11/11/2014 05:21 pm ET Updated Jan 11, 2015

Putting the Great Back into Great Britain

Luis Davilla via Getty Images

Britain faces an existential nomenclature challenge. Will the word "Great" be expunged from its name and sentenced to permanent exile? Or, will Britain's better angels gather to resurrect a second finest hour?

The close-run Scottish referendum and the future vote to remain in the European Union reflect the likelihood of smallness dominating Britain's greatness. That Prime Minister David Cameron is following Tony Blair's deference to the United States in all things large or small does not augur well for strengthening the clout of a former empire on which the sun never set. And, the reductions in Britain's defenses, based on financial exigencies rather than strategic realities, could turn the decades old withdrawal east of Suez into a withdrawal west of Europe.

One of the most stinging critiques of diminished British status appears in Max Hasting's introduction to General The Lord Richards' autobiography Taking Command. Sir Max writes of the "school boyish ideas" in Number Ten that have prevailed despite the recommendations and warnings of "grown-up" generals like Richards. Many in the nation share a similar view of the failings of its government and Britain's decline.

States rise and fall. Some would argue that the United States is headed towards a similar decline as befell Britain. With the spread of power globally, neither Albion nor any single state no matter how strong could remain dominant. Hence, unlike the 18th, 19th and first part of the 20th century, Great Britain was unable to sustain its global dominance. The sheer size and populations of China and India, once firmly in John Bull's thrall, ultimately produced too much economic power for tiny Britain to remain competitive.

As the Obama administration's vaunted "strategic pivot to Asia" demonstrates, clearly, the White House viewed "old Europe" as past its prime. As a result, the "special relationship" with Britain may have exceeded its "sell by" date. One reason is that Britannia no longer rules the waves.

The Royal Navy is headed to two (aircraft carrier) capital ships and a handful of destroyers and frigates. The Royal Air Force that won the Battle of Britain will be cut to seven squadrons. And the Army that defeated Napoleon and Hitler barely will be able to sustain sending a force of 10,000 abroad should military interventions be needed.

Meanwhile, the FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) and DFID (Department for International Development) have likewise sustained cuts. Only the British Embassy in China was slightly increased in the size of its staff. Each of these moves has reduced the perception and reality of former greatness.

Compounding this loss of greatness, no statesman or politician who could reverse this condition seems to be in sight. Labor, Independent and Liberal parties have leaders who lack the luster and charisma needed to rally the nation unless of course junior partner or third-rate status is acceptable. Whether or not Conservatives are re-elected next year is too close to call. But if they are, is David Cameron up to the task of, or even interested in, reviving British greatness?

On a grander scale, the three and a half centuries of old Westphalian system of state-centric politics is being re-ordered. All states, large or small, are affected. Globalization and the diffusion of all forms of power, accelerated by the information revolution, are creating new winners and losers. Britain must decide which it is to be.

Given that Britain can no longer dominate through sheer economic or military power, three distinct comparative advantages must be exploited. The first is intellectual. The second is financial. And third is historical.

While its military is relatively small in size, good ideas are never limited by that restriction. In an age when armies no longer fight only other armies, knowledge and understanding of how to achieve political aims are vital. The British military should use its intellectual powers rather than brute force to turn knowledge and understanding into major policy weapons.

Second, London can leverage its status as the global financial center with creative thinking. A crucial weakness of virtually all societies is failing or missing infrastructure. Pioneering in the establishment of national infrastructure banks can fill these pressing needs as well as become substantial money makers.

Last, Britain has both history and responsibility with states it formerly colonized or oversaw. Revitalizing the Commonwealth in pursuit of an agenda of peace, prosperity and stability is surely one way to demonstrate leadership and possibly restore greatness.

With vision, imagination and persistence, Britain could again become "Great." The challenge and question is will it?