November 25, 2005

A Few Thoughts on World War Zero

James McCormick has blessed us with a remarkable post about World War Zero, the long and quiet struggle by which the USA managed to get its older rival, Britain, out of the way without any direct conflict.

I quoted Max Beloff in an earlier post, who noted that after World War I, some people were predicting a war between Britain and the USA as the next round of conflict, but that Britain had already “lost” a war with the USA without a shot being fired. Beloff cited the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 as the key moment, since it was at that point that Britain formally and forever gave up the idea of maintaining naval supremacy over the next most powerful country -- in this case the USA. But we might better describe that treaty as a "peace treaty" for a World War Zero that stretched back well into the 19th century. Even more apt, it was just one milestone on a downward course for Britain, as it gradually conceded bit by bit its world role to the USA.

World War Zero runs almost as a Cold War from the Revolution until some end point like the Suez Crisis, like a dark subtheme to the brighter and cheerier melodies of Anglo-American amity and cooperation. The USA throughout this entire era, to the despair of American Anglophiles of all ages, was very active in promoting the dissolution of the British Empire. The hinge period seems to have been roughly sometime around 1900-1910, with the British in a weakening position relative to the USA permanently thereafter. For example, the US Navy kept building battleships during World War I, even though there was a need for destroyers. The clear aim was to take advantage of the war to outgun the British at sea, so the USA could twist their arms hard after the war. And the USA did just that, compelling Britain to accept the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922.

Britain’s “defeat” in World War Zero was not perfectly clear in 1918, or even 1922 or even up to 1945. The reason is that Britain did not really suffer any absolute decline. It was a relative decline. Real income, life-expectancy, etc. were increasing throughout the 20th C. Britain weathered the depression better than most countries did, though of course there were pockets of desperation. Britain’s huge overseas empire allowed it to obtain benefits almost equivalent to free trade. The size of the Empire helped to cushion Britain from the protectionist wave of the early 30s. Britain had a stable currency. The British were innovative in technology during this period as well. It didn't look too bad because it wasn't too bad, at home, and in absolute terms. It would have been impossible to perceive Britain’s relative decline by only looking at Britain. A person would have had to know in some detail what was going on elsewhere, and have appreciated the scale of the USA, USSR, etc. This was beyond most people, as was Britain’s absolute reliance on the USA to survive any major war.

But Britain’s actual position was brutally clear by 1945. The Americans made sure Britain was broke, made them pay cash until they had nothing left, and made them give up their hard-won, centuries-old Empire at fire-sale prices. Keynes was involved in the postwar discussions 1945-46 and was shocked at how tough the Americans were being. Keynes somewhere said after World War II that the Americans were treating them like a defeated enemy. Britain was paying the bills for losing World War Zero -- without a shot, and without bloodshed, it is true. But Britain’s world role was being pushed to the margins, consciously, by the USA at every opportunity. Americans were and are hardball players who tell themselves they are #########. No one but the Americans themselves believes that.

If this struggle was real and such hard consequences for Britain, why didn’t it break out into open conflict while Britain was still relatively strong? Orthodox international relations theory would posit armed conflict when an aspiring hegemon tries to supplant the existing hegemon. (“[T]he central proposition of nearly all balance of power theories is that states tend to balance against concentrations of power or hegemonic threats. Indeed, this is one of the most widely held propositions in the international relations field.” (From this.)) The political science models for balancing against hegemonic challenges as the cause of major wars fails to describe the US-UK transition. There are only a very small number of examples in the whole data set -- and here is this huge outlier.

Looked at less schematically, Britain had ruthlessly opposed all challengers for several centuries. (See, e.g. Ludwig Dehio’s The Precarious Balance: Four Centuries of the European Power Struggle, and my earlier post). Yet, the British v. USA rivalry played out differently, and British hegemony shaded over into American hegemony without a shot being fired.

There were both carrots-and-sticks in play. A dense network of Anglo-American contacts related to investment, trade, family ties, the scientific and academic community, etc. raised very high the potential cost of open conflict. On the other hand there was a pervasive American desire to push the British aside and run the world their own way. The US Navy definitely had war plans against Britain before World War I, and up to World War II. But we know that Britain had given up on preparing war plans against the USA around the turn of the century. War with the USA was too awful to contemplate. Ultimately, the other security threats to Britain – Germany, then Japan and Germany, then Soviet Russia – were so severe that alliance with the USA, even at a very steep price, was preferable every time.

I hope I won’t be damned as unsentimental when I suggest that Britain’s security concern was the predominating factor. Ties of history and culture and even economic advantage played roles – but supporting roles only. For example, James notes in his post that the notion of “Anglo-Saxon” unity was not widely popular in the earlier period when it was being proposed. Anglo-American cooperation and friendship had to be constructed, or put on as a mask, in the face of various areas of conflict.

