To what extent, and how did British policy-makers think of Britain as a global power, 1945-56?

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“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

– Winston Churchill –

The Second World War has lots of impacts on British society and politics (Jones, 1996: 240). It transformed Britain from the most powerful empire to a state that its role in the international system was uncertain. British policy-makers during post-war period tend to focus on managing many aspects at once rather than focusing only on one specific aspect. The Foreign Office was occupied with developing policy in different areas; maintaining a special relationship with the United States, developing atomic bombs, preventing Soviet Communist expansion, trying to get the best outcome of Western Europe, and dealing with the Empire. This has indicated that British policy-makers believed Britain role as a hegemon still exists. On the other side, it could be seen that the policy-makers were actually aware of their position in the world order – that to some extent, they were not as powerful as they used to be. However, they did not want to admit the fact that Britain was losing its power. In other terms, it could also be argued that the policy-makers merely acted in a ‘defensive realist’ term, which is one of the bases of foreign policy (Wohlforth, 2008: 35). This essay will first discuss British policy-makers behaviour during 1945-56 – that signifies their beliefs in Britain role as a global power. The second analysis will come from a different perspective – elucidate the reasons why British policy-makers have to create their policies, not for preserving Britain power in the international order, but for the internal benefits.

Overextended Policies

The policy-makers have overextended their policies and remained convinced Britain was still a global power that has duty and responsibility to maintain the world order without a consideration of the fragile of the British economy (Sanders, 1990: 72). The first supported argument with the statement is the British desire to have relations with the Americans in order to preserve its role as a global power. Under Churchill, the British established a ‘special relationship’ between the Americans and the British. This has created controversy since the ‘Anglo-American special relationship’ had caused the British to be involved in between the Americans and Soviets conflict. Moreover, it had forced Britain to go to war in Korea and spent military defence more than the Americans. The statement is supported with the evidence that the British spent 7.7 percent of its national income, while the Americans was only 6.9 percent (Dumbrell, 2001: 45). The British had ignored the fact that Britain was economically at risk at the times (Reynolds, 1994: 83). In addition, there were some political strains arise in the ‘special relationship’ (Sanders, 1990: 46), especially in the terms of atomic bombs. The British was keen to build atomic bombs in order to compete with the United States (Baylis, 1995: 54), even though the Americans were not keen to assist.

Perhaps, one of the most important reasons why the policy-makers were seen overextended their policies was the fact that they missed the opportunity to lead Europe. It started in between 1948-1950, through Bevin and Attlee, when the British have stated their commitment to the defense of Europe (Sanders, 1990: 63). At first, there was an interest to lead cooperation between countries in the continent. The United States encouraged Britain to consider leading the West European integration (Sanders, 1990: 72). However, Churchill government rejected its participation in the Iron and Steel Community, that well known as Schuman Plan (Childs, 2002: 126). Churchill did not want Britain to surrender its sovereignty to any European institutions (Young, 1993: 19). Hence, Britain attitudes towards both the European Defence Community (EDC) and European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), was sympathetic but not committed (Sanders, 1990: 63).

Many argued that the opportunity to lead the European integration both economically and politically had been missed (Sanders, 1990: 73). Although, Bevin saw that the European cooperation will strengthening Britain’s role in the world order (Young, 1993: 19), British policy-makers thought that Britain already had a global power and did not need Western Europe for it. With Britain as the most stable state in the continent at the times, and together with the American support, the foreign officers were proud enough to think that Britain is better than the rest of Europe. Something big could have come in the next couple of years if they were willing to look down for a while. Nevertheless, British foreign policy-makers have underestimated the potential of European integration as a successful cooperation (Young, 1990: 115).

On another case, Britain was still keen to keep its empire. Bevin (1942) argued that developments in the British Commonwealth of Nations have been one of the most encouraging policies from the Labour standpoint (Bevin, 1942: 143). The British still needed Palestine to keep its prominent position in the Middle East (Sanders, 1990: 79) and to keep Malaya – because of it provided the Overseas Sterling Area (OSA) with over a third of its dollar earnings (Sanders, 1990: 83). However, the Second World War has caused Britain to be economically drained – meaning that they were not capable of supporting a military defense to the Empire (Childs, 2002: 129). Moreover, the rise of nationalism in India and other parts of the Empire have denoted the fact that Britain power was decreasing. In addition, the Suez Crisis in the middle of 1956 has stated even more clear that Britain had lost its power in the Empire. Nevertheless, the policy-makers refused to believe. They could have made a better foreign policy if they would accept the recognition of the change in the Empire (Sanders, 1990: 99).

