La moyenne puissance au XXème siècle

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Christopher ANDREW [1]



Résumé : À la veille de la Deuxième Guerre mondiale, l'énorme empire britannique se révèle comme source de faiblesse aussi bien que de puissance pour la mère-patrie. En 1938 l'empire paralyse l'action diplomatique en Europe, par crainte de révéler au Japon une faiblesse défensive en Asie, qu'il ne découvrira effectivement qu'en prenant Singapour en 1942.


            Toutefois, pendant la guerre, l'empire apporte à la métropole un concours logistique important, analogue à celui dont a bénéficié la France libre de l'empire français, mais supérieur aussi en raison de la conscience britannique que l'animait et qui suscita le concours spontané des dominions. Pourtant ceux-ci sont souvent plus proches des États-Unis dans leur ligne politique et diplomatique (cf. par exemple l'ANZUS), même si la guerre de Corée résoude un moment la cohésion impériale de la Deuxième Guerre mondiale.

            La décolonisation dans le sens d'une transformation en un Commonwealth d'États libres et indépendants procéda d'une nouvelle illusion de puissance mondiale, poursuivie sous cette forme. Le cérémonial de la transmission des pouvoirs aux nouveaux États est à cet égard particulièrement démonstratif. En fait, le Royaume-Uni redevenait une puissance européenne, mais la prise de conscience de cette mutation tarde jusqu'à la fin des années 1960, quand le gouvernement Wilson retire toutes les forces à l'est de Suez (1967) : c'est le signe du repli sur l'Europe et sur l'Atlantique. De l'ère impériale subsistent néanmoins trois facteurs de puissance mondiale : la langue anglaise, un secteur financier puissant et le réseau de l'Intelligence Service




            Power has both a subjective and an objective dimension. At least in peacetime there is commonly a major discrepancy between the perceived power of a state and its actual power as expressed in military might and economic resources. On the eve of the Second World War all the major combattants made major error in estimating the power of their opponents [2], though most of their illusions gradually disappeared in the course of the conflict. Both before and after war the Empire and Commonwealth added much more to Britain's perceived power than to her actual power.

            The interwar British, unlike the interwar French, invariably assessed British power and prestige in imperial rather than purely national terms. As the French colonialist Camille Fidel complained in 1918 :

            L'éducation coloniale de la masse de la population n'est pas encore faite, et il n'existe pas en France une opinion coloniale, un sentiment impérial. Pour bien faire comprendre cette notion, une comparaison s'impose.

            À Paris, on a l'impression de n'être que dans la capitale de la France ; à Londres, on a l'impression d'être dans la capitale de l'Empire britannique : c'est là une différence essentielle qui permet d'expliquer bien des choses. Dans l'immense ville aux bords de la Tamise, tout rappelle au Londonien qu'il est citoyen du World Empire [3].

            English schoolchildren had only to look at the wall maps in their classrooms, with the British Empire prominently featured in red, to realise that they were at the centre of an Empire which covered a quarter of the globe.

            The interwar depression and the increased protectionism which resulted from it emphasized the economic importance of the Commonwealth. British imports from the Commonwealth rose from 20 % in 1913 to 29,4 % in 1929 and 39,1 % in 1936. British exports to the Commonwealth similarly increased from 22 % in 1913 to 44,5 % in 1929 and 49,2 % in 1936. It was clear nonetheless that Britain could not afford to conduct its trade solely within a system of imperial preference : Britain could not exclude non-Commonwealth suppliers because it needed foreign as well as imperial markets for its manufacturers [4].

            The enormous size of the interwar Empire was, however, a source of weakness as well as strength. British defence planners saw this more clearly than either British public opinion or foreign governments. Faced for the first time during the 1930s with the nightmare prospect of simultaneous war with Germany, Italy and Japan, the Committee of Imperial Defence could devise no adequate response. It was largely for this reason that the chiefs of staff at Munich urged a policy of appeasement. War with Germany carried with it the risk of a world war which would, they believed, stretch British resources to breaking point :

            War against Japan, Germany and Italy simultaneously in 1939 is a commitment which neither the present nor the projected strength of our defence forces is designed to meet, even if we were in alliance with France and Russia, and which would therefore place a dangerous strain on the resources of the Empire.

