Grand Strategy and Imperial Defence: Reflections from a Historian
Brian P. Farrell
Grand strategy depends on either the formulation of defence policy at the summit or, if at war, the central direction of war. For an empire, such central direction meant determining the objectives for which an empire went to war, the nature of the sacrifices it was prepared to make to pursue them, and the conditions under which it would accept an enemy’s submission. These were the ends; grand strategy was the means. It was an art, not a science, and a constant process: the art of relating the organization and application of power to the pursuit of imperial objectives. This could only be done at the very summit of decision-making and responsibility, and if they were not vested in one and the same person then it could only be done effectively through intimate cooperation between military advisers and political executives. Conceptually, this analytical definition can be applied to the military experience of any empire, despite the vast differences between many of them, across time and space. We may define empire, for this discussion, as a polity composed of a core population and territory that also governed peoples and territories beyond that core, and did so by means of working partnerships at all levels, between constituent peoples and regions. Empires did not need a common language, or ethnicity, or religion, or even core values to bind the polity together, although many had such features; all they needed was common interest in remaining a polity. Administration could be layered, or delegated, or indirect, or quite loose; but ultimate sovereignty was imperial, as was ultimate responsibility for defence. And while the nature of grand strategy was constant enough for us to use it as a means to analyze the historical experience of imperial defence, the characteristics of empires, and the contexts in which they existed, were marked more by differences than similarities. That poses a challenge: to historicize grand strategy as a theme in the history of imperial defence, we must respect particularity. Therefore, we must identify, and analyze, representative experiences of empire, in order to see what light the study of grand strategy can shed on the wider experience of imperial history.
Three representative types of empires may be identified for this exercise, and in each case context was the crucial defining factor. The first type was a hegemonic or satisfied power, a polity basically content with the range of territory and peoples it governed, and its place in the wider world. Such an empire typically focused on holding what it had, on a principally defensive grand strategy. The second type was the empire that sought to expand and enrich itself, to change its world, sometimes using force by choice, sometimes by necessity. Such an empire typically regarded forward and aggressive policy as the best de facto means of defence: protect the empire by changing the world. The final type was an empire that became very conscious it was losing power in its world--either in an absolute or a relative sense; often, but not always, by territorial loss. Such a sense of decline, to use the most familiar label, did not produce any typical grand strategy for imperial defence. But why was this so? Contingency? Culture? Context? Some mixture of all three? This paper will use these representative types to analyze, historically, the role grand strategy played in the wider history of defending empires—and will suggest conclusions we may draw from this exercise regarding the military history of empires in general, and the study of grand strategy in particular.
The dominant empire, looking out upon its world as a satisfied power, was a quite common development in world history. The three most celebrated can provide a focus for our analysis of grand strategy: the Roman Empire in its heyday, the Ming Dynasty of China, and the British Empire, from the middle of the 19th century to the outbreak of the Great War in 1914. For all three, we need to examine three things: how did they formulate grand strategy, what military strategy did they pursue within that grand strategy, and how effective were they at both levels?
The military system of Imperial Rome from the time of Augustus Caesar was defined by several features that changed very little before the empire finally buckled, centuries later. Full political and military power of command was vested in the person of the Emperor. The army was a long service standing professional force, drawn from all regions of the Empire. The army was both the bulwark of the state and the principal focus of its infrastructure and engineering. Grand strategy as we understand the term was very definitely practiced by Imperial Rome. In 1976 the noted American historian and strategist Edward Luttwak published a landmark study titled The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire. Luttwak’s interpretation provoked controversy that still divides historians of the ancient world, but the silliest criticism was that because the term itself is modern the concept is also. Nonsense. Emperors, advised by influential political leaders and senior military commanders, directed and oversaw the harnessing and application of the resources of the empire to defend it, often quite systematically. After Augustus, cemented by the strong Emperors Hadrian and Trajan in particular, the Empire adopted a default position for imperial defence: the Roman world was large enough as it was, so the grand strategy of the Empire was to defend the territory and peoples that lived within the space of that world, and dominate those which bordered it.