Justifying the Policies

Although some of the policies were overextended, it could be argued that the policy-makers simply act in a ‘defensive realist’ term, to protect and maintain the security of the state. In the case of its policy with the Americans, the British were aware of their needs of American support. Hence, to maintain its relations with the Americans – it was one of the most crucial foreign policy during the post-war period. The British had actually managed to use the special relationship and turned it to its own benefit. For instance, it prevented Soviet Communist expansion, and maintain its interest in the Commonwealth and European unity (Ovendale, 1990: 221).

In the case of Soviet Union – British policy towards the Soviet Union faced confusion even since the beginning, and it grew even more after because of the changes in the military (Zametica, 1990: 43). The main reason is because the Soviet Union has presented a potential threat to British interests (Kent, 1990: 168). This has created a view for the Foreign Office that any cooperation with the Soviets was undesirable (Kent, 1990: 180). Although, the American had issues with the Soviets, so did the British. The threat of Soviet communism has caused mutual fear to both the American and British foreign policy makers (Sanders, 1990: 47). Stalin has manipulated the government of both countries (Sanders, 1990: 54) that has raised tense in between them. Maintaining good relations in between the Americans and the British would benefit both sides in the case of Soviet expansions. As the situation of Western capitalism was under threat of totalitarian communism, it was better to face the threat together rather than separately (Sanders, 1990: 57). Therefore, creating a foreign policy towards the Americans on this term gave benefit to Britain. It did not necessarily mean that the British wanted to be involved in the international crisis, the British had already involved, long before the issues arose, and the British had to do what they have to do to protect its security.

Moreover, having a special relationship with the Americans had also helped to unite Western Europe. If Western Europe was about to be effectively defended, the role of the United States was important (Sanders, 1990: 46). The main reason is that after world war two, the majority of European countries were financially collapsed. The British wanted to rebuild Western Europe and maintain relations in between countries inside the continent. This statement is supported with the evidence that on 13 August 1945, when Bevin’s and Foreign Officials discussed future policy towards Western European, many wished to put West European co-operation to be a foundation of British post-war foreign policy (Young, 1993: 1). However, Churchill was aware of Britain lacked resources to build Western Europe into a strong military alliance (Young, 1993: 7). American support was crucially needed on this term. Foreign policy makers did not necessarily want to build relations with the Americans so they could still be seen as a global power, but because without the special relationship with the Americans, the British would not have the capability to support European defense and security.

Furthermore, the arguments that attacked the policy-makers on building an atomic bomb, merely because the British had to keep its role as a global power, were not reliable. The British had to build atomic bombs, not necessarily because they still thought they were a global power, but because it prevented anyone from blackmailing Britain (Childs, 2002: 98). Although the British have Americans support, the support that was given from the Americans was not secured enough to protect the British. In 1946, the United States has officially ended collaboration with Britain in atomic research and development (Sanders, 1990: 52). By January 1947, the position of America was unclear and they were not prepared to share their nuclear secrets with Britain (Childs, 2002: 98). The British realised that they could not rely on the Americans and at the same time if Moscow was about to send atomic bombs to Britain, the only way to prevent that from happening was to develop its own atomic bombs.

In the case of Britain missed the opportunity to lead Western Europe, it could be valid to some extent. However, there are logical reasons why the British purposely missed the opportunity. At the times, Britain economy and political situation were more stable and reliable than the rest of Europe. The fact that the British economy was far stronger than the rest of Europe, especially in coal and steel production, has undermined its desire for Britain to commit to the cooperation of Europe (Young, 1993: 23). Bevin and others foreign officers were not particularly sure whether developing British security around Western Europe would be reliable. There was political instability in many countries in the continent, such as France and Italy, and also the continuity on large Communist parties in some countries (Young, 1993: 22). Moreover, the differences with France over the Middle East, Germany and the influence of the Communists (Young, 1993: 12) have also strengthened the decision for Britain to not going to committed to Europe.