            During the Munich crisis in 1938, therefore, the Commonwealth actually weakened British power in Europe. Weakness in the Far East against Japan made it impossible, in the opinion of the chiefs of staff, for Britain to risk war in Europe. At the same time the threat from Germany and Italy in Europe and the Mediterranean made it impossible for Britain to intervene effectively in the Far East [5].

            British power in the Far East on the eve of the Second World War was thus based largely on bluff. The Royal Navy could not afford to keep a fleet in the Far East to counter a challenge from Japan. Instead it built a huge naval base at Singapore and announced that in the event of any threat to imperial interests in the Far East a fleet would be sent to operate from it. But British defence planners always knew that if they faced a threat from Germany and Italy in European waters they would lack the ships to send to Singapore. With Italy's declaration of war and the Fall of France in the summer of 1940 the nightmare became reality. The chiefs of staff concluded in a long and gloomy Far East Appreciation submitted to the War Cabinet in July 1940 that since no fleet was now available to send to Singapore, we cannot prevent damage to our interests in the Far East. British airpower in the Far East, they reported, also required a fourfold increase to cope with a Japanese attack – but most of the planes needed, like the ships, were unavailable. The chiefs of staff concluded that Britain had no option but to play for time, do her best to avoid war with Japan (even at the cost of allowing her to invade Thailand or to take over French Indo-China), and make economic concessions [6].

            Thanks to the immense size and prestige of the Empire, the bluff on which British power rested in the Far East was, however, remarkably successful until the very end of 1940. The Japanese could not believe that Britain's power base was as fragile as the British chiefs of staff knew it was. Admiral Yamamoto, commander-in-chief of the Imperial Japanese Fleet, doubted Japan's capacity to make war on Britain as well as the United States and believed that the two powers, together with the Dutch, had worked out some kind of integrated defence plan to meet a Japanese attack. The Japanese high command did not grasp the reality of British weakness until the German naval attache in Tokyo, admiral Wennecker, handed them a captured copy of the British chiefs of staff Far East Appreciation in December 1940. Wennecker's diary records the remarkable impact of the Appreciation on the Japanese. At first they feared that the document was forged. But when persuaded that it was genuine they were jubilant. Japan, said Amiral Kondo, vice-chief (and effective head) of the Japanese naval staff, had hitherto failed to grasp that there had been such a significant weakening of the British Empire. Yamamoto no longer doubted Japan's capacity to conquer the British Empire in the Far East if the decision was taken to go to war with the United States [7].

            With the fall of Singapore to Japanese troops on 15 February 1942 the illusion of British power in the Far East was finally dispelled. The British Empire, said Winston Churchill had suffered the greatest disaster and the worst capitulation in its history. As early as March 1914 Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, had warned Australasia that it could not depend on British naval support in the Pacific if Britain were involved in war in Europe. Without the Royal Navy to defend them, the only course of the five millions of white men in the Pacific would be to seek the protection of the United States. When Japan went to war in December 1941, Australasia did just that. John Curtin, the Australian prime minister, declared : Without any inhibitions of any kind, I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links with the United Kingdom. Henceforth Australasia, like Canada, pinned its hopes less on a Pax Britannica than on a Pax Americana. The wonder was not that the reality of British weakness in the Far East had been finally exposed but that the illusion of British power had lasted for so long.

