Most will remember a recent crisis in the Suez Canal. A little over a year ago, a container ship traversing the Suez Canal was grounded, blocking one of the world’s busiest trade routes. The halt cost billions of dollars a day in commerce while ships continued to back up in the canal before finally being freed nearly a week later. However, nearly 60 years ago, a different kind of crisis occurred in the Suez Canal, one that pitted allies against one another and eventually changed the world.
The Historical Context
Just a decade after the end of World War II, the world again saw another crisis looming, though on a much smaller scale. Two European powers, victors in a war that devastated the continent and spread around the world, suddenly found themselves in a military dispute of their own making over the Suez Canal. In 1956, in reaction to decisions by the United States and United Kingdom not to offer loans to Egypt to help build the Aswan dam along the Nile River, Egyptian President Abdel Nasser immediately ordered the nationalization of the Suez Canal in July.
The Suez Canal served as a symbol of British imperial power as the United Kingdom ruled Egypt in one form or another from 1882 through 1922, when Egypt gained independence. The United Kingdom controlled Egyptian affairs until Nasser came to power by overthrowing the Egyptian monarchy in 1952. Fearing a threat to their imperial status, the United Kingdom decided the solution was to oust Nasser with Prime Minister Anthony Eden calling the canal Britain’s “great imperial lifeline.”
France felt similarly, gunning for his ouster as well since the French believed Nasser was backing Arab insurgents in its war in Algeria. The United Kingdom and France also had justification – in their eyes – since a company run jointly by the British and French operated the canal at that time. The British and French subsequently began coordinating plans for a military invasion to reoccupy the canal but they needed a smoke screen for their intervention.
America Says No
There was one hitch in the joint British-French plan: the United States. U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower noted his opposition to the use of force in this situation by his two primary allies. In an effort to head off any military action, he entrapped the European powers in pointless rounds of talks. The British and French reluctantly went along with Eisenhower’s guise since they knew they were on shaky legal ground. But their drive to remove Nasser from office proved to be too powerful.
Israeli provided the United Kingdom and France with just the pretext they needed to reclaim the canal: Israel would invade Egypt. France and the United Kingdom could then get involved under the guise of sending in peacekeepers and occupy the canal. The British and French agreed, and the invasion was on. On October 29, Israel dropped paratroopers into the Sinai, fulfilling their end of the bargain. Feigning surprise, the United Kingdom and France demanded that both sides agree to a ceasefire. When Egypt refused, the United Kingdom and France deployed troops into Egypt to again occupy the Suez Canal.
The Ultimate Betrayal
Upon learning about the deception, Eisenhower was livid. Kept totally in the dark, Eisenhower felt betrayed by the United States’ closest allies. Eisenhower later commented about his allies’ intervention: “I’ve just never seen great powers make such a mess and botch things.” Almost immediately, the United States approached the United Nations to intervene, and both parties demanded a ceasefire. The crisis ended largely in a win for Egypt as British, French, and Israeli troops were forced to withdraw in an embarrassing fashion. The crisis – despite the chaos and X – proved to have global repercussions.
The Suez Crisis as a Turning Point
The Suez Canal crisis had long-lasting consequences for the United Kingdom and France, Israel, and the entire world. For the former European powers, it marked the end of Britain and France’s imperial power, sparking a wave of independence across the once vast British and French empires, including the Middle East. The crisis also cemented the United States’ position as the global hegemon.
The misdirected invasion of Egypt had the toughest consequences for the United Kingdom. First, the Prime Minister lost his job. Perhaps the most consequential result of the Suez Canal crisis was the perception that the United Kingdom could never act without the United States again. The crisis strained the “special” relationship, which subsequently recovered. However, as a result of the crisis, the United Kingdom became a junior partner to the United States, the proven global superpower, redefining its foreign policy for the long haul.
The crisis ushered in the formation of the Fifth Republic under Charles de Gaulle. The debacle also changed the trajectory of France’s foreign policy, pushing the French closer to Europe, particularly Germany. France quickly realized that the British would choose their special relationship with the United States instead of Europe and found the Americans smug and believing themselves to be superior. Upon that realization, France began looking for more reliable allies. France also fully moved itself out form under America’s military power by building its own nuclear capabilities and leaving NATO’s integrated command structure just 10 years later. As the economist aptly stated in 2006, “France basically constructed a new identity as the ostensible leader of Europe.”
Israel came out of the debacle with less consequences and embarrassment than its co-conspirators. It also changed the course of the Middle East as the Cold War officially spread to the Middle East and North Africa. The Soviet Union moved into the region to fill the void left by the British. The United States, due to the superpower rivalry with the Soviet Union that defined the Cold War, also felt compelled to get more involved in the Middle East. The close relationship between the United States and Israel grew out of this crisis. While the United States came down hard on the Israelis for good reason after conspiring with the British and French, but this was also the last incident that the United States would have to take such strong action against Israel.
An Impact Beyond the Middle East
The Suez Crisis had far-reaching, long-lasting consequences. Not just for the United Kingdom and France, which saw their long-standing empires fall throughout the next decade, but also for Israel, the larger Middle East, and the world. The trajectory of British and French foreign policies changed with the British becoming more subservient and reliant on the United States than ever before and pushing France closer to Europe. The crisis served as a catalyst for close ties between the United States and Israel. Beyond the individual actors and Middle East, it helped the spread of Arab nationalism and pushed Europe to create the European Union’s precursor. The Suez Canal crisis became a turning point in history, altering the course of foreign policy and world politics for decades to come.