Britain's elite very adeptly orchestrated this complicated and hazardous relationship with the USA. They managed Britain’s relative decline, and loss of its Empire, in such a way that its underlying prosperity and freedom at home emerged in comparatively good shape compared to other declining or defeated powers. “Genteel decline” would have looked like a wonderful option to most citizens of most countries who got to experience direct invasion and tyranny imposed by conquerors or grown domestically. Britain did manage, just barely, to avoid outright defeat, let alone invasion and occupation, by a non-Anglosphere power throughout the very dangerous years of the 20th Century. Rather than decry too loudly Britain's decline, or its submission to the USA when there were no good options, we should express amazement at this feat of statecraft.

World War Zero is a deep topic that needs to be dug up and assembled from disparate sources. I don’t know of any historian who has told the tale as a continuous story, though many have told important parts of it – e.g. William Rogers Louis.

Suggestions for a World War Zero bibliography are hereby solicited from our erudite readers. The idea is to cull out the best books and reconfigure the discussion into the framework of World War Zero. Max Beloff's quote, is an unusual example of someone seeing things this way. Most writers who address the Anglo-American rivalry talk about a war that did not happen. Few talk about a transfer of power that had consequences much like a military defeat, but without actual combat breaking out, which is different way of looking at it.

(Many aspects of the Anglosphere understanding of history have this problem. There is a mountain of material, but none of it is organized into the framework that we want to use to look at it. The boxes are configured wrong -- national histories, mostly. The facts are at hand, lying in a heap, needing to be picked through and rearranged.)

World War Zero and its outcome -- the transfer of hegemony from Britain to the USA without armed conflict -- is one of the fundamental underpinnings of the contemporary world and all of modernity. I look forward eagerly to James’ further posts on this topic.

Some good comments provoke this update/clarification.

I do not mean to say that the proponents of an English-speaking union circa 1900 were sentimentalists. They were astute in seeing how the global winds were blowing. And, indeed, an orderly process of cooperation and even union would have worked better than the expedient, extemporized and haphazard process that ensued. Both sides would have gotten a better deal. These thinkers had very little actual real-world impact because most people were not aware that a "transfer" was going to happen, or the consequences of such a change happening. The perception was that the USA would get stronger, yes, but the structural consequences of this were not widely appreciated. This was especially so in the USA, which tried hard to avoid the global responsibilities that its size and wealth and power indicated it should take on. Few people then or now appreciated the centrality of Britain and London to the world economy, for example, or the turmoil that would ensue when this position dissolved. Americans thought they could keep the world at arms length, and not allow it to corrupt their free institutions. America was a highly protectionist country during this era as well. And Americans had been so used to a powerful Britain as a major actor in world affairs that they had a hard time imagining that major player going away. I recall reading that Franklin Roosevelt himself -- who knew the hard facts better than most people, and who had worked hard to shove the British Empire into the ash heap of history -- was genuinely shocked to realize that the British Empire was bankrupt. On the other side, British people thought of their country and its empire as a major power in the world. Until very late in the day the majority of British people had no idea how badly things had slipped. John Keegan writes of being a child in Britain in World War II, and looking at a map of the world and having no doubt that the British Empire was one of the mightiest powers there was. 1945-1956 was the era of the great disillusionment.

If Britain were not facing the security threats it was, essentially all at once, I think that it would likely have tried to organize a coalition to contain and if necessary defeat the USA. That had been its strategy for centuries against all powers. Working from a position of strength would have allowed it to get a better deal from the Americans, at the minimum. But Britain had such serious threats from all quarters that the American challenge had to be back-burnered until it was too late. Had Russia industrialized earlier and neutralized the German threat, or had Germany had a more reasonable leadership in the post-Bismarck era after 1890, or had Britain made a better and earlier transition to the second industrial revolution (electricity, internal combustion, chemicals) in the late 19th C so it was more wealthy, dynamic and powerful in its own right -- things may have gone differently.

The ties of solidarity were real and strong. But they would not have been strong enough to prevent conflict absent overwhelming security concerns. The British felt strongly toward their fellow Protestants, the Dutch, for example – but they fought them as needed. I also agree that the prospect of living as a subordinate under an American rule-set was more tolerable to contemplate than rule by others would have been. I also think that these factors allowed Britain to make the most of a bad situation, and put a good face on it -- but they were not the cause of its acquiescence to American hegemony and the dismantling of its own position by the Americans.

I close with this Big Think question for you: Can look at the entire disastrous era of 1914-1945 as the spillover effects of the botched hand-off of global economic and political hegemony from Britain and the USA?

