The Anglosphere: A Viable Global Actor or Simply a Culture?

Given that I am of Scottish and English descent, grew up in Australia, did my doctorate in Britain, and now live and work in America, I am about as much a product of what is often called “the Anglosphere” as it gets. That such a sphere exists, culturally speaking, has never seemed in doubt to me, even beyond the common linguistic and historical connections to the British Isles of this grouping of nations.

Though I attended Catholic schools in Australia, for example, we learnt far more about British history than that of the Catholic Church (or Australia for that matter). The unfolding of events through modern times was primarily viewed through, first, the lens of Britain’s rise to world dominance and, second, the ascendency of the United States. Most of the literature we read ranged from English writers such as Shakespeare and Kipling, to Irish luminaries such as W.B. Yeats, Australians such as the novelist Christopher Koch and the poet Les Murray, and American writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. While we did read literature from other cultures (mostly French and Latin authors), there was a sense that Anglosphere literature belonged firmly to a more-or-less cohesive stable of English-speaking peoples and that writers such as Virgil, Ovid, Zola, and Maupassant did not.

A similar pattern prevailed beyond school. If one went to a foreign university, Oxford or Cambridge (joined, over time, by Harvard) were preferred. Looking at the wider culture, events such as the Commonwealth Games received as much attention as the Olympics. Most television, whether on the ABC (modeled after the BBC) or commercial stations, and films generally consisted of British and American programming. When encountering people from other English-speaking nations, I found many of these expectations and experiences were particularly shared by those from what might be called the “core” Anglosphere nations: Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and the United States; and, at a greater remove, by more “peripheral” Anglosphere peoples such as South Africans, Indians, and many from Caribbean nations.

Of course there were outliers. Canadians, you quickly discovered, knew virtually nothing about cricket (whereas cricket was and is a religion for millions of Indians and Pakistanis). You also learned that Québec was its own world. Americans, it was soon apparent, were subject to many experiences that weren’t shared by other English-speakers. Apart from sports (the game of baseball), this included history—namely, the detailed attention paid to the American Founding and events such as the American Revolution and the Civil War.

Nevertheless, it was simply assumed by most of my friends and acquaintances from core Anglosphere nations that, in times of international crisis, we would be on the same side—or at least, not actively or passively supporting the other side. The same supposition was not as readily applied to the nations of Continental Europe and and their kindred or colonially-related nations (such as Indonesia, Algeria, Mozambique, or Argentina).

Whether some of these cultural reference points are as widely shared today by emerging generations of Canadians, New Zealanders, Americans, Australians, and British (let alone those from former British colonies in Asia and Africa) is another question. The reference points are still there, to be sure. Would, for example, anyone claim that New Zealanders have moved closer to the Francophone world and farther from the English-speaking world than they were 30 years ago? Despite a large influx of Spanish-speaking migrants into the United States, do most Americans now consider themselves part of the Hispanosphere? Do most Australians regard themselves as culturally part of Southeast Asia in light of Australia’s growing economic integration into that part of the world? Do contemporary Americans believe themselves to have more culturally in common with Italy or Poland than with Canada or Britain?

From Culture to Politics

At least for the moment, the correct response to such questions is surely “no.” A more debatable issue is whether these shared and thus far lasting historical and cultural bonds are matched by the reality of the Anglosphere as a global political actor. Over the past two decades, a number of figures have argued that these bonds should be more consciously cultivated and perhaps further formalized. These include British figures such as the Conservative politician Daniel Hannan and the historian Andrew Roberts; Americans such as the journalist and writer James Bennett; as well as Australian politicians such as former prime minister John Howard and the present prime minister, Tony Abbott (himself British-born).

With some significant qualifications, I would submit that a core Anglosphere group of nations continues to exist as a discernible global political player. Whether this is reinforced or weakens over time, however, is going to depend upon the choices made by the leaders of core Anglosphere countries.

Let’s start by identifying some of the qualifications. In the first place, we should not exaggerate the prominence of particular elements often associated with Anglosphere countries. Much is made, for instance, of the strong influence of common law in these nations. Historically speaking, the English legal system does possess a strong common law element that has profoundly shaped most English-speaking peoples’ legal systems and is not often found outside the English-speaking world.