The formulation of grand strategy depended on the Emperor. Some spent much time campaigning, others barely left Rome. Some made very autocratic decisions, others sought advice. Some listened to favourites, others to a range of opinions. There was also a lot of latitude for men on the spot, far away from Rome, to define in detail how to defend the Empire on the ground. Even the celebrated roads of the Empire could not enable real time long distance communication. The vast size of the Empire produced, predictably, quite wide differences in the sense of priorities and threats, from one region to another. Some regions could be defended effectively by systematic belts of fixed fortifications, garrisoned by strong field forces: Hadrian’s Wall in Britain, the Limes in Germany, the Danube frontier. Other areas, larger, more accessible, boasting few if any natural defensive features, had to be defended by other means: the southern desert border in North Africa, the Eastern frontier in modern Iran and Iraq. No walls could keep out Parthia. Near constant warfare, punctuated by regional offensives to pin down Parthian power, reinforced by diplomacy and judicious alliances, marked grand strategy in the East. Roman military strategy was pragmatic, within the larger grand strategy to preserve the Roman world. If neighbours must be contained by punitive expeditions, they were. If unruly neighbours could be co-opted, they were. If such neighbours could be bought off, or distracted, or played off against each other, this was pursued. If they could be kept at bay by walls and forts, they were. Rome’s great economic wealth was a crucial prop of this grand strategy for imperial defence. Walls, forts, a very strong field army, bribes, subsidies: these were all very expensive. The roads were built for the army, not commerce, but they carried both, and one maintained the other. But the combat power of the Roman Army was the principal dimension of Roman grand strategy. More often than not, force, or the clear threat of force, played the lead role.
Luttwak was correct. The grand strategy to preserve the Roman world can only be seen as very effective--given how long it endured, and how well the empire’s peoples and territories were protected. Perhaps most important, the crucial features of that grand strategy became widely understood and absorbed by generations of Roman decision makers: pragmatism, the strategic defensive, regional differentiation. Rome’s fourth century schism and fifth century collapse came from other forces, not from its grand strategy for imperial defence. Luttwak later went on to point out, in The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, that this Eastern successor to Roman imperium adopted much of that approach to grand strategy. The Byzantines developed their own ‘military code’ that emphasized containing rather than destroying enemies, using force as little and rarely as possible, deflecting before defeating. The object was survival, not expansion; the success, this time, stretched nearly a millennium.
Roman and Byzantine strategic pragmatism reflected the polyglot nature of their empires. The large number of different peoples in widely varied regions that constituted the polity required the empire to learn to manage diversity, and find ways to blend ideas. It also reflected the sense that the empire was big enough. Ming China shared that sense, but not that pragmatism. The Ming Dynasty governed territories and peoples that in some ways were not much less diverse than Rome and Byzantium, but in three crucial features were far more uniform: the shared sense of general Han civilization, the Confucian worldview informing that civilization, and the empire wide system of government and administration that held it together. Far more than Rome, Ming Emperors relied on two things to be the main props of their power, and thus the security of their empire: the loyalty and effectiveness of the administrative elite that governed the empire’s peoples and regions, and their own personal ability to make that deeply entrenched machine of government do what they wanted it to do. The Ming became so convinced the Sinic world was big enough that they drastically changed not just the grand strategy for imperial defence but also the nature of their empire.
During the 15th century the Ming became convinced the Middle Kingdom could gain nothing of value from continued intercourse with lands and peoples beyond its own domain. Indeed, it faced military, economic, and cultural risks by continuing such intercourse. Ming Emperors made two drastic decisions as a result, spread out over the course of a century. First, they physically restricted Chinese maritime intercourse with the wider world, naval and commercial, and reinforced this by outlawing emigration and external activity. This isolation was not universal and watertight, pardon the pun, but it was profound. Second, they turned their back on the previous grand strategy to contain threats from the nomadic steppe peoples who lived north and west of the Chinese heartland by engaging them in trade and commerce, which provided outlets for their needs and energy. The Ming replaced it by a strategy that sought systematically, physically, to exclude nomadic economic and military movements, and activity. Literally, they built a Great Wall; more accurately, they systematically expanded and connected various existing walls, to try to form one massive permanent stone fortification belt stretching from the high desert to the sea, garrisoned by a huge army. The Ming saw this drastic concrete demarcation of Chinese space as a defensive grand strategy, to mark out and hold the space of the Empire and keep out the neighbours; the nomadic peoples saw it as an offensive thrust against the trade and commerce they relied on for survival.
