The United Kingdom (UK) is among the few nations in the world that has achieved the status of being a “great power”. One could succinctly describe a great power as a nation that has the ability to impose its influence across the globe, counting on strengths in the aspects of political, military and economic power. A great power usually finds classification between a first-order power like the United States of America (US) and a third-order power (regional power) like South Africa, Poland and South Korea (Louden, 2007, p.187). Thus, in speaking about the UK being a great power, one could possibly not help but think about its colonial past and its present international connections and highly prevalent manifestations. Although the UK is not the same as in the years prior to the current system of international affairs, it nevertheless remains a seminal figure in the international community, in which its decisions stand as important ones for deliberation by other nations (Danilovic, 2002, pp. 225-228). Thus, this study aims to discuss particular considerations characterizing the UK as a great power. Five themes flourish throughout the study: decolonization, stand on European political integration, status of permanency in the UN Security Council, global hard power projection and global soft power projection.
The UK, better known as the British Empire at the height of its colonial influence, has held several colonial dominions in various parts of the globe. Yet, the grip of the British Empire on all those territories did not last strongly, as it reached the point where it has to meet budgetary and practical concerns to ensure its survival and integrity as a nation. As a resolution, the British Empire collaborated with nationalist leaders of its various territories in order to plan for the independence of their respective territories. In that case, the intention of the British Empire is already clear – it wishes to drop its hold on its colonial dominions in a systematic manner than maintain its control over those, which it sees as one with potentially perilous consequences. By gathering the concerned nationalist leaders in constitutional conferences, the British Empire has promised them that their territories would soon gain the right to self-government without its control. Through a process involving parliamentary protocols, the British Empire has given its insurance that each grant of independence would meet thorough deliberations, with the result being exact independence days (Verzijl, 1969, pp. 68-76).
Yet, the British Empire was not all too willing to lose its control in all of its territories, particularly in the case of India. The British Empire treats India as among its most important overseas strongholds, mainly due to its vast resources and strategic political and economic location. However, India has become a hotbed of rebellion and dissent against authorities of the British Empire. As early as the 1800s, Indians have instigated rebellions against elements of the British Empire, making it a practically hostile area that has been calling strongly for independence. While the British Empire had much of its control decreased in territories such as Egypt, it nevertheless sought to strengthen its hold on India. The 1935 Government of India served as a testimonial act to the real intentions of the British Empire on India, in which Indians gained greater coverage in government affairs as a precursor to its impending independence. Yet, as a result, the British Empire further lost its control over India. The passage of two World Wars gave Indians the opportunity to organize against a weakening British Empire, with seminal independence figures such as Mahatma Gandhi arising to enlighten more Indians towards the concept of independence. The accumulation of mass protests and highly compelling measures in India proved debilitating to the British Empire, as it finally let go of its most important dominion in 1947. Yet, said move did not push through in a completely peaceful manner, as the aftermath of independence saw the assassination of Gandhi (Judd, 1998, p. 226).
The British Empire sought for territorial acquisitions in Africa during the 19th century, as it engaged alongside with its fellow colonial powers in a divide-and-conquer process of colonization. Compared to India, the colonial experience of European strongholds in India has been generally violent. Racial discrimination prevailed throughout the African territories of the British Empire and such has catalyzed the further growth of dissent among natives. Soon, the influence of Pan-Africanism emerged as a model of advancing nationalist efforts in Africa, fuelled by the publications of Jamaican nationalist Marcus Garvey. Kwame Nkrumah, being one of those influenced by the works of Garvey, served as among those who initiated several struggles for independence in Africa, having led Ghana away from British colonial rule (Crowder, 1968, p. 387).
