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Australian foreign policy should not be based on the Anglosphere concept

By Michael Fullilove - posted Friday, 14 May 2004

Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941, the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill visited the United States to confer with his new ally, President Franklin D. Roosevelt. While in Washington, he stayed at the White House (the 20th century equivalent of bunking at the ranch in Crawford, Texas).

The two countries were preparing to sign the document pitting the Allies against the Axis, and they needed a name for the alliance. On New Years’ Day 1942, FDR had a stroke of inspiration: they would call it the "United Nations". Not many people now realise this point: before the UN was an organisation, it was an alliance.

Roosevelt was keen to share his idea with Churchill. Wheeling himself into the PM’s bedroom, however, he was shocked to find Churchill in the bathtub. "Oh, I’m sorry Winston, I’ll come back later," he said. Churchill rose like a sea monster from the bathtub and stood before FDR, naked, plump, pink, and dripping. "Please stay," he replied. "The prime minister of Great Britain has nothing to hide from the president of the United States!"


This is relevant because the Second World War marked the apogee of the Anglo-American relationship, to which some Anglophone sentimentalists today hark back. The determined movement in some quarters to revive this union in some form as an "Anglosphere" is the subject of this essay.

What is the Anglosphere?

The Anglosphere argument is put forward by a number of prominent people, including Conrad Black, the Canadian-born peer and former media magnate; Robert Conquest, the distinguished Anglo-American historian; and James Bennett, an internet entrepreneur. It goes something like this: there is a group of countries which have so much in common – language, culture and values, democratic traditions, political and legal institutions, even a developed spirit of entrepreneurialism – that they should form some sort of closer association.

The details of the Anglosphere are a little fuzzy. Which countries should it include?

Its advocates are careful not to define it exclusively as the white bits of the old British empire but there is little doubt that such countries would be at its core. For Bennett, for example, the United States and United Kingdom are its "nodes"; the Anglophone regions of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and South Africa are its "outliers"; and the educated English-speaking populations of the Caribbean, Oceania, Africa and India constitute its "frontiers".

What form of association should it take? Different Anglospherists have different takes on this. Conquest suggests it should be "weaker than a federation, but stronger than an alliance". Bennett envisages an open and non-exclusive arrangement that he calls a "Network Commonwealth", which may incorporate co-operative institutions, coalitions of the willing, and even sojourner provisions in national immigration laws making it easier for residents to travel and live throughout the Anglosphere. Black has a more modest proposal: that Britain decline to sign up to the European political and juridical union and join NAFTA instead.

This sort of clubby thinking is not new, of course. It motivated Victorians such as Cecil Rhodes, and indeed the chief theme of Churchill’s public life was the need for what he called a "fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples". It has re-emerged now because of the lack of an agreed organising principle for the international system in the aftermath of the Cold War. As Michael Ignatieff puts it: "For 50 years the West defined itself against the Rest. Now that the Cold War is over, what remains of the West?" The anvil on which this question has been beaten most recently is, of course, the Second Iraq War.


As a Western country located in the Asia-Pacific region, Australia is regarded as something of a test case for the Anglosphere. Our movements are watched with interest, although not always with accuracy. In 1996, for example, Samuel P. Huntington wrote that Australia had decided to "defect from the West, redefine itself as an Asian society, and cultivate close ties with its geographical neighbours". Late last year, in the aftermath of Iraq, a former assistant to and biographer of President George W. Bush reached an entirely different conclusion. David Frum wrote in the London Daily Telegraph that "the Anglo-Australian-American alliance can guarantee not only the peace of the world, but also liberty and human rights". This is a significant shift over the course of one decade! Given our place in discussions about the Anglosphere, then, it is important for us to think critically about this concept.

Critiquing the Anglosphere

I have led a fairly Anglospheric life: I was born and educated in Australia; my father is English and I carried out my postgraduate research in England; the topic of my research is United States foreign policy. Nevertheless I would like to suggest that as a foreign policy tool, the Anglosphere is flawed, for at least three reasons.

First, history tells us that states make decisions primarily on the basis of their national interests. Cultural and historical factors are of secondary importance only. Iraq provides a modern example of this. While the US drew significant support for its actions from Britain and Australia, the countries bringing up the rear were not sorted by civilisation: Anglospheric countries such as Canada and New Zealand failed to fall into line while Spain and Poland marched in lockstep.

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This is an edited version of an address to the UK-Australia Future Leaders Dialogue at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music on 15 April 2004. The original can be downloaded here (pdf, 98K).

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About the Author

Michael Fullilove is Director of the Global Issues Program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

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