We should recall, however, that the absolute sovereignty of Parliament had long placed considerable checks upon the influence of precedent and case law in the English, Scottish, Australian, and New Zealand legal systems. Over time, the common law element in English law has also been shaped and modified by constitutional law, chancery law, and even canon law. In more recent decades, England’s and Scotland’s legal systems have been very influenced by laws and regulations proceeding from Britain’s membership of the European Union. Court decisions in the United States and Canada have likewise constrained (and, in some cases, terminated) the influence of precedents embodied and developed through case law.

Second, Anglosphere nations are generally viewed as being more committed to the market economy and economic liberty than to the neo-corporatist and social democratic policies and institutions that prevail on the Continent. There is much truth to this. Even today, the Wall Street Journal/Heritage Foundation’s 2014 Index of Economic Freedom lists five former British colonies—Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada—and one former part of Great Britain (Ireland) in the world’s top 10 freest economies. The same index, however, also underscores that, economically speaking, Denmark and Chile are freer than the two biggest Anglosphere nations: the United States and Britain. In November 2014, a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) illustrated that the United States is now the world’s second biggest social spender in terms of percentage of annual GDP, exceeded only by France.

While the core Anglosphere nations seem to share a stronger and more persistent belief in markets than Continental Western Europeans, they have differed as to how to apply market-orientated approaches to international economic policies. Even before Barack Obama’s election as President, Australia and New Zealand had shown a far more consistent commitment to promoting global free trade and reducing subsidies than the United States, resulting in at times significant bilateral tensions. In the late 1980s, for example, the Australian government was so frustrated by the damage that U.S. agricultural subsidies inflicted upon Australian farmers that it contemplated raising with its U.S. counterparts the possibility of discontinuing the joint intelligence facilities located in Northern Australia—facilities that remain crucial to Washington’s capacity to engage in global intelligence surveillance.

In terms of foreign and defense policy, the English-speaking nations were, as Andrew Roberts has written, the main bulwark of opposition to Imperial Germany, Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and Soviet Communism over the course of World War I, World War II, and the Cold War. In the case of the last-mentioned, this was underscored by numerous intelligence-sharing arrangements, security treaties such as ANZUS, not to mention the oft-cited Special Relationship between Britain and America. These constructs remain largely in place today.

They have not, however, always translated into the type of concrete commitments desired by some participating members. Though there was considerable pressure from the United States, British and Canadian troops did not fight in Vietnam. Nor did the alliances always hold up under the force of domestic political pressures. In the 1980s, for instance, a very serious rift developed between New Zealand on the one hand, and America and Australia on the other, over New Zealand’s adoption of nuclear-free policies—so much so that the “NZ” in “ANZUS” effectively became inoperative for a significant time. Canada did not formally participate in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 on the grounds that it believed such a war required an explicit United Nations authorization, a view rejected by the United States, Britain, and Australia at the time. (Some Canadian personnel did assist in training Iraqi forces after the invasion, and Ottawa contributed financially to postwar reconstruction efforts.)

The (Short-Lived) French Connection

All these qualifications remind us that today’s core Anglosphere is not an entity similar to that of the Roman Empire or the British Empire. Nor is it a type of American dominion, even though the United States easily outweighs all other core Anglosphere nations put together in terms of economic and military strength. The same qualifications illustrate that the national interests of, for instance, Britain are not identical to those of America, which in turn are not precisely the same as those of Canada, New Zealand, or Australia.

At the same time, a considerable degree of what might be called commonality of purpose has persisted across the core Anglosphere nations. In the realm of economics, for instance, a certain commitment to market-based policies has tended to prevail among core Anglosphere nations, and in ways that often transcend internal ideological divisions. As the historian William Hay has argued, Britain’s and America’s turn to the market economy under conservative leaders in the 1980s was decisive in diminishing the influence of Keynesian and corporatist policies and structures throughout much of the world. To this one could add that such views were quickly embraced—and, in some respects, more radically—by New Zealand and Australia, notably under the auspices of Labor governments. Even today, interest groups that push for corporatist or protectionist policies arguably find it harder to gain political traction in core Anglosphere countries than their counterparts in Western European nations. One even hears figures as rooted in the American Left as President Obama praising entrepreneurship and publicly affirming free trade less grudgingly than, for instance, France’s President François Hollande.

Concerning foreign and defense policy, the core Anglosphere nations—especially the United States, Britain, and Australia (including when the center-left has been in power)—have generally been more willing to not only deploy military force but to do so in concert with each other than most Continental countries. Generally the latter seem more inclined to put their trust in international organizations and international treaties, perhaps because many of them were left physically devastated by two world wars in the space of less than 30 years in ways that core Anglosphere nations were not.