            The Second World War demonstrates the danger, however, of making too sharp a distinction between the psychological and physical dimensions of power. Even the most powerful material resources are in the last resort powerless unless there is the will to use them. The Empire not merely provided some of the resources in men and material with which to wage war but also helped to give her the will to fight on after France and fallen. General de Gaulle insisted in his celebrated broadcast from London on 18 June 1940 that the French Empire made it possible for France to fight on : Car la France n'est pas seule ! Elle n'est pas seule ! Elle a un vaste Empire derrière elle. Few of his listeners were convinced.

            The British people were far more conscious than the French that they had a vast Empire behind them. That consciousness helped to persuade them to fight on. On 3 September 1939 R.G. Menzies, the Australian prime minister, had announced simply : Britain is at war, therefore Australia is at war. The Australian Parliament was not consulted and did not seem to mind. The Canadian Parliament was consulted but agreed to go to war without a vote. Even the South African Parliament, by a majority vote, decided in favour of war. India and the colonies went automatically to war without their populations having any voice in the decision. The forces mobilized by the Commonwealth during the Second World War totalled about 80 % of those of the United Kingdom, though their losses were proportionately fewer.

            The British war effort depended heavily also on the economic resources of the Commonwealth which pooled its foreign exchange reserves through the Sterling Area. But the resources of the Commonwealth were insufficient in themselves. Even before the United States entered the war, it had already begun to underpin the imperial war effort through the Lend-Lease Act of 1941. After Pearl Harbor the Commonwealth became for the first time in its history the junior partner in an alliance with the United States. The sheer size and global spread of the Commonwealth, however, helped to give Britain greater influence within that alliance than would have been justified by a strict reckoning of her resources. At the height of the war, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe was the American General Eisenhower but his counterparts in South East Asia and the Mediterranean were the Britons Mountbatten and Alexander [8].

Commonwealth Forces in World War II [9]  











Prisoners of War


5 896 000

  264 443 1

   41 327

  277 077

  172 592








   724 023

    37 476

     1 843

    53 174

      9 045


   938 277 2

    23 265

     6 030

    39 803

    26 363


   205 000 3

    10 033

     2 129

    19 314

      8 453








    200 000 4

      6 840

     1 841

    14 363

    14 589








 2 500 000

    24 338

   11 754

    64 354

    79 849

Colonies and


    473 250

      6 877

   14 208

      6 972

      8 115

1 There were additionnaly some 93 000 civilians killed.

2 Net full-time service figure, June 1945.

3 Includes women.

4 Approximate figure.



            The defeat of Germany was hailed by the Labour Party as well as by Conservatives as a victory for the Commonwealth as a whole. The mass-circulation Labour Daily Mirror printed a leading article We Remember which recalled.

            The grand Canadians who, when our peril was greatest, came to nourish and sustain our resistance… the Australians and New Zealanders who bore the brunt of the battle in Egypt and Greece… the South Africans who tore from Mussolini's grasp the first fruits of his treachery… the loyal Indians and sons of Colonies who won new battle honours in Egypt and Italy [10].

            In the aftermath of victory, however, the Commonwealth's contribution to British power consisted more of intangible prestige than of material resources. The reality of the bipolar postwar international system dominated by the USA and USSR was that Britain lacked the resources to maintian her status as a great power. But neither her rulers nor her people were ready to accept the reality of national decline. The Commonwealth enabled them to cling to the illusion that Britain remained a world power. Clement Attlee's postwar Labour government was as determined as its wartime predecessor to claim equal status with the superpowers. Without the Commonwealth it knew that claim would fail. Attlee wrote in a cabinet paper of 1943 :

            I take it to be a fundamental assumption that whatever post-war international organisation is established, it will be our aim to maintain the British Commonwealth as an international entity, recognised as such by foreign countries… If we are to carry our full weight in the post-war world with the US and the URSS it can only be as a united British Commonwealth [11].

