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Requiem for an Empire

Since World War II, Britain’s influence in the world has relied on its “special relationship” with the United States, its position as head of the Commonwealth (the British Empire’s successor), and its position in Europe. The Americans are still there, but Europe isn't, and now the head of the Commonwealth isn't, either.

LONDON – Amid the many, and deserved, tributes to Queen Elizabeth II, one aspect of her 70-year reign remained in the background: her role as monarch of 15 realms, including Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. She was also the head of the Commonwealth, a grouping of 56 countries, mainly republics.

This community of independent states, nearly all of them former territories of the British Empire, has been crucial in conserving a “British connection” around the world in the post-imperial age. Whether this link is simply a historical reminiscence, whether it stands for something substantial in world affairs, and whether and for how long it can survive the Queen’s passing, have become matters of great interest, especially in light of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.

In the nineteenth-century era of Pax Britannica, Britain exercised global power on its own. The sun never set on the British Empire: the British navy ruled the waves, British finance dominated world markets, and Britain maintained the European balance of power. This era of “splendid isolation” – never as splendid or isolated as history textbooks used to suggest – ended with World War I, which gravely wounded Britain’s status as a world power and correspondingly strengthened other claimants to that role.

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