The Gist: How the British Empire wrestled with decline.
A review of The Weary Titan by Aaron Friedberg.
I occasionally get into an argument with my father. He insists that America has always solved our problems and we always will. I hope so, but I point out that a citizen of Britain (or Rome) might have said the same thing a couple centuries (or millennia) ago and things didn’t exactly work out.
Figure 1. Ironically, one of the problems Britain couldn’t solve is America.
“Supremacy is seldom conducive to hard thinking.”
That is the warning of Aaron Friedberg in The Weary Titan, his study of the decline of the British Empire. Former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan recommended the book to me and it has become one of my favorite histories. Ultimately, the book is a meditation on how leaders come to grips with decline (or don’t.)
Figure 2. The apparent exception to this warning is Nick Saban.
“The sun never sets on the British Empire.” Never was that more true after World War I, when London controlled nearly a quarter of the world’s population spread out over 13 million square miles. For comparison, the United States today has about 4 percent of the world’s population concentrated in less than 4 million square miles.
And yet by then the Empire was in significant decline. The Empire had lost over a million men in World War I, including over 1.5% of the population of the home islands (the equivalent of America losing 5 million men today). Within four decades, the Empire was over.
Figure 3. Now there are days when the sun never even penetrates the English fog.
How did they get there? The real height of the British Empire may have been in the 19th century. Fresh off defeating Napoleon, the British were practically unchallenged across the globe. They expanded their reach further and further – but failed to realize they were losing their grip.
Friedberg’s book focuses on the years leading up to World War I and examines how British Imperial leaders tackled government budgeting, economic power, Naval reach, and Army strategy.
Let’s start with the easiest place they went amiss. Incredibly, between 1820 and 1850, British government spending went down! For comparison, the U.S. government spent double the real dollars in 2018 that we did in 1988. And that 1988 budget was more than double what we spent in 1958. (Another lesson from 19th century Britain: keeping inflation to a minimum. The facial budget number of 2018 is more than 40x 1958). The typical, prudent British fiscal management was not to spend more than revenue and pay down debt so that they could easily get loans in any war. It didn’t last.
Figure 4. You get what you pay for! Americans must live 400% longer than they did in 1958.
After 1850, government services increased, partially as a result of the expanding number of people voting, and spending jumped every year. By the 1890s, spending had exploded but revenue managed to cover expenses from the increased prosperity of the nation. Interestingly, their estate (death) tax was as important to their revenue as their income tax. But there was no political constituency calling for reduced spending – just disagreement about whether to spend it on defense or more domestic services.
Then the Boer War started in South Africa and it quickly exceeded costs by a multiple of the original estimate. The old guard was terrified because they believed that a low tax burden had enabled British success and that this was a pretty small conflict to be going into debt over. But new thinking was that Britain was economically strong and not spending as much as its peers (nor as much as it did during the Napoleonic existential crisis). They tried to spread naval costs to the far reaches of the empire (“weary titan” is a phrase from a speech suggesting this), but because their explicit strategy was to control the sea, not protect colonial coasts, the colonies only coughed up half of what London wanted. Britain resorted to more taxes on the home islands to pay for the war, only to face a new crisis in World War I – and with ever-increasing war debt as well as bigger and bigger promises of domestic services, the Empire was soon gone.
The second prism Friedberg considers is economic power: 1872 was the high water mark of Britain’s comparative economic strength. Then, only puny Belgium was similarly highly industrialized.
Figure 5. And Belgium used their head start to… gain an advantage in waffle production. Laugh all you want but Britain never developed a tasty food export.
Britain kept practically no economic statistics except exports and imports. And as the years went on, the numbers were bigger than ever. The British people felt more prosperous than ever. And they were! But by 1900, Germany, the United States, France, and Japan had done a lot of catching up, with the first two far outpacing British growth.
Few realized that Britain was in relative economic decline – that is to say, still ahead but less and less so. Because exports and imports were the only data available, all economic arguments in politics centered around them. And the Conservative coalition that led Britain at the end of the 19th century was extremely divided on trade.
Incredibly to modern eyes, free trade absolutists were not confined to university economics departments but were the base of the Conservative Party. Maintaining that British wealth was built on zero tariffs and that free trade meant cheaper goods for consumers, they refused to consider any alternative.
Figure 6. Late 19th century Britain was Milton Friedman’s dream polity.
And yet the thirty years ending the 19th century were collectively known as the “Great Depression” in Britain because of uneven economic conditions, often sparked by tariffs imposed by other countries. Joseph Chamberlain, father of future Prime Minister and German-appeaser Neville, was the Colonial minister who feared that British gospel on free trade was wrong. Chamberlain barnstormed the nation and insisted that British trade was essentially stagnant and that the only exports that had really increased were coal, machines, and ships – all things that helped competitors gain against Britain. Britain was alone in the world in embracing unilateral free trade – could everyone else be wrong? Attempting to unnerve the population, Chamberlain pointed out that Spain was more prosperous than ever before – and yet it was now a second (or third) tier power. Most compellingly to a doctrinaire free trader, he argued that free trade may increase global wealth, but did not guarantee a single nation atop the heap.
But Chamberlain’s solution was unproven, theoretically lacking, and never embraced. He proposed a new trade arrangement that involved free trade within the empire and tariffs outside it. Amazingly, despite Britain’s ferocious free trade stance, there was not free trade within the Empire, with colonies imposing tariffs on British goods. This and the colonies’ refusal to give London revenue are instructive as to how decentralized the Empire was – so much so that Prime Minister Arthur Balfour acknowledged that isolated economic units put the British Empire at disadvantage versus say, the US. Some Conservative leadership tended toward the aristocratic, and they worried that the prosperity of trade empowered the lower classes in politics. Yet Chamberlain was only able to push through tariffs in emergencies, as his opponents only agreed to them because of the need for revenue and dropped them as soon as revenue was secure.
