BRISBANE – Adrift on the world stage, the United Kingdom faces an uncertain future in a globe that is becoming increasingly dangerous. Its unhappy marriage with the European Union has come to an end, and some British lawmakers are now looking to the past for inspiration. The result is CANZUK – an acronym that suggests a federation of the Anglophone states of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. The plan is progressively being discussed as a panacea for the post-Brexit policy and the civilisational questions of the new century. The combined economic, diplomatic, and military capabilities of CANZUK would result in a powerful and prosperous superstate spanning the globe. The potential is enormous, but can it work? Or is it all just sentimental talk? 

The immorality of ideas

The difficulty in new ideas is not so much developing new tenets but in escaping the old ones. In the mid19th century, British policymakers faced down a waning empire with trepidation. Having been forced to grant self-governance to Canada following the rebellions of the 1830s, the halls of Westminster began to be filled not with confident discussions of an eternal empire, but with whispers of colonial decline. Making matters worse, the external pressure was unbearable. The rapidly developing United States had displaced Britain’s market share in North America, while the expansionist German Reich posed territorial challenges in continental Europe. Meanwhile, in Africa and Asia, the indigenous populations were steadily questioning the rationale of British rule. It seemed as if the empire on which the sun never set, was besieged on all sides.

Something had to be done. So, the lawmakers at the time contemplated an alternative: Imperial Federation. The proposal championed to replace the existing British Empire with a federal union made up of the predominately white settler states of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Newfoundland, and South Africa. The new federal parliament would synchronise markets, defence, and foreign policy across its entire federation. It was to be an Anglophone civilisation state, free of the encumbrance of an empire overburdened with competing interests. The proposal, however, failed to gain majority support and eventually lost traction. Instead of civilisation-states, nation-states came to dominate the ensuing century.

The thing with ideas, however, is that they are immortal. Sooner or later, when the context fits, ideas crawl back to life. Civilisation-states, that is multiethnic nations guided by ethics, morals, and values, are now back at the forefront of global politics. Regional powers such as China, Russia, Turkey, and India, emphasise their civilisational identity in framing domestic and foreign policy. Even the European Union and the United States have in part embraced the civilisational identity. Thus, if the 19th and 20th centuries belonged to nation-states, the 21st century might belong to civilisation-states.

With that reasoning, CANZUK – a reimagining of the Imperial Federation that includes Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom – has come to the political discussion. In the post-Brexit world, London will need new trade deals. So why not reach out to the former British domains?  

The definition of CANZUK, however, or the extent of its authority remains a subject of debate. There is an understanding that the proposed union would see free movement and free trade, but the political and security commitments remain ambiguous. None of the CANZUK member states talk of a unified military, or an integrated civil court; and none seek to abdicate legislature to overseas bodies. CANZUK is, therefore, a loosely defined Anglosphere that spans the globe.

So, what would it look like? With a combined population of nearly 135 million, a combined GDP of over 6.4 trillion USD, and a combined defence budget of about 100 billion USD; CANZUK would instantly become an economic and military powerhouse. By size, it would be the largest country on Earth. That newfound demographic and diplomatic weight would equip the constituent states with the ability to operate globally. In theory, CANZUK would rival powers such as the United States, Russia, and China.

One of the major advantages that CANZUK has going for itself is the shared heritage. Queen Elizabeth II already serves as the head of state of all the CANZUK states, and the members apply the same legal system. All four countries are part of the Five Eyes; an intelligence alliance shared in common with the United States. In terms of public diplomacy, all four CANZUK members have fought together in the major conflicts of the 20th century, and have cooperated in foreign policy.

That shared heritage is precisely what makes CANZUK so appealing. Australia and New Zealand are particularly close. Agreements such as the TransTasman Travel Arrangement and the Closer Economic Relations Trade Agreement provide for freedom of movement, labour, goods, and services – though the regulations have changed over the years to curb down immigration. These two agreements are sophisticated enough to serve as a basic framework for CANZUK. With some additional provisions, the Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement and the Closer Economic Relations Trade Agreement could be extended to include the United Kingdom and Canada. Doing so would provide CANZUK citizens, many of whom already reside in member states other than their own, with the same rights as permanent residents while opening up a transcontinental labour force of 71 million strong.