            The prestige of the victorious Commonwealth gave post-war Britain a diplomatic influence out of all proportion to her overstretched armed forces and her enfeebled economy. Until 1964 there was a Commonwealth as well as a British seat on the United Nations Security Council. But post-war Britain and the Commonwealth depended on the continuance of the wartime special relationship with the United States. All the dominions save South Africa based their defence policies on agreements with the USA rather than with Britain. The ANZUS defence alliance of Australia, New Zealand and the United States concluded in 1951 specifically excluded the United Kingdom. But there were many examples also of Commonwealth defence co-operation during the Cold War and decolonisation. The Malayan emergency drew in forces from Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Kenya, the Rhode-sians, Nyasaland and Sarawak. Commonwealth co-operation was closer than ever during the Korean War. The Number One Commonwealth Division included British, Australia and New Zealand sent warships ; South Africa supplied staff officers and an air squadron ; India provided an ambulance unit [12].

            Post-war France, like post-war Britain, believed that her Empire was essential to her survival as a great power. De Gaulle said of the colonies : En les perdant nous perdrions notre rang de grande puissance. But there was one essential difference between the French and British imperial visions. The Brazzaville conference of 1944 concluded that la constitution éventuelle, même lointaine, de self-governments dans les colonies est à écarter [13]. Britain's post-war Labour government felt much less threatened by decolonisation (though it underestimated the speed with which it would occur). The steady transformation of the Empire into a Commonwealth of independent states would, it believed, sustain rather than undermine Britain's status as a world power. The decision by India, Pakistan and Ceylon (though not Burma) to stay within the Commonwealth on gaining independence in 1947-8 strengthened that delusion. Ernest Bevin, the British foreign secretary, believed that by her leadership of the Commonwealth Britain could capture the moral leadership of the world. The illusion that her world power would survive the transformation of the former colonies into a Commonwealth of independent states made it easier for Britain than France to accept decolonisation. A nationalist rising in Madagascar in March 1947 was savagely put down with the loss of over 11 000 lives. In 1951 François Mitterrand, ministre de la France d'Outre-Mer, still insisted : L'avenir de Madagascar est dans la République française [14]. When there were riots in the Gold Coast in February 1948, the British government responded quite differently. Though the governor asked for troops, the government sent a committee of enquiry which hastened the move towards self-government.

            The comforting rituals devised to accompany decolonisation helped to persuade the British people that they were not so much losing colonies as gaining new independent members of the Commonwealth, much as marriage rituals are designed to convince the parents of the bride that they are gaining a son-in-law rather than losing a daughter. The rituals reached their climax in each colony with three ceremonies on the eve of independence. First, at about teatime, the Union Jack was lowered from the flagpole at Government House for the last time. A soldier from a local regiment folded the flag neatly and gave it to the sergeant-major, who gave it to the officer in charge, who gave it to the governor, who gave it to a member of the Royal Family sent by the Queen, who gave it to his aide-de-camp. Next came the garden party on the immaculate lawn at Government House when the royal representative moved graciously along respectful lines of guests who were then served cups of tea and admired the carefully tended flower beds : an English tea ceremony designed to reassure the guests that British civilisation would survive the transfer of power. Finally, in the evening came the popular celebrations in the football stadium. At 11.59 p.m. the Union Jack was hauled down. On the stroke of midnight the new flag of the independent state was hauled up to roars of applause from the huge crowd. The member of the Royal Family read a Royal Message, formally declaring independence and sending good wishes for the future, the new prime minister or head of state replied, and the crowd collapsed into uncontrollable euphoria [15].

            The team photographs taken at the meetings of Commonwealth heads of governments every two years with the Queen seated in the position traditionally reserved for the football captain reinforced the illusion of Britain's continuing role as a world power. But there was a price to be paid for the illusion. The myth of world influence obscured the reality of Britain's future as a European power. In May 1948 Attlee confessed himself disturbed with the suggestion… that we might somehow get closer to Europe than to our Commonwealth. The Commonwealth nations are our closest friends. Both the Attlee government and the Churchill cabinet which succeeded it in 1951 agreed in avoiding direct involvement in the making of the European Coal and Steel Community and the early stages of European integration [16].

