Great powers today: Shadows of the past
Why has the United States, in what is called the "American Century," been less comfortable with a multi-polar balance of power system than with a bipolar? Is there a more underlying reason than immigration to explain Great Britain's exit from the European Union? In both instances, instincts offer an explanation at least as tangible as rational policy-making (that is, how national interests generally get formulated, by calculating benefits against costs).
In the case of Britain, blaming Polish and other European (especially East) immigrants for being ethnically or nationalistically incongruous with the "stock" of British society, or even Muslims for being similarly racially or religiously incompatible, may have been the straw that broke the proverbial camel's back (that is, continuing Britain's European Union membership); but these could also be mere tips of a larger iceberg. Going backwards, we know of Britain's aloofness from both the Euro common currency and the Schengen unification arrangements: the Sterling was a historically far stronger currency than any European counterpart prior to the rise of the Deutschmark; and, against a European Community expanding membership to many lower-waged neighbours, any Schengen membership meant not only reducing all that Great Britain stood for, in particular income, values, and a great-power legacy, but also imposing new costs upon extant spiralling ones (for instance, subsidising continental farmers).
Embedded in all of these incidents was a "Rule Britannia" instinct, reminiscent, as it was, of a once-crucial European "balancer" role Britain played against a "subjugating Europe" role many continental leaders preferred, as, for example, Napoleon Bonaparte for France, Tsar Alexander I for Russia, and Adolf Hitler for Germany. It was also consonant with a "special U.S. relationship" that began to emerge, in fits and starts, one century after 13 British colonies declared themselves as the United States of America; and reflective of an empire where the "sun never sets" suffix was more prominent and proudly propagated than in other imperial countries where the cliché was also true: France, Spain, and Portugal. As a balancer, it could side with Austria-Hungary, France, Prussia, or Russia as it wished, breeding a policy-driven calculation that lasted as long as it itself became sentimentally institutionalised, a feature helped by such battles as against the Spanish Armada (1588), and at Trafalgar (1805), Waterloo (1815), and Britain (1940). As an Atlantic ally, it cultivated that Anglo-Saxon bond far more assiduously than it did with Germany, where the "Saxon" component of the identity once originated. As an empire, it had so many global partners to trade (or play cricket) with, and much of which would have had to be rearranged with European membership after 1973.
Post-Brexit, that instinct could conjure prospects of Britain expanding trade with former colonies and Commonwealth countries on better terms, since many of them, such as India, Malaysia, and Singapore, are far more weighty in global commerce today than they were as colonies, while others, like Bangladesh, have not only become far less of a poverty drawback, but also rank among emergent global economic forces. Even more, with India, it could even angle for a future "great power" balancer role, for example, against China now that the balance-of-power multi-polar game has been resurrected with the end of the Soviet-U.S. rivalry. Britain might do conceivably better with a revived Commonwealth than with the European Union if instinct was the gauge.
With the United States, all the more so with Canada, Britain could seek an independent trade agreement that was becoming increasingly hard for the United States to finalise with the European Union, even though President Barack Obama has often indicated his country would give the multi-member European Union preference over a single Great Britain proposal. More than merchandise, it could play the Anglo-Saxon identity card again to the very hilt. Finally, Britain's leeway to explore its independent pathways more freely and fruitfully than any other EU member country cannot last forever: should EU integration have deepened with Britain, Britain would have had to make more substantive sacrifices to its Commonwealth partners, while also trimming its economic relations with relatively new powers, like China, or across Latin America, to agreements forged in Brussels by EU policy-makers. Who knows, even the Anglo-Saxon identities across the world might dim, much more to Britain's detriment than to Australia's, Canada's, New Zealand's or the U.S.'s.
Britain's balancer instinct is intimately related with a plural form of parliamentary government and pluralist interest groups than it is with continental presidential varieties (including even Germany's chancellor-led policy-makers) and corporatist interest groups: the former conveyed individualism, one of the underlying themes of the English Enlightenment, and with it competition and adversarial juggling. By contrast, the EU counterpart has been continental collective-mindedness, embodied in Jean Jacques Rousseau's "social contract," but realistically evident in the Holy Alliance of divine right monarchs (as opposed to fledgling democracies) in the 19th Century, and most vividly the "communitarian" initiatives since World War II (such as over regional economic integration). Give or take the Danes, Dutch, and Scandinavians, Anglo-Saxon individualism has been hard to institutionalise on the continent, even in Germany, where government-business ties overlap each other too much to permit unbridled individualism (see Jeffrey Garten, The Cold Peace), and in spite of Germany being so heavily influenced by Anglo-Saxon reconstruction influences after World War II (Germans speak English far more comfortably than many of their continental neighbours).
