October 28, 2005

The Trident Passes -- Peacefully

World War I was caused in large part by the desire of Germany to assert its "place in the sun" and replace Great Britain as the major world power. The unintended consequence of the war was to allow the United States to replace Britain, peacefully -- in fact, silently, even secretly, after 1918.

It was in the field of Anglo-American relations that the peace-making years were most momentous. The war had altered the balance between Britain and America for good; in the economic sphere by turning Britain into a permanent debtor and making it impossible for London alone to continue as the principle financial centre of the world, and also in the military and naval sphere. The Americans were quite prepared to outbuild Britain at sea unless they could get arrangements on naval and other items that suited them; and the British had to decide whether to take up the challenge or not. Because they decided not to, a permanent shift in world power was consummated without a shot being fired. The fact that the shift was disguised, mainly on the British side, as an acceptance of partnership was necessary for political and psychological reasons, but it did not disguise the brutal truth. (Marxist publicists went on predicting an inevitable Anglo-American war, oblivious of the fact that the war had already been fought -- though bloodlessly.)
Max Beloff, Imperial Sunset: Britain's Liberal Empire, 1897-1921.

The "Marxist publicists" had a vulgar, economistic vision of the world, and therein, it seems, lay their error. In fact, international relations theory would predict such a war, and its absence is an inexplicable or at least troubling fact in a very limited set of global wars. It is a big outlier. Perhaps the biggest.

Britain had "taken up the challenge" presented by Spain, France and Germany over four centuries, and despite many dark hours, always prevailed. Why did it not do so again? The USA had a much larger economy and warmaking potential than did Britain and its Empire 1918, but so had previous challengers in their eras. In those cases Britain had sought out allies and built an alliance system to contain and ultimately defeat the challenger. Yet Britain pursued no such course against the United States. Was this sheer exhaustion after the Great War? Or was it because Britain knew that the relative costs of challenging the USA were greater than the costs of living in US-led global order? In other words, was there something uniquely “tolerable” about acquiescing to American hegemony which was not true with regard to France of Germany? Was Bismarck right that the decisive factor in world politics was "the fact that the North Americans speak English"?

Of course, the Americans wanted to dislodge Britain, and the City of London, from economic and financial primacy, and profit by the change. But they did not want to assume the burdens of maintaining international order which alone made a global economy possible. In fact, the American leadership did not understood what was at stake or what needed to be done. Hence, we had the anarchy of the interwar period. Only after 1945, with the relative power of the USA and the tottering British Empire, even more starkly obvious, and with the immediate threat of the Soviet Union right before their eyes, did the Americans attempt to build a genuine successor to the British-led world order. These "transition costs" could not have been known in 1918, of course. But even if they had, Britain and America would probably still have changed places, but handled the transition better.

The shift from British to American predominance, without a hegemonic war between the two powers, was the decisive event of the last two centuries. The British-led world order segued into a continuous Anglo-American world order founded on similar principles. Had the two Anglophone oceanic powers gone to war, the destruction would have been immense. The way would have been cleared for a continental challenger to assert control of an unassailable land-base in Eurasia, take to the sea, and then establish a global hegemony on totally different principles -- Nazi or Communist principles, most likely.

The most important "war" in history is the one that was never fought.

Update: Despite all the good comments, I think there is still an element of mystery in this particular dog not barking -- i.e. the transition of naval power, and global hegemony, from the British Empire to the USA, without a war. The other challengers to Britain were very, very daunting -- Napoleonic France had twice Britain's GNP and the whole of Europe under its boot, for example, to say nothing of Germany in the Summer of 1940. Still, the British fought with absolute ruthlessness and at great cost and over many years of conflict to defeat each and every one of them. Then, the USA comes along, and the Lion steps aside. I think the only explanation is the intra-Anglospheric ties of language and institutions and elite contacts as well as trade and investment. Nonetheless, other outcomes, including conflict, were not impossible or inconceivable.

One obvious example: We can only guess what a more pragmatic German leadership might have accomplished circa 1890-1910. The volume of trade between Britain and Germany was very high, and they had common enemies in France and Russia, and Germany had the best science and technology in the world, while Britain had the biggest empire. There were lots of reasons the two countries could have grown closer together. An Anglo-German alliance could have arisen which would have made the world an utterly different place. While one can overdo it with counterfactuals, I find history is more interesting and more illuminating if you ask "What if?" and "Why not?" This helps you to make sense of what actually did happen.

(Cross-posted on ChicagoBoyz.)