Arthur Waldron rightly described this Great Wall grand strategy as expressing a wider and deeper articulation of the Ming sense of how the Empire should relate to everyone else, and therefore how it should also define itself. Chinese culture and values, staked out within the defined space, should be protected by being separated from all other influences. Only a very wealthy and arrogant empire could have considered pursuing such a grand strategy, and it generated predictable consequences. Severing maritime and nomadic trade both hurt the regions of the Empire that benefitted from it and reduced China’s contact with the development of ideas, methods, and instruments everywhere else. Only the strongest and most determined of Emperors could make this grand strategy function against such strains, and there were too few of them. The Great Wall grand strategy ultimately provoked the invasions from the north that produced the non-Chinese Qing Dynasty. The Qing fundamentally repudiated this grand strategy. They chose instead to pursue systematic military expansion to the north and west, anchored by orchestrated economic, infrastructure, and administrative consolidation, in the wake of their military advances. But arguably this led to the worst of both worlds: a larger more bellicose empire that pursued a costly grand strategy of aggression, but retained the viscerally arrogant sense of cultural superiority and difference that prevented it from seeing how much was changing everywhere else. The 19th century consequences are well known. The Chinese Empire was by far the best organized administratively, and the most systematically governed. Yet it produced the most ineffective grand strategy. Here, culture trumped context and contingency.
The British Empire which, after 1815, established a nearly global Pax Britannica, was very different in nature and character from our previous examples, and developed in a very different world. Four differences stand out. The British Empire was predominantly a maritime polity, relying on the self-supporting circle of seapower and maritime commerce for its wealth, cohesion, and communication. It was therefore also global and non-contiguous, which helped produce a very important difference in the way it related to the wider world. It contained within its character a core unit that evolved a real departure in strategic culture. And it could not dominate its own strategic heartland by its own military power, not even in its heyday.
The final defeat of Revolutionary and Napoleonic France left Europe well settled in a balance of power. This enabled the United Kingdom to concentrate its already great commercial and maritime power on expanding the wider network of colonies and interests it had already developed. Pioneering the Industrial Revolution only accelerated and enhanced both British power and its global projection. The Qing could rebuff Lord Macartney dismissively in 1792. Fifty years later, British victory in the Opium War began the chain of change that would sweep the Qing away. The Royal Navy became de facto the first global armed force that sought, quite effectively, to enforce global norms and standards; the world was made quite safe for Free Trade and commerce. There were complications. The absent minded manner in which the British established true imperial hegemony in India gave their empire a very long land frontier, which had to be defended against some very violent and threatening neighbours. Another long land frontier, Canada, could only be defended by befriending the neighbour, at a price. But the defining characteristic of British imperium was its global reach and maritime focus. This led to five simultaneous layers of empire. Those five layers shaped the making of grand strategy for imperial defence.
The first layer was a settlement empire, built by emigration from the British Isles—and later elsewhere in Europe—to develop overseas polities that were culturally and ethnically British. The first such venture ended disastrously in 1783 when the empire had to recognize the independence of the United States of America, but the British learnt from their failure and approached settlement colonies quite differently thereafter. The territories that became Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and to some extent South Africa and Rhodesia, evolved, in stages, from self-governing colonies to Dominions, sovereign states that continued to associate themselves as junior partners in the larger British project. Ties of economic and strategic need, sentiment, culture, values, race, religion and language all played their part. But the crucial dynamic was the evolution of these states from colony to partner within the empire. The second layer was what became British India, the Raj, which by the 1870s was a fundamental strategic unit in its own right. The third layer was the dependent overseas colonies, with only small expatriate minority European populations. Methods of governing varied widely over time, but such colonies remained dependent. The fourth layer was the British homeland, the British Isles and the United Kingdom. The final layer was the dominant position the British Empire established in the global economy, by the middle of the 19th century, with massive investments and interests in all regions of the world--quite above and beyond any territorial presence in colony or Dominion.
