Size matters (again)

Europeans, particularly “pro-European” Europeans like me, often make the argument that it is only by pooling their collective resources that can they compete in the emerging world of continent-sized powers such as China, India and the US. By jointly pursuing their interests, the 28 member states of the European Union – the world’s largest trading bloc – can have greater impact than any of them can have individually. In particular, this argument is often deployed to show why it would be a mistake for the UK to leave the EU: to do so would commit it to “geopolitical oblivion”, as a French official put it to me. The idea, in short, is that size matters, as Peter Mandelson put it at a dinner I attended a year or so ago. But interestingly (and perhaps slightly worryingly), this discourse about size echoes the one in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century.

Like a lot of people, I’ve recently been reading a lot about the period leading up to World War I. In my previous post, I discussed the striking parallels between the “semi-hegemonic” position of Germany in Europe following unification in 1871 and the debate about German power in Europe now. But another thing that strikes me reading about the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century is the similarity between the discourse in Europe then and now. That too was an anxious time at which a new era in international relations seemed to be emerging. Then as now the future seemed to belong to continent-sized powers. In particular, influenced by Darwinism (The Origin of Species was published in 1859), many in Europe foresaw a brutal global competition in which big powers would dominate smaller ones. Around the continent, therefore, the talk was of expansion.

This discourse was particularly strong in Germany. Many thought that Germany’s prosperity and even survival in the coming twentieth century depended on acquiring the resources it needed to compete with Britain, Russia and the United States and become what the writer Paul Rohrbach called the “fourth empire”. As the historian Harold James puts it in a recent essay in International Affairs on the parallels between between the world in 1914 and the world now, German strategists thought that “the nation-state was no longer big enough to handle the new challenges” and “only large imperial and global political units could be truly functional”. This anxiety about size led Germans to seek an empire of its own – whether beyond Europe (the famous “place in the sun” of which Bernhard von Bülow, the chancellor from 1900 to 1909, spoke) or within Europe (the idea of Mitteleuropa associated with Friedrich Naumann).

Many in Britain – which, of course, at the time already possessed the world’s largest empire – also thought size mattered.  As Aaron Friedberg puts it in his book Weary Titan, a brilliant study of British perceptions of the relative decline at the turn of the twentieth century (and its lessons for the United States now), the second half of the nineteenth century seemed likely to be “an era of bigness”. As Britain’s relative power declined from 1870 as other powers such as Germany and the United States caught up with it in industrial production, some drew the conclusion that, in order to survive, Britain needed to consolidate the English-speaking empire into a “Greater Britain”. The classic statement of this view was J.R. Seeley’s The Expansion of England (1891), which is famous for the quip that Britain seemed to have “conquered half the world in a fit of absence of mind”. The anxiety about size in Britain led to a shift away from free trade to the protectionist policy of imperial preference.

We think of the current discourse as different because the focus is on European integration rather than empire (though of course some academics such as Jan Zielonka have argued the EU can itself be seen as an empire). But perhaps it is not so different after all? In fact, the comparison between then and now can be taken even further. The idea that size mattered emerged at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century in the context of increasing economic interdependence and competition. Then as now there what Geoff Eley has called a discourse of “competitive globalisation”. Today, Germany is seeking to unite Europe in order to compete globally. Meanwhile, as it contemplates leaving the EU, Britain is once again focusing on the world beyond on Europe.

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