Again, there are exceptions to this picture. Since France’s relinquishment of its colonial empire beginning in the late 1950s, the French have not been shy about intervening militarily in different parts of Africa on a relatively frequent basis, sometimes with Belgian assistance. It cannot, however, be said that France regularly cooperates with other Francophone nations across the globe in the realm of foreign or economic policy in ways that replicate the coordinated actions of core Anglosphere nations.

There was an attempt at coordination, to be sure. In 1959, Charles de Gaulle established what was called the French Community, in an effort to maintain strong institutional ties between former French colonies (especially those in Africa). By 1961 only Gabon, Senegal, Chad, the Central African Republic, Madagascar, and Congo remained as members. Long moribund, the Community was formally dissolved in 1995.

Other national groupings with linguistic, historical, and cultural affinities have established themselves in more recent decades. The Spanish-speaking nations, spanning not just Latin America but parts of Africa, Southern Europe, and the Far East, have created numerous forums for the exchange of ideas. There is even a Union of South American Nations (UNSAR) that aspires to promote closer political and economic integration among the nations below Central America. But despite such experiments at integration, the countries of the Hispanosphere, as it were, are not known for the type of close economic and political cooperation that distinguishes core Anglosphere countries.

In other parts of the world, multinational groupings such as ASEAN have found ways to act together on specific matters, most notably in developing trade links. At the same time, ASEAN has found it difficult to move beyond the realm of economic cooperation. No one assumes, for instance, that Singapore, Burma, Malaysia, Vietnam, or Indonesia will adopt similar stances towards any number of foreign policy or defense questions. Moreover, outsiders often forget that most Southeast Asian nations have cultural, religious, and linguistic backgrounds as profoundly at variance from one another as the Anglosphere nations are linked together.

Anglosphere as Actor on the World Stage

It is worth noting that the core Anglosphere nations, having shown they can act in concert over extended periods of time in ways that other groupings appear unable to replicate, do not proceed by way of a pooling of sovereignty in supranational political, economic, or legal structures. Indeed, a concern to protect its sovereignty is one reason why the United Kingdom, the sole core Anglosphere nation that belongs to the European Union, has become increasingly Euro-skeptic and may well exit the EU at some point in the near future.

Worth recalling, too, is that the core Anglosphere nations possess a formidable range of assets to support their collective actions. In 2012, Joel Kotkin and Shashi Parulekar noted that, taken together, the core Anglosphere nations held not only the world’s largest share of GDP, easily outstripping the rest of the world in terms of GDP per capita, but they also easily led the world in technological development and possessed overwhelming military power in global terms.

Today’s U.S.-led military campaign against the so-called Islamic State, for instance, consists of the United States and a number of European and Middle Eastern allies. Note, however, that the only non-Middle Eastern countries that have gone beyond training Iraqis and joined the United States in conducting actual air strikes against ISIS are Britain, Australia, and Canada (as well as France). That is because the governments of these nations have the will to go beyond activities such as training, but beyond that, they also have the hardware to do so for extended periods. That three of them are core Anglosphere countries is not entirely coincidental.

Kotkin and Parulekar also make the point that the English language’s growing dominance translates into a kind of cultural ascendency. So too does the Anglosphere countries’ healthier demographics compared to China and Continental European nations. The fact that the United States, Canada, Australia, Britain, and New Zealand continue to be magnets for immigration (in ways that, for instance, China is not, and in a manner that ensures that most immigrants do not end up on welfare, unlike those arriving in Continental countries) also testifies to the core Anglosphere’s economic strength.

These assets of the Anglosphere suggest that the real question facing these nations is not whether they can collectively shape the global order, but whether they want to. In the past, some governments within the Anglosphere have seemed disinclined to do so. In the late 1950s, Hay points out,

British figures who lost faith in their own country sought closer ties with a European Economic Community whose members had a stronger economic performance. Repudiating an Atlantic orientation marked a price of admission they willingly paid. In the early 1970s, the special relationship stood at its lowest ebb.

During the same period, much of the foreign policy pursued by Canada’s Pierre Trudeau was undergirded by an effort to put some (and, at times, a very great) distance between Canada and its near neighbor. Likewise, in the Southern Hemisphere, New Zealand’s David Lange prioritized his government’s commitment to anti-nuclear policies in the early 1980s over its security arrangements with the United States and Australia. Upon becoming Prime Minister in 1991, Australia’s Paul Keating sought to focus his nation on its future in East Asia and, in a variety of largely symbolic ways, tried to deemphasize his nation’s links to Britain.