This global British imperialism co-existed with a territorial British Empire. This combination, and the layers of that Empire, shaped grand strategy for imperial defence. By the 1860s the British sought no further territorial expansion. This did not prevent such expansion, to say the least, but British decision makers saw the Empire, rightly, as the principal pillar on which a new and truly global system of economics and politics was taking shape. Their most vital interest became to nurture and protect that system, and their place in it. The agents of change were the sheer size of the task and the constitutional evolution of the settler colonies into Dominions. The British in fact defined Imperial Defence, capitalized, as a conscious priority. The keywords became organization, system, and evolution. By trial and error, exploiting new industrial capabilities for communicating and waging war, the British built a machinery for Imperial Defence and defined some fundamental principles. This both drove, and coincided with, what we may call the modernization and systematization, of government and administration writ large. The first accepted principle was that Imperial Defence must cost as little as possible. That led to the second: each region of the Empire should take the lead, as far as possible, in defending its own area. These two things combined with the nature and aspirations of the settler colonies to produce a breakthrough: because the British could not simply order emerging Dominions to do as they were told, they had to bring them along as partners in a joint venture. To harness and apply the resources of the Empire, the British had to become the senior partner in its overall defence, and had to consult with, not command, its most advanced layer. The departure point was the establishment in 1902 of the Committee of Imperial Defence (CID). This permanent body of the British government provided a flexible forum in which the British and Dominion governments could discuss, define, and implement imperial grand strategy. This was nowhere near an equal partnership. The realities of power ensured that, as did the British insistence that because only they had global reach then they must remain the principal decision maker. But it was far more systematic and consultative than any other arrangement for imperial defence the world had yet seen. And here too, it reflected the nature of the Empire that developed it.
The working premise of the system going into the 20th century was that British power would have to be deployed to protect Dominions, colonies, or interests, all over the world. The idea was to coordinate, delegate, and find support. But British Imperial Defence rested on what made the Pax Britannica possible in the first place: the strategic position of the metropolitan hub, the UK. And that rested on what was achieved in 1815: a stable balance of power in Europe. This was the absolute precondition. A predominantly maritime power could not, did not seek to, become hegemon in Europe. But the only way that power could build and preserve a truly global political economic system, from which it gained the most, was if it faced no hegemonic threat or contender in Europe. The British interest was to make sure no one dominated Europe. The Empire’s grand strategy was to preserve the world system of which it was the principal architect, to defend the British world order.
The very same year the CID was established the UK made a pivotal alliance which reflected what was already true: the balance of power in Europe was now at risk, and grand strategy for Imperial Defence had as a result to be revisited. The journey from the Anglo-Japanese Alliance to the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 reflected that outcome. Instead of managing a partnership in which the regions paid for their own defence, and received British help as and when they needed it, the British found themselves ‘calling in the legions,’ to use the Roman precedent, to concentrate the power of the Empire to uphold a balance of power in Europe. The global, delegated and consultative nature of grand strategy for Imperial Defence actually worked in 1914: the Empire rallied to the British and Allied cause, to preserve the world order within which British Empire and imperialism had gained so much.
These examples of satisfied empires defining grand strategy to defend their world stand in contrast to the historical experiences of empires that believed the best means of defence was to fundamentally change their world, by force—sometimes as necessary, sometimes by choice. Three may command our attention: Russian expansion over the course of four centuries, from Central Europe to the Pacific Ocean; French expansion as a result of the French Revolution; and the Nazi German project to build a New Order. One stark fact marked them all: none could see any other possible grand strategy as viable.
Medieval Muscovy grappled with the still tangible legacy of Genghis Khan and the great Mongol wave of conquest. Its historical memories also included Germanic armies marching east from the Baltic Sea. Wide open territorially from three directions, the great Russian steppe heartlands seemed confronted by a permanent strategic dilemma: dominate the space around you, or be absorbed by it. From the conquest of Khazan onwards, the Russian answer was to push out. Henry Kissinger was not the only analyst to point out that Russian territorial expansion between 1552 and 1917 could be averaged out at 100,000 square kilometres of territory every year. The rest of the world, especially the Eurasian mega-continent, certainly came to see the Russian Empire as an ogre with an insatiable appetite for lands and peoples.