Posted by Lexington Green at November 25, 2005 10:49 PM

I would say that at least some of the proponents of English-speaking Union between 1890 and 1914 were not sentimentalists but hard-headed realists who believed that the transition could best be handled in an orderly and negotiated fashion. These included Brits who saw that the sooner such a transition were negotiated, the better terms Britain would have - -they were playing a game in which each subsequent hand they were dealt would be the worse. And the Yanks in favor of English-speaking Union saw that the sooner such a deal were cut, the sooner Americans could start reaping the benefits, and hey, time is money. Or as an economist would say, the net value to Americans of an early English-speaking Union would have been more than the higher costs that would have had to have been paid to Britain to obtain such.

Of course the elephant in the living room here is what would have happened witth World War One had there been an English-speaking Union before 1914. Would the throw-weight of the combined nations been so high that it would have deterred the Kaiser? If so, avoiding the slaughter of WWI would have been such a huge benefit to Britain that it would have been worth almost any concessions to the US to get it. Or would the isolationist sentiment in the Union legislature have been enough to prevent the Union from intervening after the violation of Belgian neutrality? Again, this might have been a better outcome -- the threat of Anglo-American intervention might have forced a compromise peace after the Marne. We'll never know, of course, but these considerations are also part of the equation.

Finally, prescient people were aware of the shifting balance of power across the Atlantic for at least a century before these events. Before American independence, Franklin and Adam Smith had both discussed the probability that American demographic and economic growth would eventually move the political center of gravity from England to North America within the Empire. American independence probably delayed this shift and preserved London's predominance longer than would have been the case had the Empire remained united.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at November 26, 2005 12:19 AM

I was about to make the point Jim did in the last paragraph there, though perhaps with less eloquent brevity. Although I don't have any bibliographical suggestions, I do distinctly recall reading some non-Malthusian predictions from the early 19th C. about the future relative power of UK v. N. America. Had the revolution of 1776 won seats in Parliament instead of Independence, today's current alignment would have occurred much, much earlier (now there would be a fun counter-factual history novel - Lincoln as the first American-born PM).

I think Lex is a little too quick to place Anglo-Saxon solidarity inferior to the defense considerations Britain was facing. Surely no country would give up their prominence for no reason, but as I see it Britian had two choices to make (the second a consequence of how they answered the first).

First: Does the UK fight all-comers to maintain their power? We know how a French Emperor would answer that. However, the British have long demonstrated (thanks to their democratic traditions) a more realistic cost-benefit analysis of such endeavors. French Emperors after all rarely pay the price for their folly directly. Faced with the rising powers of the USA, Prussia and Russia, the Brits knew a losing situation when they saw one. Something would have to give.

Second: If the UK doesn't fight all-comers, who do they ally with? Here's where Anglo-Saxon solidarity is key. I don't mean to suggest that Brits loved the USA, but surely they did recognize that whoever they did ally with would have some rule-setting power in the "New World Order" that resulted. Who would the Brits entrust with such power over them; the Russians? As the country most like their own in history, character, and legal structure (not to mention the most family ties, and that counts for a lot), the USA was the obvious choice here.

Well, maybe my American upbringing has skewed my view too far out of whack. Maybe I give America more benefit of the doubt than it deserves, but I don't think so here. Although on the Benevolence Scale of 1-100 I might rate America higher than non-Americans would, I don't think it's apocryphal to suggest that the "average Brit" would prefer a global rule-set dominated by the USA over a global rule-set dominated by the Tsar, and that British statesmen acted accordingly.

Posted by: Brock at November 26, 2005 05:23 AM

I have updated the post in response to Jim's and Brock's comments.

Posted by: Lex at November 26, 2005 10:06 AM

World War Zero and its outcome -- the transfer of hegemony from Britain to the USA without armed conflict -- is one of the fundamental underpinnings of the contemporary world and all of modernity.

Is the transfer of hegemony from the USA to ??? inevitable and if so, when?

If inevitable can the USA allow (accomplish?) a transfer of hegemony without devastating armed conflict?

= = =

Before American independence, Franklin and Adam Smith had both discussed the probability that American demographic and economic growth would eventually move the political center of gravity from England to North America within the Empire.

In a globalized world economy how does 5% of the world's population (Anglos) maintain hegemony?

Posted by: Bill White at November 26, 2005 10:44 AM

Are you kidding? 1914-1945 happened because Bismark was no Madison, and made Europe so complex only he was capable of running it, and because the French were a vindictive idiots, blind to the perfectly foreseeable consequences of their actions (as usual).

Posted by: Brock at November 26, 2005 01:24 PM

I dunno, Brock,

"Mein Kaiser, don't start a war on two fronts."

How complex is that?