The United States claims its own, more bipolar-oriented instinct. It is not just the "better dead than red" mindset of the Cold War, or the "clash of civilisations" atmosphere afterwards (pitting a "western" or "Christian: civilisation against "Hispanic," or "Muslim"). There has also been an ingrained "good-evil" trajectory, including the currently institutionalised anti-terror crusade, throughout its history: from the Monroe Doctrine separating the "Americans" from the "Europeans" (the "new" versus the "old" continents) and the Manifest Destiny-orientation demanding that "civilised" countries civilise the "uncivilised," to the cowboys-versus-"injuns," and so forth. At the back of that mindset lay the "mother" of Manichaean outlooks: the City upon a Hill framework that can be traced back to the time of the Pilgrim Fathers, and obviously implying (a) those not on the "hill," or in that "city," were the inferior "others," the "slums," as it were, that blight cities; and (b) being on the "hill" itself carried providential advantages not available to other "earthlings." Note how this thinking was not built upon policies, unlike many in Great Britain that evolved from practice and policy-responses to ongoing developments, such as the balancer position vis-à-vis Europe, alliances, cross-border marriages, and so forth. Over time, the "City upon a Hill" instinct shaped policies and principles, beginning with Thomas Jefferson's authorship of the U.S. constitution (his English Enlightenment scholarship retained that unyielding transatlantic bond after the breakage with Britain in the 1770s), and continuing after U.S. independence through, for example, the 1919 League of Nations provisions, particularly Woodrow Wilson's self-determination principle thereafter, Franklin D. Roosevelt's Four Freedoms from 1941, and down to the New World Order enunciated by George H. W. Bush in 1990. Note the relative absence of such manifestos across European.
Just as Britain and the United States can retreat into their own instincts from policies gone awry, so too can other countries. In the shadow of these two countries (the British and American "centuries" meant two centuries of fairly consistent thinking and conjoined policy-making at rewriting global history around some core values), France and Germany had to chew their own claims to stewardship, the former from a far longer and more glorious period, still evident in the revered Palace of Versailles and evident in the Sun King (Louis XIV, 1638-1715), the latter of a far more brutal and brief spell (1871-1918; then 1933-45), evident in the country's unification and the Iron Chancellor who made it possible and that once regal Reichstag building subsequently. Both countries have been cultivating new collaborative instincts over those of an imperial backdrop against the hindsight of not being able to tilt global power-balances individually in the foreseeable future.
So too, one might argue, China and Russia. Both need their Atlantic partners more than they will presently admit (China for markets and investment; Russia as a stepping stone to reclaim its former leadership), but other, quite different instincts presently prevail. How the totalitarian instinct of communism is beginning to find Confucian overtures, identities, and outlets across China today parallels how Vladimir Putin is returning to glorious historical moments and moods, such as his tsarist attitudes, aptitudes, and atmospherics across Russia: the Confucian weltanschauung [worldview] of respecting the "elders" could subtly serve as entry-points for Chinese dictators to camouflage their authoritarian instincts, and transforming more softly from communism than it offers Putin's Russia, where the cunning, chaotic, and chameleon features of many tsars, embodied by none other than the very advisor of the last, Putin's namesake, Rasputin, does not bode well. Instincts, after all, cannot change without a cataclysmic change, as befell Germany or Japan so abruptly after 1945, but in slow-motion for France from 1871 (surrender to Otto von Bismarck, no less in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles), and 1918 (the end of a prolonged trench-warfare that decimated its able-bodied male population), and perhaps Italy (following its 1861 reunification) and Spain after General Franco (1939-75).
If Francis Fukuyama's "End of History" resonates with a global convergence and conformity that it has never really seen before (much to Fukuyama's chagrin), then the reason why may be less the policy-peddling habits of countries (though these will rock the boat, any boat, constantly), than the inherent instincts cultivated over a long period of time: very much like fingerprints, no matter how much they vary individually, we still get a precise first-cut impression of the collective picture, in terms of attitudes, behaviours, and values. Or, simply, instincts.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.