A Single, Massive Foreign Policy Blunder Made Britain Concede Its Status As Superpower To The USA

Great Britain was weak after World War II. Its young queen was never supposed to rule the country. After years of war, Britain was broke. And although the British Empire had seemed strong all the way back to the days of the first Queen Elizabeth, the empire was crumbling. 

The Suez Canal Crisis was seen as the perfect opportunity for Britain to show its power. When Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser tried to nationalize the canal, which was critical for British interests, the British worked with Israel and France to stop Egypt. And as these historic photos of the crisis show, Britain's military efforts were largely successful. But the ill-considered attack was a diplomatic disaster. Eisenhower and the Americans chastised Britain for it at the United Nations.

The Cold War heightened the Suez Crisis significance. With the Soviets looming in the background, threatening to nuke Britain for attacking Egypt, America took a stand against their closest ally, publicly rebuking Britain. The long Suez Canal history, which had benefited Britain in the nineteenth century, would serve as a stark reminder of Britain's steep slide from power. And in the void left by Britain, America became a world superpower. 


  • Britain Took A Stand In The Suez Crisis, And It Cost Them
    Photo: Royal Navy official photographer / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Britain Took A Stand In The Suez Crisis, And It Cost Them

    In 1956, the British sent the strength of their navy and air force to Egypt in an attempt to keep President Nasser from privatizing the Suez canal. Five British aircraft carriers sailed toward Egypt, aided by forces from the Israeli and French militaries. In the previous decade, the UK had lost India, much of their wealth, and their guaranteed spot as a world power. But the British weren't going to let it go without a fight. 

    But the Suez Crisis was a massive foreign policy mistake. Instead of bolstering Britain's power, it revealed the empire's weakness. And America was ready to step into the void as a new world superpower.

  • The Suez Canal Was Built In The 1860s, But The Real Crisis Came 90 Years Later
    Photo: Young Persons' Cyclopedia of Persons and Places / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Suez Canal Was Built In The 1860s, But The Real Crisis Came 90 Years Later

    The Suez Canal existed long before the Suez Crisis of 1956. In fact, the British and French had been instrumental in building the canal in the nineteenth century. During that time, Egypt was treated almost as a colonial state by Britain and France. Dating back to the Age of Exploration, Europeans eager to reach the riches of Asia longed for a shorter way around Africa. In the 1700s, Napoleon considered creating an Egyptian canal, but abandoned the project for engineering reasons.

    Then, in 1858, a French engineer convinced the Egyptians to construct a canal that would be over 100 miles long. A private company, the Universal Suez Ship Canal Company, which was primarily owned by the French with some Egyptian investors, would operate the canal for 99 years, at which point it would be handed over to Egypt. The Suez Canal opened in 1869, but in less than 99 years an Egyptian president would nationalize the canal, setting off the Suez Crisis. 

  • Britain Was In A Bad Spot After World War II, And Decolonization Only Made It Worse
    Photo: Sue Wallace / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-2.0

    Britain Was In A Bad Spot After World War II, And Decolonization Only Made It Worse

    London was left in ruins after the German blitzkrieg dropped as many as 1,000,000 kilograms of bombs on the city in a single day. As many as half a million British soldiers and civilians perished during the war. And after the war, Great Britain had a lot of rebuilding to do. As British historian John Darwin has argued, "The collapse of British imperial power––all but complete by the mid-1960s––can be traced directly to the impact of World War Two."

    Britain may have been on the winning side of the war, but its prestige and power had been severely damaged. Economically, the UK was struggling. And then came decolonization. In 1947, India, the "crown jewel of the British Empire," gained independence. As the UK faced the possibility of war with the Soviets, its colonial territories became a central part of the country's strategic defense. That made the Middle East an important strategic location for the British. 

  • The Once Mighty British Empire Was In Decline, But The UK Didn't Want To Let Go
    Photo: Walter Crane / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Once Mighty British Empire Was In Decline, But The UK Didn't Want To Let Go

    The once-mighty British Empire was badly damaged by World War II and decolonization. In the nineteenth century, the British could brag that the sun never set on their empire, but by the second half of the twentieth century, that was no longer true. Losing their grip on power only made the UK even more anxious to hold on as long as possible. The British were particularly reliant on their Middle Eastern holdings in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and the Gulf. These territories would block Soviet expansion and protect the UK in the event of a Soviet attack. 

    In the first decade after World War II––the first decade of the Cold War––the balance of power between Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union was unclear. FDR, Stalin, and Churchill had all been present at the Yalta Conference in 1945, and Britain still saw itself as a world power. But the UK's massive blunder in the Suez Crisis only pushed Britain out of contention as a superpower. 

  • Egyptian President Nasser Walked The Line Between The Soviets And The West
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Egyptian President Nasser Walked The Line Between The Soviets And The West

    Who was President Gamal Abdel Nasser? He was Egypt's second president, a brilliant strategist who had helped orchestrate the coup d'etat that ousted Egypt's monarchy in 1952. He also had a long list of grievances against the British. As a boy in Cairo, he lived with an uncle who had been imprisoned by the British. He took part in anti-British demonstrations. And Nasser was a fierce advocate for his vision of an independent Egypt. 

    In 1956, Nasser led the move to adopt a new socialist constitution. He was elected president almost unanimously in June of 1956, with 99.948% of the vote. The move allowed Nasser to play his European allies off the Soviets, threatening to move closer to the Soviet Bloc if the West didn't cooperate. And barely a month later, Nasser announced the nationalization of the Suez Canal, reclaiming the canal from the British and French, who had interests in the area. 

  • The Suez Crisis Became A Flashpoint In The Cold War, With The Soviets Supporting Egypt
    Photo: U.S. Military Academy / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Suez Crisis Became A Flashpoint In The Cold War, With The Soviets Supporting Egypt

    When President Nasser privatized the Suez Canal in the summer of 1956, the British and French plotted with the Israelis to stop the move. As a former colonial superpower, Britain did not want to lose its hold on the Middle East. The British had a military presence in the canal, even though the Egyptians had been pressuring them to end their role for at least two years. 

    The conflict was seen as a referendum on British power and a potential flashpoint in the Cold War between the Soviets and the West. In standing up to the West, Nasser earned Soviet support in the form of arms and money. But the British decision to use force to maintain a hold on the Suez Canal proved disastrous for the once powerful empire.