Yet they managed to screw it up.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at November 26, 2005 01:31 PM

No, Brock. You've got it backward. Bismarck made Europe too simple. By reducing Austria to an appendage and unifying Germany, he set the stage for a Europe divided into blocs. But it wasn't Bismarck who blew it. He left clear instructions -- under no circumstances let the Russian alliance lapse. Had the Germans clung to that one instruction through thick and thin, then it would have been German capital and expertise that was developing Russia, no Franco-Russian alliance, no encirclement, no Schlieffen Plan, no initiating of war. Also, Bismarck would never have allowed the Naval race to happen, antagonizing Britain for no good reason. It did not take genius to avoid doing these things, it took foolishness to do them. So the Germans got themselves into a bind. The French up to 1914 did nothing but prepare to be attacked again, which happened. Sorry, but I have to blame the Germans for all that. However, had the British clearly committed to defending France, Germany may have been deterred. But, still fault can hardly be imputed to a mugging victim because he did not carry a gun. Yeah, he should have had a gun; yeah the real problem is the mugger. And had the USA been involved in some kind of security alliance with Britain prior to WWI, it is hard to imagine Germany would have taken on all the "Anglo-Saxons" at once. Even Kaiser Wilhelm II wasn't that stupid. And if the British and the Americans had cooperated in the post World War I period, the worst effects of the Depression could have been avoided, and the rise of the European dicators could have been thwarted.

Because the two big Anglophone powers could only get together until their backs were to the wall, the transition from one hegemonic power to the other was far more costly than it might have been.

So, I'll stick with my statement. Nope. Not kidding.

Posted by: Lex at November 26, 2005 01:34 PM

Lex - W. Roger Louis was my dissertation adviser in British/Commonwealth history. I would recommend all of the books he has written or edited, starting with the Oxford History of the British Empire. Regarding his book Imperialism at Bay, you might also want to read his later article with Ronald Robinson in the Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 22:3 (1994). The article points out that there was also a degree of continuity in the transition from British to American dominance.

Regarding British accommodation of the United States, there was a controversy in Britain in the 1990s prompted by the historian John Charmley, who argued that the change from Chamberlain to Churchill amounted to a shift from appeasing Germany to appeasing America. In Charmley's view, the British Empire would have emerged from World War II in much better shape if Britain had kept its distance from the United States. The trouble with this argument is that (if Britain had survived the war) it does not really account for postwar decolonization. Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher pointed out in the 1950s and 1960s that the British Empire rested on a degree of consent. When Indians withdrew this consent in 1946, the moral and material costs of maintaining the empire went up prohibitively. US pressure was not the crucial factor, and Suez 1956 was really more the exception than the rule in postwar Anglo-American relations. We tended to work together in the rest of the world.

Going back to the early 20th century, I think it may be useful to distinguish between economic and political threats. Germany was a threat to Britain in both spheres but what worried the British was the political. There was a powerful domestic movement in early 20th century Britain to enact a tariff, but British governments didn't block German trade, even though Germany was rising with the help of tariff barriers to protect its own market. The British people did back a stronger fleet. What worried the British people was not the German economy but the German government.

In the absence of a German political threat, Britain and America might have remained more distant, but I'm not sure Britain would have seen a need to build a coalition against the United States as long as a political threat from America wasn't evident. Like American globalists today, British leaders before 1914 thought that trade would bring peace in the long run. It was really conservatives and liberal unionists who were worried about rising powers abroad. This is not to say that Anglo-American relations would have been smooth. But for a real antagonism to have developed I think a government would have had to take power in one or the other country that was quite different in character from the historical norm.

The biggest problem for both America and Britain was exactly the question you pose at the end of your update: the willingness and wisdom to use capabilities effectively.

Posted by: David Billington at November 26, 2005 01:42 PM

David, my fierce jealousy. I have all of those Oxford history volumes, as well as Louis' essay collections, and a couple of his books. Only picked at all this stuff. What was your dissertation about? I wonder what he would think about this Anglosphere analysis? Charmley was a silly man. The idea that you could cut a deal with Hitler had, um, been tried already? Chamberlain did his best to avoid war that way, meanwhile quietly acquiring air defense capabilities. Anyway, Charmley has, I think, been rebutted. It was late in the day by 1940, and Churchill correctly chose the least terrible outcome by allying with the USA. Could he have gotten a better deal on the marging? Maybe.

The extent to which the British Empire relied on tacit consent is a very important and under-appreciated point. However, I think US hostility to the idea of Britain reestablishing itself in its Asian empire especially did have an impact on how fast the Empire unravelled. The US-UK cooperation was, from my reading, very strong against the Soviet Union, where we just went right back into "wartime allies" mode, but much less so in the wider world where the USA wanted the Europeans out, for both practical and ideological reasons.

This in turn leads me to suggest that the US did present a political threat to the Empire, if not to Britain itself. Absent other threats, this American threat would have stood out more starkly.

