Sunset for the Anglosphere?
15 Jul 2013|

Sunset on the Anglosphere?

Peter Jennings has sprung to defend the Anglosphere from my disparagement. But before battle begins, let’s clarify what exactly he’s defending, because Peter uses the term ‘Anglosphere’ in several rather different ways. Some of them I wouldn’t dream of disparaging, and others I suspect he wouldn’t really want to defend.

The sense of ‘Anglosphere’ that I would least want to disparage is what we might call the Tennysonian one. This sense clearly looms large for Tony Abbott. In the Heritage Foundation speech mentioned in my column, Abbott quoted lines from Tennyson that I’ve always loved, which describe Britain [or perhaps England] as ‘a land of just and old renown/ where freedom broadens slowly down/ from precedent to precedent’. If the Anglosphere means nothing more than reverence for Britain’s deep-rooted legal and constitutional traditions then I wouldn’t disparage it for a moment.

Nor do I disparage the second sense which Peter attributes to the Anglosphere when he identifies it with the ‘five-eyes’ Anglo-Saxon intelligence sharing arrangements from which Australia benefits so handsomely. I’m all for that.

But Peter slides from those meanings to some very different ones. He says the Anglosphere is ‘the engine of global order and the essential enforcer of international stability’. Really there are two claims here. One is that the Anglosphere has created the global order as it is today. Tony Abbott believes this: in his Heritage speech Abbott said ‘Given America’s role, it can’t quite be said that the modern world has been made in England but it’s certainly been shaped in English’. But really, if we’re talking about the last century, and certainly the last seventy-five years, it isn’t the Anglosphere that’s created and upheld the modern order, but America. Talk of the Anglosphere is just a way for we smaller Anglos to bask in America’s glory.

The other claim is that it’s the Anglosphere that upholds international order today. Peter acknowledges that the Anglos alone do not do this. He expands the Anglosphere to take in NATO and Japan. This group—‘the Anglosphere and its allies’—includes ‘the capitalist democracies which support open trading systems and the international rule of law’. So now we are not really talking about the Anglosphere at all. This wider group carries a big burden, Peter says:

If there’s a need for a coalition of countries to impose order or reduce risk in Kosovo, or Iraq, or Timor, or Afghanistan or Libya, or Mali, then the world looks to the Anglosphere or its allies to lead the task.

That’s an interesting list, but it doesn’t do much to support the importance, cohesion or effectiveness of the Anglosphere itself. Kosovo was NATO, with America and Britain taking very different views; Libya was a subset of West Europeans with grudging US support; East Timor wouldn’t have happened without the Southeast Asians; Mali was, well, French, and they’d probably smile if we chalk that one up for the Anglosphere. That leaves Afghanistan and Iraq, both significant failures. Responsibility for Afghanistan can be shared with others. Only Iraq, the biggest and saddest failure of them all, can really be attributed to the Anglosphere. Nothing to crow about there. I see no evidence that the Anglosphere as a group has done much useful or significant to uphold the global order recently.

And then there’s the future. The real question for those, like Abbott, who would place the Anglosphere at the centre of Australia’s strategic policy, is whether this grouping will do much for us in the future when wealth and power will no longer be so strongly concentrated in Anglo-Saxon hands. I think in the end Peter acknowledges this. ‘The Anglosphere—or more accurately the international system it bequeathed—will remain the dominant paradigm, perhaps taking on some Chinese characteristics’.

Those are my italics. I have no idea what an Anglosphere with Chinese characteristics would look like, but it would not be anything Sir Robert Menzies would recognise. The italicised words thus seem to concede the point I was making in the passage that Peter quoted from my column—that we can no longer take for granted, as I think Abbott does, ‘the agreeable idea that the world should continue to be run from Washington and London, by people just like us’.

Hugh White is professor of strategic studies at ANU and a visiting fellow at the Lowy Institute. Image courtesy of Flickr user Mike Mahaffie.