07 March 1985 - 09 March 1985

Issues in the Third World: End of Empire, North-South Relations, and World Stability

Chair: The Hon George McGhee

The Ditchley Foundations Conference at The Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, Washington DC

The third in a series of five conferences organised jointly by the Ditchley Foundation and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, under the title “The United States, Britain and Europe: changed relationships in a changing world”.

The third conference of the series of five arranged jointly with the Woodrow Wilson Center took place at the Smithsonian in Washington DC on 7-9 March. This dealt with “Issues in the third world: the end of empire, north-south relations and world stability”. The Hon George McGhee took the chair. The conference was a long one, lasting two and a half days. It consisted of ten plenary sessions, seven of which reviewed events in seven different regions of the world, one which discussed the evolution of the British Commonwealth and two general sessions at the beginning and end which examined the significance and effects of American anti-colonialism in interaction with the decline of British and the rise of American power and considered the general implications for US/British cooperation of the contemporary state of affairs in the different regions. Part of the cost of transporting the British participants to Washington was once again defrayed by a grant received from the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

The British group was a strong and varied one. The American group tended to be more academic in hue. If, on this occasion, the accent was a little more on the Wilson Center's role as a Center for Scholars, it should shift back towards more participation by doers as well as thinkers and writers in the final two conferences of the series. In any case the Wilson Center’s interface with government, Congress and the news media in Washington carries currents in both directions at much higher energy levels than are known between research institutions and government in the UK.

The question asked at the beginning was why the Pax Britannica had not been successfully replaced by a Pax Americana. The answer which emerged as the different regions were reviewed was that the western powers had pursued two objectives in the post-war period. One was to encourage the peoples and countries of each region to achieve peaceful development related to their own circumstances, interests and needs. The other was to prevent the extension to them of the Pax Sovietica familiar in eastern Europe. It was difficult to relate the two objectives harmoniously. As the capacity to intervene world-wide had dwindled in Europe and had passed almost entirely to the United States, the latter had tended to appear over-concerned with the east/west calculation, while Britain, becoming to some degree assimilated to its European partners, often appeared with them to be concerned to look first for local, regional solutions in which intervention would have little or no place. In south-east Asia, US and British attitudes and policies were now close, perhaps because both countries had intervened there at roughly the same time and withdrawn at roughly the same time. In central America the US concern with the east/west dimension of the Nicaraguan/Sandinista problem seemed out of proportion to Europeans who had no direct engagement there. In the middle east and gulf the issue was not so much intervention or non-intervention as the political objectives which intervention could or should serve: there was less margin there for mistakes in relation to the Soviet Union. In southern Asia, the British called for more sensitivity towards India’s position and less insistence on east/west calculations. In east and north-east Asia the differences of approach which had existed for a long time after the war had largely disappeared once the United States adopted its opening towards China. In southern Africa there had been considerable harmony between US and British policies, and this was unlikely to be modified for long by the present US administration’s tendency to go it alone in its policy of constructive engagement towards South Africa, in which east/ west considerations (the presence of Cuban forces in Angola) occupied a more key position than seemed wise to most European opinion.

In general the conclusion seemed to be that, while US anti-colonialism had been hard for Britain to bear in the wartime and post-war period, it had not been a main cause of the upheaval of decolonisation; and that upheaval had on the whole (at any rate after the Suez debacle) been managed with a good degree of transatlantic cooperation. There was no reason why that should not continue provided the mutual flow of information between governments was not impeded and unilateral acts without warning were avoided. Consultation was the prerequisite of understanding.

The tendency was once again, as in the two earlier conferences of the series, to generalise about the special relationship without taking due care to analyse or define it. But this did not blur the clarity of the discussion about the various regional situations: rose-tinted spectacles were mostly reserved for the occasions in the conference programme for which they were suited.

This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

Conference Chair: The Hon George McGhee