I agree that the German government not the German economy was the problem. Britain was Germany's largest or second largest trading partner. There were lots of natural synergies between the two countries -- Imagine British soft-services and shipping and established overseas markets coupled with German technological dynamism? Tremendous business cooperative prospects dance before ones eyes. It is tragic this did not happen. The world could have been a much better place if the Germans had had grownups in charge.

So many "might have beens". I can almost believe the 20th Century was under a curse.

Yes, I wish the British and American leadership had done things better. Still, we should be humble. People in a century will be asking "Were they blind? How could they not see what was coming?" Count on it.

Posted by: Lex at November 26, 2005 01:58 PM

David -- My impression is that the educated urban middle class of India had withdrawn consent gradually between 1919 and 1939, and that there was an understandning between the British government and the Indian Congress party that in exchange for supporting the Allied war effort in WWII, (and as Mihir Bose pointed out, it was massive support) there would be full self-government instituted as quickly as possible thereafter. HAd chuchill been retruned to government in 1945 it's possible the self-government might have been a bit different and perhaps the handover might have taken longer to happen, but it was pretty much a done deal.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at November 26, 2005 02:34 PM

>> Americans thought they could keep the world at arms length, and not allow it to corrupt their free institutions. America was a highly protectionist country during this era as well.

To follow up on Lex's point, this article is an excellent window on attitudes of the day:

Olney, Richard, International Isolation of the United States. The Atlantic Monthly, vol. 81, issue 487 (May 1898).

Available online here:

Posted by: james mccormick at November 26, 2005 03:11 PM

Jim - Yes, the withdrawal of consent was gradual, but the Delhi police strike of 1946 really tipped what balance remained in favor of independence. I agree that Churchill might have resisted but I suspect the result would have been a Labour victory at the next British general election followed by withdrawal from India.

Posted by: David Billington at November 26, 2005 03:49 PM

I thnk Churchill would have been realistic enough to not have resisted Indian self-government. Also, he was party to the wartime understanding with the Congress Party. I think he would have tried harder to have made the Commonwealth connection something more than a fig leaf, and perhpas have held out for a slower handover schedule. Perhaps Partition might have been handled differently.

All of this was way too litle, too late. If the British had wanted to make something like a Dominion status work for India, they should have started on it decades sooner.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at November 26, 2005 04:02 PM

Your analysis is very interesting. So here's a controversial question: aren't the Brits also partly to blame for the events that led to WW I? It appears that foreign policy establishment committed a few blunders during the Restoration period in Europe. here some that strike
1) The Brits were so fearful of the French, that they neglected the Prussians and their ambitions to wrest hegemony from the Austrians in the German speaking regions
2) The Brits had a policy since 1600s to keep Europe divided into several small powers than to have 1 or 2 major powers on the continent. Due to their overlooking Prussian ambitions until it was too late, the Brits found itself facing 2 blocs within the continent. If it wasn't for German blundering, I doubt that the Brits would've overcome in time their ambivalence towards the French to prevent a German conquest. The consequence: French revanchism would've been the evil ideology of the 20th century

Another element of blame was the mobilization system. It was an extremely efficient and impersonal system...unfortunately. If Wilhlem and the Austrians understood the consequences of their general mobiliation orders, they wouldn't have issued them. In fact, Wilhlem would've given his OK to the Austrians to invade Serbia with a token force and that would've been the end of it.However, the Austrians dragged their feet and agrravated the crisis that triggered the cobweb of treaties and secret treaties that pushed the Europeans to a general war

One of the things I find a little unfair about American commentators over the years regarding their country's contribution to WW I was that they won it. They overlook that the Commonwealth and the French colonial armies played a decisive role in that victory too. I often wonder that if the Americans had entered the war in '16 and participated in the Somme, Verdun, Chemin de dames and Ypres campaigns, if the commentators would be as confident in their assertion?

Great discussion

Posted by: xavier at November 26, 2005 04:04 PM

"I think Churchill would have been realistic enough to not have resisted Indian self-government."

I agree.

"I think he would have tried harder to have made the Commonwealth connection something more than a fig leaf, and perhaps have held out for a slower handover schedule."

I don't think delay was possible. But if Britain had been willing to be more of a third force in the world, it is possible that the Commonwealth with India might have been more of a power. I agree that if the Commonwealth was to survive as a politico-military entity India should have received dominion status much earlier.

Posted by: David Billington at November 26, 2005 04:48 PM

Lex - "What was your dissertation about?"

A biography of Philip Henry Kerr (1882-1940), eleventh Marquess of Lothian, who founded The Round Table and served as British ambassador to Washington from September 1939 to December 1940.

"I wonder what he would think about this Anglosphere analysis?"

