Ship me somewheres east of Suez where the best is like the worst
Where there aren't no Ten Commandments an' a man can raise a thirst...
Rudyard Kipling, "Mandalay"
Two days ago, I wrote about Chuck Hagel's sleepy announcement of the downsizing of the US military, and compared it to Washington's predecessor as dominant power:
First comes reorientation, and the shrinking of the horizon. After empire, Britain turned inward...
The symbolic moment came 46 years ago, in January 1968. Hugh Hewitt sprang it on me quite out of the blue in one of our weekly radio chats back in October 2011:
HUGH HEWITT: Now I described it as sort of America's East of Suez moment, and very few people knew what I was talking about. You do, but do you think it's that order of a retreat for America?
MARK STEYN: No, I wouldn't put it on that scale. That's still to come. By East of Suez, you're referring to the Labour government's…
MS: …review in the late 1960s…
MS: …when in effect, they decided to shrink Britain's presence in the world very considerably. And Denis Healey, I believe, was, if memory serves…
HH: ...Healey was the foreign minister.
MS: He was, Denis Healey was the defence minister.
HH: Defence, that's it.
MS: And the reality here, the reality here is that moment, the East of Suez moment, is still to come for the United States. The U.S. currently accounts for 43% of global military expenditure, more than most other major powers combined – Britain, China, Russia, whoever, all wrapped up. The American presence abroad will shrink. It will shrink because we have taken on domestic entitlements that combined with our overseas commitments, are unsustainable. And we will discover, as the British government discovered in 1968, that if it's the choice between unsustainable domestic spending, or retreating from global power, it's always easiest in a democratic society to retreat from global power. So I believe the real East of Suez moments will be hitting us in mid-decade, and certainly by 2020.
Well, I was off by a year or two. Not quite "mid-decade", but early 2014. But otherwise spot on. There are differences, of course. When Harold Wilson's Labour ministry, a few weeks after the devaluation of sterling, announced the withdrawal of British forces from "east of Suez", the media and, indeed, a big chunk of the citizenry understood what was happening. I believe the Government actually used the words "east of Aden" (ie, Yemen), but, because of that line from Kipling and much else, "east of Suez" was the phrase that resonated. It was not just a military retrenchment but a kind of psychological diminution, too. To be British was, in a certain sense, to be east of Suez, out there on the far horizon - in the Gulf, in the Indian Ocean, the Maldives, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong... National identity was heavily invested in the concept: Britannia ruled the waves - because the Royal Navy patrolled distant oceans; it was the empire on which the sun never set - because the Union Flag flew in every time zone.
There was never a complete, absolute, total withdrawal from east of Suez. British troops stayed in Hong Kong until the handover to China in 1997. There remains a Royal Navy refueling station in Singapore, and a battalion of the Royal Gurkha Rifles and a School of Jungle Warfare in Brunei, and some personnel on Diego Garcia, and a few other pinpricks here and there. But Denis Healey and the Labour Government's decision remade the map: The emirs and sultans of the Persian Gulf protectorates were stunned by the unilateral withdrawal of imperial protection. The British not only had their own troops on the ground, but they ran and paid for the local forces, too - the Abu Dhabi defence force, the Trucial Oman Scouts. When London declined to reconsider, the no longer protected protectorates emerged as fully-fledged independent nations - Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates.
Just as the post-war Pacific was called "an American lake", so the Indian Ocean had been a British lake. And then, in nothing flat, they werel gone. As I wrote in After America:
By 2010, China was funding and building ports in Burma, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan. They, too, are Britannia's lion cubs, part of London's Indian Empire. Yet all four went from outposts of the British Raj to pit-stops on Chinese manufacturing's globalization superhighway within a mere 60 years. Ascendant powers take advantage of declining ones...
If there was a single moment that told the British "You're no longer the empire on which the sun never sets, you're a small island in the North Sea, and it will never come again", it was Denis Healey's announcement of January 1968.
Chuck Hagel's announcement doesn't feel like that, in part because the court eunuchs of the US media aren't playing it that way, but also because the American people aren't as psychologically invested in the US global role as part of their sense of themselves. But other than that the parallels hold up: like Wilson and Healey with pax Britannica, Obama and Hagel are not believers in pax Americana, and so an ideologically congenial retreat can be passed off as a difficult but necessary budget cut. And in the vacuum of American retreat, as in the Gulf and in those Chinese ports, new powers will emerge and old powers will take advantage.