Britain and its Empire into the one catastrophe they should have avoided at all costs – another world war.
Barnett recognized the fateful path the United States had taken. In 2003, never fearful of controversy he was scathingly critical of the US invasion of Iraq and its claimed moral and grand strategic goals. Clio, Muse of History must have applauded.