The nature of interests

However, like most revolutionary ideas, there are drawbacks. Without a shared tax mechanism, the GDP of CANZUK, valued at 6.4 trillion USD, would have little consequence. Without a meaningful economic and political federation, CANZUK would be incapable of synchronising its resources. It would be nothing more than a paper tiger. If CANZUK is to succeed, an economic and political union is a must. Each member state would have to give up some level of sovereignty for the collective benefit. That will not be easy because the four countries have distinct economic and political realities.

Being continents apart, the CANZUK members do very little business with each other. For instance, neardestination exports account for 44 per cent of British exports, 77 per cent of Canadian exports, and 40 per cent of the exports of both Australia and New Zealand. By comparison, trade with the other CANZUK members account for only 5 per cent of Australia’s exports and 3 per cent of the exports of both Canada and the United Kingdom. Meaning, Australia does most of its business with China, New Zealand trades mostly with Australia, while Canada is economically tied to the United States. These are geoeconomic realities that are not going to change overnight. Suppose a reorientation of trade would be possible, such a decision would then be costly. The four nations got wealthy precisely because of localised trade, and redirecting businesses would undo much of that prosperity. 

Even if the CANZUK members managed to form a free trade zone, domestic industries would be severely affected. Canadian wheat, Australian beef, and New Zealander lamb would inundate low-output British farming. The economic reforms would be painful, with little assurance of success. That is not the type of federation London, Canberra, Ottawa, or Wellington are looking to sign up for. Whatever cultural affinity or nostalgic feelings the CANZUK societies have towards each other, they are dwarfed by hard-hitting economic considerations.

If somehow CANZUK managed to advance a common market, the federation would then need a security pact to ensure its physical survival. Much like in trade, a security bloc is formed on principles like proximity, capacity, etc. When common interests cease to match, collective security agreements often fall apart or become obsolete.  CANZUK would have an impressive military in theory, but the bloc would have to simultaneously face a powerful Russia in the Arctic and a powerful China in the AsiaPacific region. That geographic reach would outweigh the capacities of the CANZUK federation. To match its rivals, CANZUK would need a centralised capital for cohesive policymaking. Canada, Australia, and New Zealand would have to give up additional layers of sovereignty for the collective security of the federation. The irony is that all these sovereignty sacrifices would make CANZUK akin to the European Union’s supranational authorities – precisely what London despised. The lack of central planning and its impracticality is, therefore, among the chief barrier to the Anglosphere federation.

A role for America

The final unaddressed issue, perhaps the single-most fundamental flaw to CANZUK, is the lack of logistics. Three of the four CANZUK members are island-nations. Modern technologies, such as telecommunications, automated shipping, and long-haul flights have eased the stress on maritime dependency, but the fortunes of Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom remain tied to the free trade on the high seas. The commercial maritime routes spanning continents act as the veins of CANZUK, ensuring prosperity and security. Yet, the CANZUK members lack the naval capabilities to guarantee their maritime interests in the open oceans.

If by some means London, Canberra, Ottawa, and Wellington manage to form an authentic economic and political Anglosphere, that federation would immediately fall at the mercy of the global naval power: the United States. Washington would have the unmatched ability to break the maritime spine that binds CANZUK, and it could do so unilaterally and with impunity. As such, CANZUK can only exist in a world where the United States approves of it. 

When further evaluating the part of America, the purpose of CANZUK becomes largely obsolete. The proposed federation is overreached and exposed, it lacks economic and political foundation, and it cannot ensure its security. The only power capable of overcoming these shortcomings is the United States, with which the CANZUK members have an existing defence clause. This then, makes Washington, not London, the de-facto senior partner of CANZUK. Far from an Anglosphere superpower, CANZUK would operate in the shadow of America. Then again, at a time of China’s growth and the advent of civilisation-states, CANZUK might just be the ally America needs for the 21st century.

Alexander Purton and Shirvan Neftchi

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  1. Tower Bridge, London, UK – Pixabay via Pexels
  2. Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Canada – Splash of Rain via Pexels
  3. Wellington, New Zealand – Lucas W via Pexels


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