The Slumbering Superpower

Lessons from Britain’s fatal interwar policy
From the March-April 2001 Trumpet Print Edition

In While America Sleeps, published in September 2000, Donald and Frederick Kagan deliver a powerful exposé that meticulously illustrates the parallels between Great Britain in the years between World Wars i and ii and America today. England was inwardly focused during that time. Its economy and social problems took center stage, nearly leading to its demise.

As the leading global power after the First World War, Britain drastically cut its military forces and defense spending. This ultimately resulted in a failure to deal effectively with global contingencies. It aggravated the prevailing conditions of disorder and encouraged aggressor nations to pursue expansionist policies. In the end, Britain’s weak stance on international policy culminated in the country being thrust into the Second World War.

Drawing the comparison to our time, the authors of While America Sleeps pose the question, “Is America today in danger of suffering a fate similar to that which befell Britain in the 1930s?” The main purpose of the book is to show that the vitally important answer to this question is yes.

From a historical perspective, many Trumpet subscribers will find it interesting to learn how Britain lost control of its once-great empire. In short, Britain, after World War i, had placed itself into a situation where it was capable of making the world a “safer and more secure place.” Britain’s leaders, however, refused to commit militarily to policies that sought such a noble goal. Consequently, the British Empire and Commonwealth of Nations was forced to give up its many colonial possessions and strategic sea gates.

The British leadership in the 1920s was able to politically justify its weak foreign policy and military cutbacks with a concept known as the “ten-year rule.” This rule stipulated that Britain would not be involved in a major war for at least ten years and therefore could relax its military preparedness. As time went on, the ten-year rule was conveniently and quietly stretched to include an undetermined number of years. This policy would spell disaster for Britain.

Today, the American version of Britain’s military scale-down is called the “peace dividend.” The problem with this type of thinking is that a weak military limits a nation’s ability to powerfully influence international affairs and maintain world peace.

In the 1990s, after the end of the cold war, America found itself in a similar situation to what Britain faced after World War i. As the USSR imploded, America was left the sole remaining superpower, without a serious global opponent. In the absence of a powerful foe, America began to waver in developing a strong national security policy that addressed changing world conditions. America kept a strong military stance immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but that would soon change.

At the beginning of the 1990s, many U.S. congressmen touted a “new world order” and reasoned that maintaining a strong military was not necessary in the new “peaceful era.” The military, however, feared severe budget cuts and sought to control its own destiny by decreasing its budget by $43 billion and creating a new strategic plan. Les Aspin, then chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, lobbied unsuccessfully to scrap the military’s Base Force plan in favor of his own plan, which would have slashed military funding by an additional $48 billion.

During the Clinton administration, Les Aspin and other like-minded congressmen were finally empowered to make the cuts in military spending they desired. These additional cuts placed the U.S. in a position where it could no longer effectively deter aggression or rapidly prepare for war. The inhibited military funding meant that that the U.S. could no longer handle two major regional contingencies simultaneously—a critical national security requirement.

While Great Britain and the U.S. desired to provide world leadership during these times of inward focus, they both failed to consider the dangers of having weakened armed forces. They pursued foreign policies that were not tied to their military budgets. The policies then became wishful desires, rather than working methods for addressing contingencies as they arose. When the need to intervene in conflicts did arise, hesitation prevailed until no other action but forceful intervention could save face. After these pseudo-engagements, both countries would repeatedly declare false victories. (Take the Gulf War and Kosovo, for example.)

Instead of immediately addressing the problems with unconditional force, Britain and the U.S. have historically “kicked the can down the road.” The United States, as Britain did during the 1920s, continually seeks to put important decisions and their consequences on the back burner until sometime in the distant future when they might disappear. However, history shows this philosophy does not work.