Professor Louis doesn't mix political advocacy with his role as a scholar, so I doubt if he would express a view. But he brought to campus scholars and public figures from throughout the English-speaking world as guest speakers and visiting professors and he has worked in other ways to enrich ties.

"The extent to which the British Empire relied on tacit consent is a very important and under-appreciated point. However, I think US hostility to the idea of Britain reestablishing itself in its Asian empire especially did have an impact on how fast the Empire unravelled."

It is true that Franklin Roosevelt was hostile and at the end of the war we didn't want to give the British funds beyond what they needed for bare domestic recovery. But the Labour government in the late 1940s did not want to stand in the way of independence for India and I don't think our views were important there. Afterwards, we encouraged the British to stabilize Malaysia, and we did not want them to withdraw from east of Suez in the 1960s.

It is possible that the shift of power to the United States helped define a general climate that undermined British willingness to preserve a traditional empire. Morale is a crucial thing that often works in the background and is hard to pin down in its effect. But the British had already decided before the war that they were not going to use lethal force against nonviolent nationalism and they didn't have the option of using it in India after the war.

In the long run, though, I do agree that America would have had difficulty coexisting with authoritarian European colonial empires that did not fall down on their own. The lesson of the last century is that repressive places are a threat to everyone.

Posted by: David Billington at November 26, 2005 04:58 PM


No one contributor won WWI. However it is true that the endgame of WWI consisted of whether the US could train and deploy its troops in the West quickly enough to offset the shift of German troops from the East after Brest-Litovsk. So in that sense the US won it by being there and getting there fast enough.

But setting the record straight in face of entrenched national myths is part of what the Anglosphere perspective is about.

And yes, the mobilization system was a major contributor to the outbreak of WWI. Wilhelm didn't "want" to start WWI, but his disinclination was not sufficient to give a "halt" order to his troops before they crossed the border. Germans were smart enough that they could have dealt with the logistical confusion.

In general: It's pretty clear that an Anglo-American structure of some sort, anywhere from a treaty to a full-fledged English-speaking Union, was a great opportunity that sipped from the fingers of the people of that day, for many different reasons. It's easy for us to say that it never could have happened, but 20-20 hindsight is wonderful. I'm sure that had an English-speaking Union happened, reams of clever dissertations would have been written to explain why it had been inevitable.

But the actual outcome, a World War Zero that never turned hot, is in its own way a result on the same spectrum, just the least ambitious outcoem possible on that spectrum.

And yes, what's the obvious closest parallel today? India, maybe -- it certainly isn't China -- but probably there is no ral close parallel. Just the admonitory example that we must be open to possibilities and prepared to grasp them. And not have too many illusions about present positions.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at November 26, 2005 06:13 PM

But were the Americans, British (and to a lesser extent Canadians) ready psychologically for a Anglosphere union during the belle époque? We can analyze the reasons for the lost opportunity but wouldn't attitudes be a point of departure?

Here's a tangent question that's popped into my mind but still relevant to WW zero:
What are some of entrenched (or pernicious) myths within the Anglopshere that impede closer collaboration?



Posted by: xavieer at November 26, 2005 06:45 PM

If you re-arrange the players slightly, it's conceivable that a North Atlantic Charter could have been signed between the US and the UK before the First World War started. In the aftermath of the Venezuela crisis of 1902 with Germany, and the Morocco Crisis of 1905; there could have been a Halifax Conference with T. Roosevelt in his third-term. In the absence of Woodrow Wilson, US foreign policy would have been much less idealistic and more Richelieu's "raison d'etat"-driven. A Edwardian-era Imperial NATO would have reflected the more isolationist-bent of the Americans, and provided the British Empire the maneuvering-room to avoid locking it's fate to France's. And the additional "throw-weight" of that NATO would have tempered the German Naval Expansion to be less confrontational. Plus the strong German ties to the US and Canada would also serve to temper some of the Jingoism and bravado. The Eastern Front might not have been avoided, but the rapid collapse of the French after the end-run through Belgium without the British holding the flanks might have created a situation condusive to a negiotiated-peace in the West.

A post-war still-Imperial Germany, spared the upheavals of revolution and Versailles might then have come to some understanding with the Anglo-NATO powers exchanging territorial dreams for trade guarentees and access. With millions of Germans in the US and Canada, this might be supported more strongly politically by the North Americans than the British, but accepted as an alternative. The cost might be Poland, but they would be part of a more-"democratic" Germany, since Germany would have to make-nice to the Americans and the British. Even Bismarck toyed for a while with the idea of a dual-monarchy for Prussia and Poland.

The other price might be an accomidation of Imperial Japan by the United States at the insistance of the British in the Pacific to balance British interests in India and Burma. Manchuria, Korea and Formosa might have remained in Japanses hands, but they might have been restrained from their incursions into China. This would still have left the traditional "sick-men" of Austro-Hungary, Turkey and Imperial China; but made them less likely to be preyed-upon openly.