            The illusion of a continuing British world role through her leadership of the Commonwealth was at least partly dissipated by the trauma of the Suez crisis in 1956. Menzies, the Australian prime minister, was steadfast in his support for British policy : Britain's action, I personally say – and I will say it if I am the only one to say it – was brave and correct. But Menzies was, as he implied, almost the only one to say it. Canadian reaction, reported The Economist, was almost tearful… like finding a beloved uncle arrested for rape. Nehru, the Indian prime minister, combined unqualified condemnation of the British invasion of Egypt with only qualified criticism of the Soviet invasion of Hungary, Professor Nicholas Mansergh, the doyen of Commonwealth historians, has argued that there was a link in psychological terms between the traumatic experiences of 1956 and the manner of the British application for membership of the Common Market six years later, even if the latter was dictated chiefly by economic considerations [17].

            The hesitations among many British politicians about the early approach to the E.E.C., however, reflected continuing illusions about the strength of the Commonwealth. The Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell attacked the Conservative approach to Europe in 1962 thus : It means the end of a thousand years of history. You may say, Let it end, but, my goodness, it is a decision that needs a little care and thought. And it dœs mean the end of the Commonwealth. Gaitskell's successor Harold Wilson insisted, on becoming prime minister in 1964 : We are a world power and world influence, or we are nothing. Wilson declared as late as 1965 : Britain's frontiers are on the Himalayas [18].

            By the end of the 1960s, however, the illusion that the Commonwealth could enable Britain to remain a world power had crumbled. In 1967 Wilson's government, despite his farflung definition of British frontiers only two years before, took the momentous decision to withdraw British forces from east of Suez. In 1968 the Foreign Office and the Commonwealth Relations Office merged together as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (commonly referred to nowadays simply as the Foreign Office). A report commissioned by the government in 1969 advocated giving diplomatic priority to an Area of Concentration in Western Europe and North America which excluded most of the Commonwealth. By the time General de Gaulle vetœd Britain's first application to join the Common Market in 1963 it was already clear that traditional trade links with the Commonwealth could not provide a substitute for membership of the E.E.C. While British exports to the Commonwealth had remained static from 1955 to 1963, those to the E.E.C. and USA had more than doubled. And while trade with the Commonwealth still remained larger than with the E.E.C., most economists correctly foresaw that the prospects of future growth lay with the E.E.C. Proposing the Commons motion to join the E.E.C. in october 1971, Edward Heath declared : The Commonwealth… is a unique association which we value. But the idea that it would ever become an effective economic or political, let alone military, bloc has never materialised [19].

            Despite the Commonwealth's manifest failure to become an effective economic or political, let alone military, bloc, however, Britain continues to derive three forms of global influence from it. The first is cultural. American influence alone would not have made English the world's first truly global language. In Commonwealth countries as varied as India, Nigeria and Singapore, English is securely established as the language of administration, education and broadcasting. When Rajiv Gandhi appealed for an end to the communal violence which followed his mother's assassination, he broadcast in English. 80 % of the information stored on the world's computers is in the English language. So are three-quarters of the world's mail, cables and telexes, and more than half the world's technical and scientific periodicals [20].

            The English language is also a major economic asset, not limited to the entertainment, publishing anD education industries. But the past history of the Empire and Commonwealth has left behind in the City of London an even more valuable network of global financial expertise and contacts unrivalled elsewhere in the E.E.C. Of the 200 billion dollars of world currencies which circulate daily on international money markets, about half is exchanged in London. With the decline of British manufacturing industry, the financial sector is now more vital than ever to the balance of payments. The net overseas earnings of United Kingdom financial institutions in 1985 exceeded 7 and a half billion pounds [21].

