Studies of the rise and fall of great powers pay great attention to the period in which those powers are first-tier actors – and little to their management of the final dissolution of their empires. Britain's conduct of international affairs, for example, gets a lot of attention during the period from the late sixteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries, and very little after 1945.
This is not unreasonable when the central concern is the state of the international system as a whole, but it has resulted in a neglect of some not unimportant factors, and some aspects of recent history. After World War II, Britain and France, and after the Cold War, Russia, all sought to preserve something of their old position. Their particular approaches varied greatly, but there were similarities in their objectives and efforts, five of which seem especially worth discussing:
1. Working to Retain Relationships With Old Colonies and Vassals.
Britain has had the Commonwealth of Nations, France Francophonie, Russia the Commonwealth of Independent States. A significant dimension of this is the retention of a military presence in areas where it seems this can be done at low cost (as with Britain in the Middle East prior to its withdrawal "east of Suez," France's post-colonial role in western and central Africa, and Russia's interventions in "Near Abroad" countries like Tajikistan, Moldova and Georgia since 1991), and special efforts to retain sites of particular strategic value (as with Britain in the cases of Singapore, Suez and Cyprus, and Russia in the energy-rich Caspian Sea basin).
2. Placing a Special Emphasis on Select Military Resources.
The most noteworthy example of these is strategic nuclear weaponry, which all three of these countries possess, and on which have played special roles in their foreign policies. France developed its nuclear deterrent to assure itself an independent foreign position outside of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In the 1990s, with the deterioration of Russia's conventional military capability, it was widely recognized that Russia relied more heavily on its nuclear capability for its international status, and its capacity to defend its interests.
However, less dramatically, all three countries strove to preserve a defense industrial base, even where they have eschewed meaningful industrial policies in other ways (Britain the outstanding example of this). As a result they remained major producers of the kinds of high-end arms which only a few countries are capable of building – armor, aircraft, naval vessels, and anti-aircraft systems. Their ability to produce saleable weaponry not only gives them the measure of additional independence that comes with meeting a larger part of their military needs domestically, but through their exports makes them a larger factor in international questions – as seen in the issue of Russian sales of arms to Iran in recent years.
3. Utilizing Old Privileges in International Institutions.
Their leading roles in the British Commonwealth of Nations and its French and Russian counterparts aside, Britain, France and Russia all became permanent members of the United Nations Security Council at a time when they were still plausibly regarded as Great Powers, and retained those seats long after they ceased to be such. The use of those seats, however, has given them disproportionate influence and prestige, and often been their principal means of responding to American initiatives – as with French and Russian efforts to deny the U.S. a UN mandate for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
4. The Promotion of Regionalism.
Britain, and especially France, have both participated in the development of a European Union, in part as a way of compensating for their diminished positions. In 2001, Russia was a founding member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which brought together several former Soviet republics with China in a common organization.
5. The Cultivation of Close Relationships With Ascendant Powers.
The best known example of this is Britain's "special relationship" with the U.S.. However, France has also relied on close relations with the U.S. (as in its war to retain Indochina as a colony in the late 1940s and early 1950s), and with the Federal Republic of Germany (which was crucial to its activity in the European Union). After 1991, Russia has reconciled with China and cooperated with it on a number of international issues (like the questions raised by the break-up of Yugoslavia, the Iranian nuclear program, and most recently, the unrest in Syria).
Such strategies have tended to achieve only limited results, and to be decreasingly tenable over time. A former metropole's magnetism for lost colonies fades quickly after the loss of formal empire, and the material power that supported it (as has been the case with the British Commonwealth), while the costs of preserving a place in seemingly low-cost regions tends to go up over time (as Britain discovered in the Middle East, and France in Africa).1 Their ability to invest in even limited areas of military capability does not match that of other more affluent powers, and reflects the fact. (Britain's nuclear deterrent was already reliant on American-made missiles by the early 1960s, and the country's weapons programs are increasingly dependent on foreign partnerships – as with every British fighter since the Lightning.) Their special status in international institutions increasingly seems dubious (the retention of permanent Security Council seats by Britain and France has long seemed to many a relic and an injustice, especially with countries like Japan, India, Brazil and Germany lacking such places), while yielding few practical returns (given the limited effect of UN votes, as seen in the case of Iraq). Meanwhile their cultivation of regional blocs tends to dilute their voice (as has happened with the expansion of the EU) while frequently falling short of crucial objectives (like a coherent EU foreign and defense policy), while their "junior partner" role in such associations leaves them followers rather than leaders (as has arguably been the case with Britain).
Britain and France's transition away from great power status essentially ran their courses decades ago. By contrast Russia, which suffered in similar ways even after the resurgence in energy prices after 1998 permitted a partial recovery from the Soviet collapse (as former satellite countries entered NATO, Russia turned to foreign partners for support for its fifth-generation fighter program, and so on), remains in the midst of that process, which seems almost certain to continue (quite in contrast with the predictions some have made about a "mini-Cold War" between Russia and the U.S.).
In the end, where the game of great powers is concerned, there is simply no substitute for broad-based military strength, and the broad-based economic strength required to sustain it.
1. In the Middle East pillars of British strategy like client relationships with local monarchies, the Suez base and the Baghdad Pact did not last long in the face of local nationalism; the U.S. and Soviet Union soon eclipsed Britain as external presences; and on top of that, many Middle Eastern countries became significant military powers in their own right – all as Britain had to repeatedly cut its defense spending. Likewise, France's confrontation with Libya over Chad in the 1980s showed the limits of "Jaguar diplomacy," while the 1990s brought additional setbacks (particularly the loss of friendly client regimes in Rwanda and the former Zaire).
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