To some, British Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to demur from the new euro rescue plan has made the U.K. irrelevant on the world scene. Yet by moving away from the euro zone, Cameron did something more than reaffirm Britain’s opposition to a German-led Europe: He asserted Britain’s greater, historically grounded legacy as the center of the Anglophone world.
This obstinacy could end up maintaining the U.K.’s global importance by shifting its focus away from “the declining and irritable nations of the old world” and toward its legacy as the center of the English-speaking world.
Over time cultural ties generally prove more enduring than ideological or geographic ones. The 14th century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun once observed, “Only tribes held together by a group feeling can survive in a desert.” Throughout history, the most powerful, far-reaching cultures — namely the Greek, Roman, Arab, Chinese, Mongol and British empires — shared this intense kinship.
Like the world’s two other primary global tribes, the Chinese and Indians, Anglo share ancient and deep-seated affiliations. In contrast to the profoundly insular Japanese or the Germans, global tribes are transnational and transcend mere geography. They share not only economic ties but “group feelings” shaped by commonalities of food, language, history, spiritual and political ideals .
The British are “cousins” to Americans, Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders in ways the French, Germans and Italians are not. When young and educated British emigrate they generally head not to Germany or China but to other English-speaking countries. Retirees might seek out the Spanish or French Rivera, but those building careers go overwhelmingly to Anglophone countries.
Equally important may be the British connection to other former colonies like India, South Africa and Nigeria that, although not racially Caucasian, function largely in English and retain close ties to the mother country. Any close look at British interests and personal ties reflect the enduring nature of its tribal essence. London’s status as the world’s financial center — the critical reason for Cameron’s break with the E.U. — lies not primarily with Europe, but with its scattered former colonies. Britain is the world’s fourth largest investor and the top investor in the United States, which in turn serves as the U.K.’s biggest export market. The U.K. also plays an outsized role in South Africa, Singapore and India, where it is by far the largest European investor.
In this sense, the Anglosphere — including places like India — constitutes a kind of transnational family. Usually ignored or scoffed at by globe-trotting pundits and politicians who define the world by geographic proximity, these global linkages are more important than ever.
Consider the fate of the insular Japanese, who, without a large diaspora, have no recourse but to fall back into the relative obscurity of their home islands. Similarly, the E.U., particularly in its post-Christian,phase has no common tribal essence. Instead the continent seems to be breaking into at least three tribes: an austere neo-Hanseatic Nordic core, a spendthrift and effectively bankrupt Mediterranean south, and a troubled, rapidly depopulating eastern rim.
The drive to create a powerful European superstate lacks the girding of a common ideology and social norms that give the English-speaking world coherence. Whatever her ambitions, Germany’s Angela Merkel, Chancellor of a prosperous but rapidly aging and militarily weak country, seems more like a wily schoolmarm than an inspirational European leader. She’s no Caesar, Charlemagne or Napoleon who’s capable of uniting the continent by force of ideology, personality and power.
Given these fundamental flaws, Britain’s best course would be to focus on linkages to her offspring. Taken together the Anglosphere represent more than a quarter of world GDP, and the Queen’s tongue remains the dominant language of international business, science and diplomacy, utterly supplanting French, Russian and German even on the continent. The E.U. may have been constructed largely by French visionaries, but English is spoken by 41% of Europeans, while only 19% speak French.
More important still, the developing world is turning Anglophone. French schools have been closing even in former colonies such as Algeria, Rwanda and Vietnam, where students have protested against learning the old colonial tongue. English is being widely adopted in China, and it dominates the Gulf economy, where it serves as the dominant language of business in hubs such as Dubai. It is also, of course, the dominant language of India’s burgeoning middle class.
The linguistic dominance propels the Anglosphere’s dominion over such critical growth industries as technology and culture. Britain may no longer be an industrial superpower, but its media, research institutions, investment banks, courts and culture remain globally relevant. Nearly half the world’s sales of audio-visual products, for example, come from the English speaking world, with Britain constituting the second-largest exporter behind the U.S.
Technology follows a similar pattern. Three-fifths of global pharmaceutical-research spending comes from Britain and the U.S.; more than 450 of the top 500 software companies in the world are based in the Anglosphere. Out of the ten fastest-growing software companies, six are American and one is British.
This brain power is backed up by a treasure trove of natural resources. The U.K. itself may lack sufficient raw materials — after all that was what the empire was all about — but its diaspora countries, notably in North America and Oceania, account for much of the world’s food exports and, increasing, its supply of fossil fuel energy.
How about the thorny issue of politics? In the end, when there’s a crisis the Anglosphere countries can most rely on one another. Time and again, the British, Canadians and Australians have been the peoples who send troops and ships in concert with America. What country is a more American solid ally in Asia than the remarkable English-speaking enclave of Singapore?
Conversely, when Argentina seized the Falklands, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher could count on logistical help, first and foremost, from the United States. And as the Australians contemplate an expanding Chinese military presence in their backyard, they look to the Americans to send in the maritime cavalry.
Sadly the critical nature of these linkages is not fully appreciated by the current U.S. administration. President Obama, the grandson of a Kenyan victimized by the brutal colonial regime, has dissed Britain repeatedly. Opposition to colonialism, of course, resonates with American tradition, but he perhaps went too far when he famously returned the bust of Winston Churchill sent by Tony Blair to President George W. Bush back to Britain.
More recently Obama has even poisoned the well against Canada, our greatest trade partner and continental soul mate, by rejecting the Keystone XL project. It’s as if he were urging Canada to align itself with China. What’s next a move to ban the import of Australian uranium or Uggs?
Yet the great strength of tribes, or families, lies in their ability to endure despite the most egregious family foolishness. Even a wayward president, or two, cannot tear asunder what has been hundreds of years in the making.
This piece originally appeared at Forbes.com.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, and contributing editor to the City Journal in New York. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in February, 2010.
Creative Commons photo by Flickr User "angies".