The creation of an Imperial NATO probably would have kick-started the centripital-forces that lead to a Commonwealth replacing the Empire; but also could have set the stage for a UN-like structure of diplomatic-ties between the major spheres that might have been able to head-off some of the cataclysms. As a government and policing agency, the UN sucks. But it does provide a point of continuous diplomatic and economic contact. And conceivably several of the non-Imperial NATO powers like Germany and Japan might join or atleast cooperate. If you can talk rather than shoot each-other over diplomatic and economic-issues like trade and tariffs, and you can buy resources rather than having to conquer the territory to get at them; then those would be powerful incentives to make-nice.

It never happened, and it might not have happened, but....

Posted by: Ted B. at November 26, 2005 07:37 PM


But were the Americans, British (and to a lesser extent Canadians) ready psychologically for a Anglosphere union during the belle époque?

Well, apparently not. Although if we're talking might-have-beens, we could always posit one or another perception-realigning eent that could have shocked them into it (as September 11 has been perception-realigning for us).

If there were some additional sufficiently strong perception-realigning event in the near future, and there seemed to be some good reason to do so, we could put together an Anglosphere federal union today from the major core nations almost instantaneously -- we could probably put thirty realistic politicians together in a room for ninety days and they could hammer out a servicable first draft of a constitution. The militaries could form a unified commmand (as opposed to the combined operations we do today), and we could probably have Union elections, within a year. We could form a Union legislature almost immediately by having each legislature select a proportional delegation to send to the body.

We've had lots of practice by now, having thrown together four quite successful unions in the last three hundred years -- 1707, 1789, 1871, and 1901. There are plenty of data points to work from.

I've never discussed this idea in my books or columns because I don't see any strong drivers on the horizon for it, and there's nothing such a Union couldn't do today that couldn't essentially be accomplished by much more modest means. Therefore, I 've concentrated on the modest proposals. But if the need were there, it could be done readily. I may do a post on this topic, it's an interesting thought experiment.

Ted B., you have the right idea. If you change the ground rules a bit, an Anglo-American structure of some sort, a proto-NATO, might have been achievable. Elect T. Roosevelt for a third term in 1912, and maybe get rid of Grey on the British side, with the entente cordiale stillborn. As a thought experiment at least it's interesting.

Also, Xavier, your question about current intra-Anglosphere pernicious myths is a good one. But it needs a longer post to address it.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at November 27, 2005 12:31 AM

I agree with Jim that the obstacle to anything like an "Anglosphere Union" is on the demand side. Why would we want it? It is absolutely true that it could be put together quickly if there were a desire to do so. The thing is, the countries in question are basically functioning well, in global terms, and there is no political impetus for any such union. I'd oppose it, actually. I don't want voters in Tasmania and Glasgow voting on what happens in Delaware and Arkansas, and I see no need for an added layer of government. A political union is not what we need.

I am far more interested in seeing the development of the more interesting thought experiment, a Network Commonwealth, where the countries carry on pretty much as they are -- with new treaties to enable freer trade, free travel and settlement for work (sojourner agreements), scientific cooperation and military cooperation. With all that in place, civil society and private businesses could be left to sort out what needed to be done on a cooperative and creative basis. This is set forth in the Anglosphere Primer, and in greater detail in the book. This is a much more practical, incremental and hence plausible future configuration for the Anglosphere.

As to counterfactual history about the period before World War I, that is boundlessly fascinating. I will mortify my desire to go on and on about the "Teddy Roosevelt's Third Term" scenario. I will say that "getting rid of Gray" would probably not have prevented closer cooperation with France. The Conservatives were strongly anti-German, as was the professional civil service in the top ranks of the Foreign Office -- more so than Gray. See Zara Steiner's masterful book Britain and the Origins of the First World War. I actually think it would have been better if Britain had made a stronger landpower commitment pre-1914 to deter Germany. Germany was almost deterred as it was, in the West. While an attenuated World War I, the one that actually happened, is the worst possible outcome, a German victory, especially in the West, would also have been bad.

Posted by: Lex at November 27, 2005 12:54 AM

Anglo-American relations are discussed in Avner Offer's remarkable book "The First World War: An Agrarian Interpretation". The general theme is the "Atlantic orientation" of Great Britain and its impact on World War I. Free trade created economic links between food importing Britain and food exporting countries/Dominions like Canada, the US, and Argentina. At least one pre-WWI British defence planner noted the "economic dependence" of the United States on Britain, which purchased three-quarters of American farm exports.

Offer goes further, arguing that three influential British defense planners, Admiral John Fisher, Capitain Maurice Hankey, and Viscount Esher, used their positions on the Committee of Imperial Defence to actively work for an Anglo-British alignment. Fisher went so far as to advocate a Anglo-American Federation in 1908.