Such expansion was not of course pursued by military force alone. Not a few Russian Czars and governments sought to anchor their larger Empire by policies of settlement, religious conversion and or toleration, language and cultural assimilation or integration, and economic entanglement. But military expansion was the most consistent theme. Russian grand strategy for imperial defence can almost be boiled down to a simple maxim: Russian strategic geography gave the Empire no choice but to dominate everything around it. The Empire must either expand or once again face defeat and conquest. This Russian grand strategy eventually made the Russian Empire the only Eurasian Great Power, but also entangled it with the strategic challenges of an almost unbearable number of regions: the balance of power in Europe; the Pontic and Transcaucasian rivalries fuelled by Ottoman, Persian, and local aspirations; the Central Asian heartlands, which provoked friction with both the British and the Qing; and the Far East, which ultimately produced a head on collision with Japan. The Russian tendency to lean so heavily on military force, used so often as part of a strategic offensive, to expand imperial space, reflected both the nature of the polity and the environment, physical and political, in which it existed. Accommodations were possible. The Qing and the Czars confirmed their mutual extinction of Central Asian states by treaty. The British and the Czars managed their rivalry by arrangement and ultimately entente. But force and war were never far from the foreground. Whether there were any fundamental alternatives or not, the long trajectory of grand strategy that featured defending the empire by expanding it put the Russian Empire on a treadmill from which it could never dismount. Strong leaders may have made grand strategy, but it rested pretty securely on a Russian consensus of strategic culture. The sheer length of time and scale of expansion may constitute, as in the Roman case, an argument for success. But the manner in which it all fell apart in 1917, stemming so directly as it did from such relentless expansion, suggests otherwise.
Revolutionary France found itself in a zero sum total war with the rest of its world from 1793 onwards. The Revolution project posed such a fundamental threat to the old order of European civilization that once the rest of Europe declared war on France, no one could ever find a way to terminate the conflict short of zero-sum. Napoleon must be seen as a product of the Revolution, and his empire as a concerted effort to try to anchor it as the new defining agent for a new European world. He may have used French military power to spread the word, but Napoleon’s goal was to change Europe fundamentally, not just conquer it. This prevented him from ever being able to orchestrate a situation in which there could be any lasting coexistence. Try as he did to use the nomenclature of monarchy and empire to try to find such accommodation, Napoleon fooled no one. The social and political changes he now championed were simply too profound. This greatest of all French Empires ran the entire course of its existence waging total war. Its grand strategy for imperial defence was the most categorical one could define: the Empire would either change the world so much that its principles became the grounding for a new world order, or it would be destroyed in the process. The burden for change rests always, of course, with those who depend on it. That plus his own inclinations brought Napoleon to the grand strategy of military conquest, to change Europe by conquering it. Napoleon made grand strategy, but inherited the Revolution. We are all familiar with the manner in which such single-minded grand strategy, posing such a zero sum challenge, provoked the rallying together of the disparate forces that shared the most vital common interest there can be: their very survival depended on defeating this force of conquest. So indeed it proved.
Our final example of a grand strategy for imperial defence that focused on changing the world by force resembled this French experience in many important ways, and also went beyond it: Nazi Germany. Hitler too was a revolutionary product of his own time and place, a man determined to destroy the existing order in Europe and replace it by a fundamentally different one. This New Order was to be defined by race, and its borders, governments, and peoples were to be reordered accordingly. Like the French Revolution, Hitler and his Nazi grand strategy came to rely on establishing a completely different imperial hegemony over Europe. Like the French, it broke itself in the vast steppes of Russia. But even more than the French and their Emperor, Hitler saw military force, wars of conquest and aggression, as the absolutely necessary principal feature of his grand strategy. Hitler made both his revolution and grand strategy. The agenda was to change the world, to subvert the very course of history that had mingled peoples, races, and their cultures. In order to succeed, the German people had to rediscover themselves, and harden themselves, by trial by fire. Waging war would make a great people great again. Conquest would clean the slate, allowing the New Order to impose the most extreme changes by the most extreme methods. War of aggression was not just to be preferred, or even unavoidable—it was the whole point. Hitler and his Empire were a project that defined itself on the starkest level: do or die. Their ultimate fate speaks for itself.