In addition, the British were afraid that if they participate in Europe, it could damage the relationship with the Empire and Commonwealth (Sanders, 1990: 73). One of the main reason why Europe was not crucially important to Britain at the time was that Britain still had their empire supply and enjoyed the advantages of cheap commodities, mainly food, from the Commonwealth (Childs, 2002: 127). If Europe could access Commonwealth markets, it would destroy imperial trade preferences (Young, 1993: 22). Nonetheless, the Foreign Office did see Western Europe as an important area to cooperate because of its share of common interests, geographical, political and colonial (Young, 1990: 116). However, to be fully committed to the continent was a risky decision. It would not give many benefits to Britain at that time, instead, it could damage British economy, and affecting the political system with the danger of communist parties expansion in certain European countries.


In conclusion, it was clear that British policy-makers still think Britain as a global power. However, it could also be argued that the policy-makers realised that Britain had lost power, but refused to act accordingly. The statement is supported by the fact that there was still an intention from the Foreign Office committee in 1949 to keep Britain status as a great power (Ovendale, 1990: 212). One of the major problems was – the Foreign Office ignored the fact that Britain was both economically exhausted (Sanders, 1990: 49) and they choose to overextend their military power (Sanders, 1990: 51). Nonetheless, regardless all the overextended policies the policy-makers have made – it had given several benefits to the country. For instance, the establishment of ‘Anglo-American special relationship’ has saved Britain economically, help to maintain the Empire, protect Western Europe security and limit Soviet Communist expansion. At the same time, the British managed to limit American influence by using Europe and the Empire to limit American domination (Young, 1993: 26). Therefore, it is possible that the policy-makers were aware of the situation – that Britain was losing its power – but still tried to get the best possible outcome to protect Britain security and fulfill its national interests.


Baylis, J. (1995). Ambiguity and Deterrence: British Nuclear Strategy 1945-1964. Oxford: Clarendon Press. p34-66.

Bevin, E. (1942). The Job to be done. London; Toronto: William Heinemann Ltd.

Childs, D. (2002). Britain since 1939: Progress and Decline. 2nd ed. Hampshire: Palgrave. p83-137.

Dumbrell, J. (2001). A Special Relationship: Anglo-American Relations in the Cold War and After. Hampshire; London: MacMillan Press Ltd.

Jones, H. (1996). The Cold War and the Santa Claus Syndrome: Dilemmas in Conservative Social Policy-Making, 1945-1957. In: Francis, M; Zweiniger-Bargielowska, I The Conservatives and British Society, 1880-1990. Cardiff: University of Wales Press. p240-254.

Kent, J. (1990). The British Empire and the Origins of the Cold War, 1944-49. In: Deighton, A Britain and the First Cold War. Hampshire; London: The Macmillan Press Ltd. p165-183.

Ovendale, R. (1990). William Strang and the Permanent Under-Secretary’s Committee. In: Zametica, J British Officials and British Foreign Policy 1945-50. Leicester; London; New York: Leicester University Press. p212-227.

Reynolds, D. (1994). Great Britain. In: Reynolds, D The Origins of the Cold War in Europe: International Perspectives. New Haven; London: Yale University Press. p77-95.

Sanders, D. (1990). Losing an Empire, Finding a Role. Hampshire; London: The Macmillan Press Ltd. p46-99

Wohlforth, W. (2008). Realism and Foreign Policy. In: Smith, S; Hadfield, A; Dunne, T Foreign Policy: Theories, Actors, Cases. Oxford; New York; New York: Oxford University Press. p31-48.

Young, J. (1993). Britain and European Unity, 1945-1992. Hampshire; London: The Macmillan Press Ltd. p1-27.

Zametica, J. (1990). Three Letters to Bevin: Frank Roberts at the Moscow Embasy, 1945-46. In: Zametica, J British Officials and British Foreign Policy 1945-50. Leicester; London; New York: Leicester University Press. p39-97.

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I think the British have the distinction above all other nations of being able to put new wine into old bottles without bursting them.”

– Clement Attlee –

Author: Valentina Laura

A dreamer & a lover.

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