For surely, once, they feel, we were,
Parts of a single continent!
On April 11, 2003, the day Baghdad fell, British prime minister Tony Blair's big gamble seemed to have paid off. Blair had sent British forces into Iraq in defiance of strong popular and parliamentary opposition--and without the UN Security Council resolution he had so desperately sought. But none of the horror scenarios predicted by critics had occurred: no Iraqi use of weapons of mass destruction on the battlefield, no terrorist attacks on coalition cities, no uprisings on the "Arab street." Saddam Hussein's ugly regime had fallen to coalition forces in just three weeks, and with only 31 British casualties among the 45,000 British soldiers and airmen in the Iraq theatre. As in World War II, Britain had proven America's effective and indomitable ally.
Yet what seemed Blair's finest hour was not fated to last--indeed, it posed a mortal threat to the larger goals he had set for himself. He had come to power in 1997 with the mission of transforming modern Britain and reorienting its place in the world. He pledged to end Britain's status as a metaphorical island-nation, and, before Iraq became the central issue of international affairs, he had been pretty successful in making Britain not only an integral part of Europe but one of its leaders. But the Iraq War has done more than delay implementation of Blair's grand strategy. It has threatened to unravel it and even to bring Blair down. Britain now seems at times more an island than ever.
Of course, Britain is an island nation in the literal sense, but it hasn't always been one in a strategic sense. From the Norman Conquest in 1066 to around the time Queen Elizabeth I took the throne in 1558, Britain's destiny was closely tied to Europe's. As every reader of Shakespeare's histories knows, Britain was engaged for centuries in a struggle to conquer France. Only in the centuries separating the reign of the current Elizabeth from that of her 16th-century namesake was Britain an island nation in the strategic sense-indeed, an island empire.
Four things made Britain an island empire. First, it possessed a superior blue-water navy, which could provide absolute security. Second, it defined its key interests as lying across the seas rather than across the English Channel. Because the empire was the promise and the Continent the threat, British policy toward Europe was largely negative, to prevent the emergence of a potentially hegemonic Continental power. The goal was not to act as a European power front within Europe but as a balancer from without. Third, Britain gave birth to the Industrial Revolution, an engine that in the 19th century made it the world's greatest power, the first great empire based on free trade. Fourth, Protestant Britain felt its very essence to be different from--and better that--the Continent's; its great historical enemies, Spain and France, were Catholic.
Moreover, England followed a different pattern of political development from the 17th century on. While royalist absolutism on the Continent was undermining incipient forms of representative government and customary law, England was overthrowing kings, establishing parliamentary sovereignty, and reaffirming a common-law system. But the nation saw its political system less as a model for the rest of Europe than as a happy exception, based on the special virtues of the English people. The struggles against the Spanish Armada, the France of Louis XIV and Napoleon, and the Germany of the Kaiser and Adolf Hitler were meant to preserve "this other Eden, demi-paradise," "this blessed plot," "against the envy of less happier lands."
Yet even before the coronation of the second Queen Elizabeth in 1952, the underpinnings of British strategic exceptionalism were coming undone. Most obviously, with the rise of submarines and airplanes in the 20th century, Britain's navy could no longer guarantee the nation's security, as Hitler's fearful onslaught showed. …