What’s remarkable, however, is that these instances of core Anglosphere nations distancing themselves from each other have generally been followed by significant and often intense reengagement. The most obvious example is the re-forging of close U.S.-U.K. ties by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. Likewise, Steven Harper’s nine-year prime ministership in Canada has been marked by much warmer economic and political ties with the United States than those that prevailed under his immediate predecessors Paul Martin and Jean Chrétien, and a far greater willingness to involve Canada in American-led military actions abroad—so much so that Harper has even been described as the Anglosphere’s foreign policy hawk.

One of the first things done by Australia’s John Howard upon being elected to government in 1996 was to balance Australia’s ongoing economic integration into East Asia with a very vocal reemphasis upon: 1) Australia’s unquestionably British origins and heritage, and 2) the centrality of the American alliance to his country’s foreign policy and defense arrangements. To Howard’s mind, it was not a question of either/or. Rather, the Anglosphere link actually enhanced Australia’s ability, in Howard’s view, to project itself into the Southeast Asian region.

It was a strategy that arguably paid off when Australia led a military intervention into East Timor in 1999. As the journalist Paul Kelly shows in his book, The March of Patriots, the Indonesian military knew that Australia had a firm guarantee of immediate U.S. military support should either the Indonesian army or its militia proxies engage Australian troops. Without Howard’s greater emphasis upon the U.S. alliance and his renewal of attention to Anglosphere relations (it was not coincidental that New Zealand provided the second largest contingent of forces in East Timor), it’s at least debatable whether the results would have been as favorable.

An Anglosphere Future?

The commonality here is that the work of reaffirming and reconnecting core Anglosphere ties has generally come from the center-right. This is by no means an iron-cast rule. It was after all a Tory prime minister, Ted Heath, who took Britain into today’s EU. The initial impetus for this move was driven by another Conservative prime minister, Harold Macmillan. On the other side of politics, center-left prime ministers such as Britain’s Tony Blair and Australia’s Bob Hawke were powerful advocates of their countries’ respective alliances with the United States, often in the face of considerable opposition from within their own parties.

Nonetheless it seems fair to suggest that any further consolidation of the core Anglosphere nations as a distinct player in global affairs is more likely to come from the conservative side of politics. This is not just because of the anti-Americanism that prevails on much of the political left in the English-speaking world. It is also hard to discount the influence of the left’s often very negative interpretation of the Anglophone world’s history, and the left’s preference for what might be loosely described as Continental political and economic arrangements and ways of acting in the international sphere.

With some justification, Britain’s Liberal Democrat party and its leader, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, could be said to epitomize such attitudes. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that similar views prevail in significant segments of center-left opinion in Canada, New Zealand, the United States, and Australia. It is not for idle reasons that Barack Obama has been described as America’s first European president. Of all postwar American presidents, Obama seems the least interested in the notion of the Anglosphere as a distinct global counterweight to China, the EU, and Russia. Nor would anyone accuse President Obama of being especially preoccupied with presenting or understanding the core Anglosphere as a distinct cultural entity.

If this is an accurate description of the preconditions for the Anglosphere strengthening itself as a global actor, then at a minimum, we will have to await 1) President Obama’s departure from office in January 2017 and his possible replacement by someone with Anglosphere sensibilities; and 2) Britain’s—and more particularly, the Conservative Party’s—decision on the United Kingdom’s future place, if any, in the European Union. The same scenario also assumes the continuance of governments in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand with a positive view of the Anglosphere.

Readers will note the considerable number of “ifs” here. The possibilities for a further development of the core Anglosphere as a global actor could easily fade if, for instance, a more Europhile government resulted from the next British general election, or if a committed Anglosphere advocate like Australia’s Tony Abbott were replaced as prime minister by someone less interested in such a project.

What seems far less likely to change or fade are the existing cultural links and traditional foreign and defense policy relationships that have allowed the core Anglosphere nations to act globally in ways that the Francophone, Hispanophone, Sinosphere, and Lusosphone worlds have not. These healthy links are far less formalized and bureaucratic than, for instance, the structures and organizations associated with NATO. If that seems ironic, it is also appropriate. We are after all speaking of the Anglosphere—not a Brusselsphere.