            The aspect of Britain's surviving global influence from her imperial past which is most frequently overlooked concerns intelligence. The most special part of the Anglo-American special relationship forged during the Second World War was a secret intelligence alliance. Never before had the intelligence communities of two independent states co-operated so closely and so successfully. The wartime intelligence alliance also involved the Commonwealth and was extended after the war by a series of secret formal and informal agreements. The most important of these agreements is the UKUSA signals intelligence pact of 1947 between the USA, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealad which divides the entire globe into spheres of cryptographic influence. Together, their intelligence communities, though smaller than those of the Soviet bloc, employ about 250 000 personnel with a budget estimated at between 16 and 18 billion dollars. The influence of intelligence on British decolonisation remains, remarkably, as unresearched as the influence of Ultra on the Second World War in the early 1970s. So far as intelligence is concerned, Britain remains – at least to some extent – a world power. Her intelligence collaboration with the other powers of the UKUSA pact remains, and will reman for the forseeable future, far closer than with her partners in the E.E.C. [22].

            Since the Second World War, however, the Commonwealth has contributed more to Britain's perceived power by the myth that it has generated than by the resources which it has provided. The myth of Commonwealth unity and power cushioned the experience of decolonisation and made it a notably less traumatic ordeal for the British than for the French people. But at the same time it disguised Britain's identity as a European power and thus deprived her of the leading role in the foundling of the E.E.C. which would other-wise have been hers.

[1] Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

[2] Ernest May (Ed.), Knowing One's Enemies, Princeton, 1986.

[3] Camille Fidel, La paix coloniale française, Paris, 1918.

[4] W.K. Hancock, « Survey of British Commonwealth Affairs » 1918-1939, vol. II (London 1940), part I. W.D. MacIntyre, The Commonwealth of Nations : Origins and Impacts 1869-1971 (Oxford, 1977), pp. 322 ff.

[5] Michæl Howard, The Continental Commitment, London, 1972, ch. 6.

[6] COS (40) 592, 31 July 1940, Public Record Office, CAB 66/10.

[7] Christopher Andrew, The Affair of the Weighted Canvas Bag that Didn't Sink, The Listener, 2 Jan. 1986.

[8] MacIntyre, Commonwealth of Nations, pp. 334-6.

[9] Nicholas Mansergh, The Commonwealth Experience, London, 1982, vol. II, pp. 89 ff.

1 There were additionnaly some 93 000 civilians killed.

2 Net full-time service figure, June 1945.

3 Includes women.

4 Approximate figure.

[10] Correlli Barnett, The Audit of War, London, 1986, p. 3.

[11] Alan Bullock, Ernest Bevin, Foreign Secretary, paperback edition, Oxford, 1985, pp. 64-5.

[12] MacIntyre, Commonwealth of Nations, pp. 344-51.

[13] Christopher Andrew, La colonisation française en Afrique : aspects politiques, L'Afrique noire depuis la conférence de Berlin, publications du CHEAM, Paris, 1985.

[14] X. Yacono, Les étapes de la décolonisation, Paris, 1971, p. 78.

[15] Brian Lapping, End of Empire, London, 1985, introduction.

[16] Mansergh, Commonwealth Experience, vol. II, pp. 166-7.

[17] Ibid., pp. 171-2.

[18] MacIntyre, Commonwealth of Nations, pp. 462-3.

[19] Mansergh, Commonwealth Experience, vol. II, p. 133.

[20] Robert McCrum, William Cran and Robert MacNeil, The Story of English, London, 1986, ch. 1.

[21] The Net Overseas Earnings of United Kingdom Financial Institutions (The City), C.S.O., UK Balance of Payments 1986.

[22] Christopher Andrew, Secret Service : The Making of the British Intelligence Community (London, 1985). Idem, « the Growth of Intelligence Collaboration between the English-Speaking peoples », Review of International Studies (forthcoming). Jeffrey T. Richelson and Desmond Ball, The Ties that Bind (London, 1986.


 Copyright - 2005 - Conception - Bertrand Degoy, Alain De Neve, Joseph Henrotin