Our final theme for consideration is the historical experience of empires which saw, or believed, that they were on the decline, that their very survival as an independent imperial power was at stake. Two may command our attention: the Ottoman Empire of the 19th and 20th centuries, and the British Empire after the Great War. Their grand strategies for imperial defence featured markedly different approaches. The main explanation for this was their very different political cultures and composition, and the influence this had on making policy and formulating strategy.
Ottoman power intimidated Europe for nearly three centuries. Into the latter stages of the 19th century the Ottoman Empire still remained a large European territorial power, three hundred years after the military high water mark reached when their armies were rebuffed in 1683 from their siege of Vienna. But from the 1690s onwards the Ottoman Empire struggled harder to cope with the array of military and other threats it faced, from every direction. The most consequential came from the north, from Russian expansion, and the northwest, Balkan volatility and the European system of Great Powers. The Ottomans tried simultaneously to remain an Eastern European, Mediterranean, North African, Middle Eastern, and Transcaucasian power. For a long time they managed to hold what they had, particularly after they largely set aside any focus on territorial expansion, from the middle of the 18th century onwards. But the French expedition into Egypt in 1798 marked, in retrospect, the beginning of an irreversible decline in Ottoman power. British seapower defeated this expedition, but that only made it obvious to all interested parties that Ottoman power could no longer cope with first class European military pressure on either land or sea. The Ottoman practices of governing by layers of partnerships, delegation, and toleration continued to serve them well for some time, but also generated greater ambition and volatility, both inside and outside the Empire. The Greek rebellion starting in 1821 indicated the range of the problem. On the one hand Egyptian satraps rallied to the Ottoman cause to help defend the Empire. On the other hand this not only fuelled their own ambitions, it also entangled the Ottomans directly, and permanently, in European power politics. The European Great Powers could never decide whether the Ottoman state should be one of them or not; but from this point forward they calculated that the decline of this ‘sick man’ of Europe would sooner or later destabilize their whole system. This so-called Eastern Question came to the fore.
The principal means by which the Ottomans sought to stave off or even reverse decline included grand strategy for imperial defence. Modernizing reforms, to the Ottoman state machinery for government and administration, the army and the military system, and the arrangements made for binding diverse peoples to the state were all pursued for the rest of the Empire’s existence, but not consistently or with any lasting consensus. Grand strategy was a bit more coherent. It focused on trying to combine building a stronger more modern army, one that could cope with European warfare, with diplomacy that would make Ottoman survival a vital interest for enough European Great Powers to entice them to help the Empire keep collapse at bay. Both lines of effort made some progress, especially diplomacy. The Ottomans were long able to exploit wider fears of Russia to find essential allies, most notably in the Crimean War. They sometimes had to pay a price, for example ceding Cyprus to the British, and giving up the heartland of Greece. But leveraging weakness worked for quite some time; the Empire straddled territories and strategic fault lines too fragile to ignore. It was in fact one of those fault lines that undid the whole effort: national aspirations.
Like the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires, the Ottoman state could not survive the expression of nationalism that came to the fore as the most volatile profound force in Eastern Europe by the 1870s. Even centuries of experience at blending and co-opting peoples into an Ottoman project could not find a way to accommodate this stark ambition. The creation of a Serbian national state on all the lands in which Serbs lived could not co-exist with a multinational imperial state governed from Istanbul. Despite its best efforts to manage diversity, the Ottoman Empire had a Turkish and Muslim core. The combination could not stand fast against the winds of change that swept into the Balkans. The final Ottoman strategic initiative was to combine attempts at radical constitutional reform with building up judicious alliances to help protect the Empire from military defeat. The Young Turk coup pushed the Empire into small wars that made it more vulnerable, while the search for patrons forced it to make a definitive choice in 1914, when the Great War dragged on and expanded outward. Fundamental strategic antagonism between the Ottomans on the one hand and the Russians on the other tipped the balance. But choosing Germany and the Central Powers sealed their fate. The so-called decline of the Ottoman Empire lasted so long that we must see it as relative for much of this period. But from the 1830s on the Eastern Question was very real, and the Ottoman project faced the existential question. Ottoman grand strategy for imperial defence showed imagination and prudence, in principle if not in practice, as well as determination and desperation. It probably slowed down the final eclipse of a polity that failed to find a way to adjust to the most profound forces of political modernization. The very different approach taken by its successor state raises interesting questions about where else this all might have led.