Posted by Lexington Green at October 28, 2005 02:04 PM

In his book Blood, Class and Empire: The Enduring Anglo-American Relationship, Christopher Hitchens argues that this transition would have been handled better had there been a formal Anglo-American union or organization, so that responsibilities and assets could have been shared with less friction. James Burnham had made a similar argument at the end of World War Two. We'll never know if that was the case. A combination of American wishful thinking (particularly about the utility of the UN) and British wishful thinking (particularly about the magnitude of the role the Commonwealth could play in world affairs) seems to have gotten in the way of this option.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at October 28, 2005 03:21 PM

Considering that the great threats from Nazism or Communism had not yet emerged from the continental anarchy of the post-war period, it is unclear why Britain did not take a tougher line to America. In 1922, potential challengers to the Empire were the US, Japan, and maybe France and Italy.

The fact that the British agreed to establish a naval balance in the Washington Treaty, assenting to, at the very least, co-dominion with the Americans, indicates that the British had long since ceased to see the US as a serious potential enemy, even if the relationship hadn’t reached the permanent alliance of today.

In relation to the “transition costs”, I’m amazed that in such a unprecedented geopolitical handoff they were as small as they were.

Posted by: Captain Mojo at October 28, 2005 03:55 PM

I read somewhere last week on the 200th anniversary of Trafalgar about America's reaction to the British gaining naval mastery of the seas in 1805. On the question of whether the Americans should now attempt to build a large navy, the response was why bother? The Royal Navy will protect us as it would be in Britain's interest to prevent foreign naval incursions of America's territory. Not sure this would have been greeted the same way had Trafalgar turned out 180 degrees differently.

Posted by: Michael J. Smith at October 28, 2005 04:34 PM

Just to bring the discussion up to date. Read this and weep:


Posted by: Helen at October 28, 2005 04:44 PM

The British had made their fundamental decision not to treat the US as a serous military rival back around the turn of the century. In facing the growing German naval challenge, they had to decide how much of a Navy they could afford -- resources were quite finite. They concluded that the British political system could not support the budgetary burden (either in higher taxation and/or sacrifices in other areas) to create and support a Navy that could fight the Americans and the Germans both. This meant that they had to remain at peace with one of them, even at the cost of conciliation of disputes. Put that way, it was a no-brainer to pick the US as the party to not fight. Another major consideration was the existence of Canada as a hostage to US military power -- fortifying Canada and creating a naval force on the Great Lakes (most annoyingly, entirely non-fungible to other potential theaters) would have run the cost of preparing for conflict up enormously. All the money spent on deterring Germany could be put into the main home fleet, completely fungible assets. Also consider that the British investment in the US was huge by that time a war with the US would involve risking that investment to confiscation and/or destruction.

The roots of the Anglosphere were already in existence by 1890. Both the US and Canada had built the heart and lungs of their industrial capabilities in such a way as to require an undefended and undefendable border. US-UK affinities were such that the US was (and remains) the UK's primary financial destination, and the US's primary external financial source. Neither Brits nor Americans have ever liked paying any more taxes than absolutely needed, and preparing for an unneeded US-UK war was just not on the agenda. US and UK politicians made noises about it from time to time, but no serious plans were ever laid for it on either side.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at October 28, 2005 04:53 PM

Len Deighton might provide a clue, though how sound it is, is a matter of discussion: that Britian supposedly stopped innovating and its technical education fell behind other countries (Germany and Britian) Consequently, Britian relative power was falling progressively behind but it wasn't evident until after the First world war.
Further, Britian was probably even less well prepared for the prodogious expenditure of resources which caused the shell shortage until 1916.
Finally, would the Americans really have taken over in 1918 given the growing isolationism?
How would've Britian and England have contained the central Europeans' conflicting territorial demands and regional wars?
You raise a fascinating issue.


Posted by: xavier at October 28, 2005 05:00 PM

Britian may have slowed its rate of innovation, or not -- but at the start of WWII it was still leader or peer in aircraft design, radar and computers, jet propulsion, sonar, and nuclear technology, to mention a number of the most important areas. These leads were all important to Allied victory.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at October 28, 2005 05:46 PM

Thanks for the update. I didn't know that Britian's contribution to nuclear technology was important. Did the Brits assist in the Manhattan project? If not, what was their crucial role?
Computers: I forgot that it was the mathematicians who managed to break the Enigma code with the help of primitive computers. Duh how could I forget Alan Turing.


Posted by: xavier at October 28, 2005 06:51 PM

Very early on in WWII the UK and US signed a nuclear secrets sharing agreement giving full mutual access. Most observers think that the UK was ahead at the start; eventually the US pulled ahead due to the massive resources devoted to the project. But the data the UK used to get its own bomb after the war wasn't a gift of the US, it was the fruit of an agreement that initially benefitted the US.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at October 28, 2005 07:44 PM

Churchill's war memoirs, I think Their Finest Hour in particular, goes into great detail of the "Wizard War" which involved major British advances in computers, cryptography, and radar. Let's also not forget that it was the British who invented the tank in WWI.

Posted by: Captain Mojo at October 29, 2005 07:37 PM


The most direct coverage of your question from the Hackett-Fischer perspective is:

"The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, Civil Warfare, and the Triumph of Anglo–America.", By Kevin Phillips.