Stand on European Political Integration
The UK has the reputation for its attitude of reluctance towards the idea of a politically integrated Europe. Fears over losing global dominance the UK has enjoyed throughout history became the primary reason behind its rejection of European political integration. The formation of the European Economic Community (EEC), which eventually became the European Union (EU), initially did not meet the support of the UK, which sought to maintain its role as the most important player in European regional affairs. Having failed to secure membership in two attempts during 1961 and 1967, the UK finally entered the fold in 1973 under the Conservative leadership of Edward Heath. However, the Labour Party expressed great adamancy over membership to the EU. A referendum deciding on the fate of EU membership arose in 1974, with more than 60% of British citizens agreeing to let the UK stay as an EU member. Yet, further challengers to EU membership came in when Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher took over as Prime Minister in 1979. Her opposition to EU membership is due to her view that political unions run counter to the concept of free markets, calling the scheme “socialism via the back door”. Her opposition to the idea of instituting a single currency proved perilous to her political prominence, which effectively ended in 1990, with her successor and party-mate John Major experiencing difficulties in consolidating a consensus towards European political integration. Yet, the succeeding Labour leadership towards the 21st century appeared to favor the idea of European political integration. Nevertheless, the issue remains a highly divisive one within the UK, with some even preferring a complete withdrawal from the EU (Medrano, 2003, pp. 214-235).
Status of Permanency in the UN Security Council
The UK is among the five permanent members of the Security Council, alongside China, France, Russia, and the US. The basis for such lies on the fact that those nations are among the great powers that became successful in fighting during World War II. The list of aspirants for a UN Security Council permanent seat has grown ever since, with the likes of Japan, Germany and Brazil standing as among those that applied for a permanent seat. Yet, with several geopolitical realities changing throughout time, the position of the UK as a permanent member may face new challenges if it does not maintain its current global position. The tenability of retaining the permanency of any permanent member of the Security Council based on victory during World War II may not find reasonable support in the future and at best, could just serve as a symbolic measure (Kuziemko and Werker, 2006, pp. 905-930).
Global Hard Power Projection
Whereas the UK has reduced its hard power projection compared to its days as the British Empire, it nevertheless retains a sizeable military fleet that has the ability to exert global influence. The British Armed Forces currently has sizeable equipment it deploys to international missions, with among the most current and prominent ones being that in Afghanistan. In the case of Afghanistan, it shares its mission with the USA on cracking down on terrorist forces including the Al-Qaeda, which it views as a global security threat. Deployments in former (Africa, Canada, Brunei, etc.) and present (Falkland Islands and Gibraltar) territorial strongholds are among the choice locations of the UK for its military deployments (The British Army, n.d.).
Global Soft Power Projection
In terms of soft power projection, the UK has grown throughout the years. The influential stance of UK on culture has enabled it to become a force to reckon in soft power; so much that it became rank one in 2012 on an annual Global Soft power survey issued by Monacle Magazine. Several factors has attributed to the prominence of the UK in terms of soft power. The 2012 London Olympics and the prowess shown by British athletes such as Olympic men’s singles tennis champion Andy Murray and Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins provided great reputation for the UK in terms of sports. In terms of entertainment, the UK rose prominently due to the launching of a new movie under the quintessentially British James Bond series called Skyfall. The rise of the UK in terms of soft power is due to its perceived priority in influencing the world without much focus on tangible means, compared to that of closest contender and erstwhile topnotch ranker US (Rapoza, 2012).
In terms of assessing whether the UK is still compelling as a great power, the aforementioned indicators show that it still rightfully retains such status. The decolonization era has proved to be beneficial than costly for the UK, as the-then British Empire has gained much disrepute from its handling of its political dominions. Indeed, the fact that the British Empire was an influential force in international politics was nearly unquestionable, particularly through its hard power endowments. Yet, the British Empire, now more commonly called the UK, just had to change course as a matter of surviving not just as a seminal force in international politics, but also as a nation.
The influence of the UK in terms of politics has met early hurdles past its colonial period. The concept of European integration, for instance, was handled by the UK with great skepticism, bearing in mind its desire to retain its supremacy in Europe as one endangered by the goals of political integration in the continent. Although there have been developments in such aspect, it is nevertheless undeniable that the UK has not yet made its definite stance on the matter, with the most evident manifestation of such being their membership in the EU vis-à-vis their non-adoption of the EU currency. Geopolitical changes could also affect the permanency of the UK in the Security Council.
The UK has been able to strike a balance in its hard and soft power projection. At this point, hard power has found lesser significance compared to the colonial era, yet the greater interest of the international community on security has given the UK proper arenas to exhibit what it has of its military prowess. For soft power, however, the UK grew dramatically, as it has been able to use its cultural facets to advance their reputation in the world of sports, entertainment and other areas that touch on culture. Verily, it is through that aspect in which the UK is growing powerfully at this point.
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