We end by revisiting another theme of the historical experience of the British Empire, that of perceived decline and its management. The sense of decline deeply overlapped, of course, with the sense of being a satisfied power that should seek only to hold what it had. The 1902 Anglo-Japanese Alliance may indeed be seen as tacit admission that ‘splendid isolation’ was no longer possible; Joseph Chamberlain had already warned the Dominions that ‘the weary Titan staggers under the too vast orb of its fate,’ meaning the mother country now needed help to defend the world built by the British Empire and imperialism. Paradoxically, all too typical in the British experience, the Empire had not yet, in two ways, seen its peak. The greatest extent of its effective territorial sway came during the period between the two World Wars, when it became the paramount power in the Middle East on top of everything else. And the greatest projection of its sheer physical military and economic power came during the Second World War, with the mighty, and in the end astonishingly successful, mobilization and application of the Empire’s resources to wage global total war. But the contrast between the halcyon days of the Pax Britannica and the turbulence of the first half of the 20th century dominated perceptions. The Empire stood only to lose from change, especially violent change. That dominated the making of its grand strategy to cope with decline.
Alliteration can define that grand strategy for British Imperial Defence to stave off decline: appeasement, alliance, adjustment. Despite the many wars it fought, from the 1860s the British Empire sought to avoid conflicts on a scale that might upset the wider arrangements from which it stood only to gain. This desire to appease potential forces or agents of negative change dominated grand strategy after 1919, by a very strong consensus among British and Dominion military and civilian decision makers. The well-organized machinery for formulating grand strategy anchored that consensus. The UK refused to support French desires to enforce the peace settlement of 1919 by keeping Germany prostrate. Rather than enforce reparations demands they preferred to sign Locarno treaties, to reach new agreements on old problems. The British agreed to allow their alliance with Japan to lapse, and to follow an American lead in building a new security system in the Pacific and Asia, rather than annoy the one state they saw as a power they must never allow to become hostile. That produced the historic decision to base the size of the Royal Navy, the leading force in imperial defence, on a treaty agreement rather than on a British calculation of global strategic requirements. The realities of economic limitations were a powerful reason for these decisions, but so too was the by now default grand strategy of appeasement. The application of the appeasement policy to the challenge posed by the rise of the Axis Powers, from 1933 onwards, is so well known that it requires only brief comment here. Three cardinal points must be remembered. First, the Chiefs of Staff, the military architects of grand strategy, supported the policy to use diplomacy to reduce the threats the Empire faced, and buy it time to prepare, and they did so into 1939. Second, Neville Chamberlain did not fear that Nazi Germany, or even Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, would defeat the British and French Empires. He feared that another Great War would destroy any stability in European civilization and trigger a catastrophic social revolution. Finally, even at the heyday of appeasement the British Empire identified, and pursued with great resolve, a fundamental strategic insurance policy: the direct air defence of the metropolis itself, the British Isles. Appeasement failed, but the insurance did not.