It mainly focuses on the inter-British conflicts, but moves on to the effect of other migratory waves of non-British in later eras, in particular those from Ireland and Central Europe (Germany). If you pick it up and are less than satisfied, send me an email and I'll personally refund the purchase price...

Posted by: A Scott Crawford at November 1, 2005 07:12 PM

Scott, thanks. I am very familiar with TCW. I have read it, and revisited it several times.

Posted by: Lex at November 2, 2005 05:34 AM

Mr Smith,

"I read somewhere last week on the 200th anniversary of Trafalgar about America's reaction to the British gaining naval mastery of the seas in 1805."

The US had had diplomatic problems with Napoleon refusing to respect our neutrality in 1796, if I recall correctly, but out right war was avoided. I also seem to recall that after the US rolled out the Constitution class frigate and it's capitans had some successes in ship to ship fights, that the Royal Navy was ordered not to engage the US frigates in individual fights. Please correct me if I'm misinformed.

Mr. Bennet... the roots of the "anglosphere" concept, as well as the term, are to be found in Adam Smith's WoN, 1776. It was Smith who theorized on this subject, and who even predicted that as the population and wealth grew proportionally larger West of the Atlantic, so too would the practical locus of policy and power shift from London.

I think it's a fine irony that in the latest BBC on-line poll of top "philosophers", Marx was selected by Britons as the most important philosopher of all time (Adam Smith? wasn't he one of those backbenchers named as a possible for a Tory Party leadership position?)

Posted by: A Scott Crawford at November 2, 2005 01:00 PM

Scott -- "..as well as the term..."

Really? I don't think that is right. Where exactly in WON is the word "Anglosphere", or anything like it?

Actually, the idea that the entire Anglophone world is really a unity precedes WoN. A noteworthy example is Benjamin Franklin's effort to promote an appropriate governmental arrangement that would preserve the unity of the Empire. Edmund Burke made similar observations to Smith's, earlier. See e.g. Jack P. Greene, Peripheries and Center: Constitutional Development in the Extended Polities of the British Empire and the United States, 1607-1788.

So, your point about Adam Smith's insight is correct. But it was not a novel idea with him.

Posted by: Lex at November 2, 2005 01:14 PM

cross-posted from Chicagoboyz:

I don't know how inevitable it was that the US and Britain would avoid a war. We've fought with them twice, after all -- our last war with England is as recent as their last war with France. Furthermore, there was a lot of bad blood on the North after the Civil War resulting from the Southern strategy of trying to get England to intervene.

One guy who should get more credit for the relationship is Ulysses Grant. As president, he made a conscious decision to settle all remaining disputes with England, and a lot of the American expansion was financed with English capital as a result. The whole crowd of presidents from 1870-1914 get too little historical attention, in my opinion.

Pure, rife speculation as to why no war developed:
1) The British version of colonialism was less malignant than others, and was able to adapt itself to the case where the "colony" was formally independent without too much strain. To my knowledge, Britain retains fairly good relations with its former colonies to this day.

2) The US had little interest in, and a strong ideological opposition to, taking over control of Britain's colonies.

3) Post WWI, the country which was explicitly trying to take over Britain's colonies was Japan, and they were reasonably obvious about rearming, etc, in pursuit of this goal. So maybe the "post Britannic empire" war was fought after all.

Posted by: Zach at November 6, 2005 12:43 PM

I don't buy this idea of a WW0. The change in hegemon is correct, but why categorize it a war? Because it is a war that didn't happen? There are an infinite number of wars that didn't happen.

"WW0" should not be called a war because there was no conflict of vital interest between the US and Brittan. The German fleet pre ww1 was part of a threat of invasion of Brittan. The US fleet was never an extensial threat to Brittan. In WW2 the US didn't invade France, that was Germany. Napoleon tried to conquer eruope the US never did. The US expropriated Spain's colonies not Britan's.

If you're jealous because your neighbor has a more expensive car than you do, you don't attack him, you either get a better job or you don't. The only gripe Brittan had was the the US was richer and more powerful. Plunder and domination might have been the grounds for Germany starting WWI but Brittan was never so foolish as to threaten a more powerful opponent except when there was an extential threat.

Posted by: dontbuyww0 at November 26, 2005 08:15 PM

its like this, if you think about it.

GB, germany, france, A-U, and russia. ALL the strongest in the world(britain strongest of all though). the USA is in a diff part of the world, so she wasnt really thought of a rival. the war went on. america sees this, and as the 5 great powers are weakening by the day, USA grows stronger. THEN she decides to war. she fights at the end. when it finishes, she stays the most powerful. same happens in WW2. USA is strongest atm, but china is going to beat them!! lol

Posted by: bilal at July 16, 2006 12:54 PM
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