Prime Minister Balfour ultimately resolved the debate by purging his cabinet of both extremes and tried to forge ahead with his own policy: free trade, but retaliatory tariffs available to goad others into dropping their tariffs. This proposal satisfied neither extreme, and led to a huge electoral defeat that put the Conservatives in the political wilderness for years. Ultimately, what Britain could have done to extend its economic advantage is unclear; nevertheless, the leadership relied too much on its historic strength and lost its innovative edge.
The third prism Friedberg considers is a point of historic pride for the British: when they ruled the waves. Most naval strategy came down to an aspiration to “control the seas” and exceed the naval power of the next two most powerful nations. But what did either of those aspirations really mean? They ended up sort of combining together to mean a greater number of battleships than Russia and France, Britain’s most feared alliance of enemies, even though friendly Italy had more ships than Russia. As time went on, and other powers grew their navies, the Admiralty realized the two power rule was inadequate to control the seas of the entire world, and they did not have the money to meet the challenge.
Figure 7. Britain eventually ambitiously shifted its target to ensure it had more ships than Switzerland.
Realizing their weakness, the Navy did what every business school teaches: delegation. In the 1880s, the United States began a naval build up that led the Admiralty to concede the western hemisphere to a friendly power. One of my favorite anecdotes in the book features the British Army requesting from the Navy the plan to defend Canada against a hostile America. After much prodding and delay, the Navy finally revealed there was no plan – and the Army, proud of a global British Empire, is befuddled and outraged. If only McKinley had known, we could have liberated the 14th colony!
The Navy was less successful in their choice of delegate in Asia: Japan. Until 1900, most of the Japanese Navy’s ships were built in the United Kingdom. Japan had already proved significant military capability against China but was forced to give up their gains by European powers. This humiliation prompted massive investments that ended up paying off in their defeat of Russia in the Russo-Japanese War. Britain saw an opportunity and signed an alliance with Japan where each promised to fight if the other was attacked by two or more powers. The Japanese hoped to make the alliance the dominant power in East Asia, but the British used it as an excuse to militarily leave Asia nearly altogether.
Figure 8. It’s sort of like when you were excited to work with a partner on a school project and then he left you to do all the work.
At the end of the day, the British managed their changing strategic Navy environment fairly well. They ultimately decided to focus their finite resources on what they considered the five keys to the world: Dover (where they controlled the English Channel), Gibraltar (the Mediterranean), Alexandria (the Suez Canal), Singapore (the Straits of Malacca), and the Cape of Good Hope (around Africa). Although delegating to the Japanese did not work (and ultimately resulted in one of the biggest disasters in British military history at Singapore in World War II), the British were not prepared to commit to East Asia and did not have the resources to stay there. What really paid off, especially in saving the home islands, was cementing the relationship with the United States. Unfortunately for us, there’s not a big friendly naval power that can take on our responsibilities.
Finally, Friedberg looks at Britain’s approach to its army. The British army had traditionally been small – conscription had been adopted by every European competitor but was considered against the British spirit. And the Army itself was considered a bad career by civilians. The Boer War required virtually all of British ground forces in the world.
Figure 9. Notably the British Empire never had to face the ultimate imperial threat
From 1900-1905, the British thought the most likely next major conflict was with Russia in Afghanistan. Whereas they felt that the Russians could strike at Britain’s “crown jewel” in India at any time through Afghanistan, Russia was considered hard to get at and difficult to blockade. Allies were required, and couldn’t be relied upon, to attack Russia, especially where Britain considered Russia most vulnerable (Crimea, requiring the Ottomans). The 1857 Sepoy mutiny gravely concerned the British, who relied on Indian troops but insisted on a particular white/brown ratio. The Indian troops were financed locally and did participate in British global conflicts, but a certain number were demanded at home to keep the peace. British military for years felt they needed to fight Russia in Afghanistan itself so as to stave off Indian insurrection pouncing on British weakness, but they worried Afghanistan was a logistical nightmare in which the locals would not be too keen to help. Years of arguments occurred between Indian and British planners about how many reinforcements and how much military financial capital could be expected from Britain. Eventually, someone helpfully pointed out that surely the Russians would have as many logistical problems in Afghanistan as the British had. And Russia’s defeat by Japan eased concerns, even prompting consideration of strengthening the alliance with Japan so that Britain would provide ships and Japan troops in case of a war. Even though the coming world wars ultimately were not fought over India, Britain’s concerns were not unreasonable – still, planning for all possibilities, including the unthinkable, tends to pay dividends.
Figure 10. Good thing we eventually figured out that Afghanistan thing.
The Weary Titan was originally written in 1988 but a 2010 afterword reveals that the author did think explicitly of the US-UK comparison, especially in light of the 1970s malaise in the US. While we have plenty of shared problems, including an ever-increasing budget and a decline in economic comparative advantage, Friedberg believes America does have one significant advantage: he thinks we overestimate our peers and underestimate ourselves, prompting us to work harder. As with so many things, insecurity can be the secret to greatness – and hopefully mine justifies my father’s optimism!
Figure 11. Click here to purchase A Weary Titan, 10/10, and one of my favorite history books.
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