The Second World War forced the British Empire to cripple itself in order to destroy the Axis and their agendas. But British grand strategy could not have succeeded without the clear sighted realization that the Empire must rely on a coalition strong enough to prevail in total war, and must do everything it could to realize such a coalition. Winston Churchill saw this with fundamental clarity, and it informed his pivotal decisions: to pay any price necessary to secure active American alliance—and the price was high—and to accept without hesitation the windfall of alliance with the Soviet Union, whatever the cost—again, high. The grand strategy of alliance prevailed. It may be argued that the price was terminal, because the consequences of the war made the continuation of the Empire impossible—and that grand strategy therefore failed. This is not correct. Wartime grand strategy identified the deepest possible vital interest: to prevent, by paying any price, the creation of a world in which British civilization simply could not survive, allowing the British and their Empire the chance to find ways to adjust, in ways they could accept, to the world that did emerge. Adjustment, the final grand strategy for defending the British Empire, also reflected its most broad and pragmatic consensus, and the open and inclusive strategic culture by which it made such decisions. Rather than fight to hold on to colonies, the British sought ways to make sure they emerged as successor states that would remain willingly associated with British and Western interests, and become reliable Cold War allies. The British sought to manage the ebbing away of their Empire at their own time and on their own terms, adopting a grand strategy that supported the calibrated use of force where necessary—but in order to guide change, rather than prevent it. The outcome must be judged a success.
What then can this wide ranging if not deep analysis of the historical experience of grand strategy for imperial defence tell us about the military history of empires in general, and the study of grand strategy in particular? Three points stand out: force and time; force and culture; force and contingency.
The point of any imperial project was surely to build a civilizational order that would endure, that would stand for all time as the defining framework by which its peoples lived, and through which they related to the world. This suggested that the most sensible time frame inside which to consider defence and grand strategy was the longest possible one. If the point was to endure forever, or at least to build something strong enough to define, or at the very least to adapt to, the changes of its world, then that must cast doubt on the wisdom of any grand strategy that sought to use unlimited force to engineer unlimited change. One understanding of empire is of course that by its very nature it suggests dominance, overlordship, and therefore rests on force and power, generally used aggressively. But our range of examples suggests this is too narrow a view to be borne out by historical experience. Rome made the assimilation and co-opting of peoples to a non-ethnic imperial project a systematic part of its grand strategy. The effects long outlived the existence of the Roman Empire as a state, amounting perhaps to redefining Western civilization. The British did not hesitate to use force inside and outside the territories they wished to govern, but a stronger and more consistent dynamic of their imperial project was to govern by partnerships, and to allow those partnerships to evolve over time as they would. The British wished to own the world, not rule it. Force worked for Russia for a very long time; but did it also push it into a dead end? Using force to change the world forever and immediately made the French Revolutionary and Nazi German empires short-lived indeed. This all seems to suggest that grand strategy for imperial defence worked better when seen as part of the challenge to survive, not to prevail; perhaps the Byzantine ‘military code’ was indeed the acme of success? Or should pride of place go to the British and ‘managing change’?
Force and culture also seem central to the making of grand strategy for defending empires. The Ming example would suggest that defining defence policy and grand strategy by seeking to detach the Empire from the world around it was tantamount to assuming that nothing outside the Empire would ever change drastically enough to threaten it. The Russian experience might suggest that assuming you had no choice in grand strategy could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. And there seem to be two interesting opposites to the Ming example The Ottoman experience might indicate that when an empire sought to deny or conceal its core, or heartland, then it might struggle to find any central platform on which to pull itself together, when it needed one the most. Too little influence as opposed to too much? Whereas the British experience surely testifies that trying to guide global change, or at least remain entangled in its very midst, is more prudent, over the long course of time, then trying to remove yourself from it, or assuming it will never matter.
Finally, we must never ignore contingency—and particularity. There was nothing preordained about either Napoleon or Hitler. They were both products of the course of their own times, and their grand strategies were also, as a result, heavily contingent, not just ideological. But could defeat in battle, or war, change the course of imperial history? Did Ottoman power break, in retrospect, before the gates of Vienna? Did the defeats from 1940 into 1942 change the British Empire from an arrogant power trying to own the world to a chastened one seeking to survive in it? These questions must loom large in any consideration about grand strategy, in an imperial or any other context. Grand strategy involves making choices. Even the decision that there was really no choice is in fact making a choice. Surely, in this respect, placing the historical study of grand strategy inside a larger context of studying the defence of empires might indeed be of some value. Empire as a model for power and governance utterly dominated most human history across most of its time and space, and arguably still shapes our world in many ways. If there are particular, or even common or recurring, features to the ways in which empires made grand strategy, this does not seem to be merely an academic point of interest. Change and survival must be the most perennial strategic challenges, and they defined the history of defending empires.