Offer also notes the influence of the British Dominions on British policy towards the US, especially Canada and Australia, which feared Japan and foresaw their own dependence on the United States to deter Japanese expansion.

Steven Zoraster

Posted by: Steven Zoraster at November 27, 2005 08:57 AM

Steven, thank you very much. I have long been itching to read the Offer book, which one sees cited from time to time.

The facts you sketch here show that the "carrots" side of the equation was extraordinarily strongly pushing against Anglo-American conflict. There is a case to be made that the British never really pulled out of America after the Revolution, that the two economies were far more deeply entangled than any two truly separate countries ever could be. This remains true to this day.

Posted by: Lex at November 27, 2005 08:48 PM

Lex: "I wonder what he would think about this Anglosphere analysis?"

David: "Professor Louis doesn't mix political advocacy with his role as a scholar, so I doubt if he would express a view."

I'm puzzled. The Anglosphere analysis pioneered by Jim Bennett is not a form of political advocacy, it is a framework for historical and cultural investigation grounded in the nature of English society and the societies that are culturally downstream from England (America, Australia, Canada, etc.). Anglospheric analysis may lead in a general way to certain political conclusions (e.g., the desirability of closer cooperation and freer interaction between the English-speaking peoples), but it is not primarily political in nature. Besides, Lex asked what Professor Louis might think about the Anglosphere framework, not what he would necessarily express in public, so I think you're free to speculate on the matter. :-)

Posted by: Peter Saint-Andre at November 27, 2005 09:37 PM

What Peter said. As I have said before the Anglosphere is empirical -- it exists. There are a lot of open questions about what it is exactly, what generalizations can be made about it, what impact it has had on the world, why its component parts have certain similarities and differences. So, there is not really an advocacy element there, but a lot of research projects which need to be done.

There is advocacy in answer to the question "What is to be done?" This leads to policy proposals, and advocacy.

There is, then, an "aspirational" element, in addition to the empirical element.

However, you can participate in the former and not the latter, no problem.

Nonetheless, I think it is fair to say that people who are attracted to the idea are on the libertarian side or the political right. People who are appalled and angered by the notion of cultural impacts on things like economic performance, and long-lasting historical roots for current social phenomena, will be on the left. Such thinking flies in the face of multi-culturalism, loathing for Western Civ, advocacy of socialism, and much else.

So, I would not really expect Prof. Louis or any other professor who valued his peace and quiet to say anything about this type of thinking. Zero upside, lots of downside in terms of potential for hassles from Lefty colleagues.

These ideas will catch on amongst smart, well-read non-academics. To the extent they are noticed by academics, they will be airily dismissed, at best, or contemptuously dismissed, more often, and dismissed with screeches of execration from time to time.

I sometimes think that some of the writers whom we like would be horrified if they knew what use we make of their work.

That is how I see the lay of the land.

Posted by: Lex at November 27, 2005 09:52 PM

I sometimes think that some of the writers whom we like would be horrified if they knew what use we make of their work.

No doubt!

But still, it moves.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at November 27, 2005 11:22 PM

Another point about the calculus of World War Zero, which has been sort of alluded to but never specifically discussed, which is the role of Canada as hostage to peace between the USA and the British empire. When the US-Canadian border was determined by the Treaty of Paris, almost every inch of it was in what was then considered howling, unsurveyed wilderness. The quickest, easiest solution to the question of marking the border was to use the Great Lakes as the demarcation. This worked, but as the Lakes and the area around them became the industrial heart and lungs of both Canada and the US, and the economically critical navigation thereof became dependent upon a series of vulnerable canals around Niagara Falls and the Sault Ste. Marie, it became more and more clear that any full-scale war between the US and the British Empire would wreck both sides. France and Germany, in a somewhat similar situation, chose to deal with it by massive expenditure on fortifications, peacetime universal conscription, and in general creation of garisson states. The other solution was to admit that full-scale war was essentially off the table as an option. It's interesting that Alfred T. Mahan's 1890 Red Plan for war with Britain was made on the explicit assumption that war would be confined to a naval contest on the high seas, with only minimal consideration for war on the Lakes, and that mostly with converted merchant craft.

Canada had, in the course of the Nineteenth Century, become the real jewel in the British crown, and one that had a claim of loyalty on London. At the same time, nothing could move the Canadians to pony up anything like an adequate sum of money or draft of men to actually defend the place against the US in a serious war.

In thinking about Britian's situation in the decades before World War One, it's useful to remember that the USA was the only major industrialized rival of the British Empire that also shared a land frontier with few natural defenses with it. Consider the substantial resources that Britain expended to deal with Russia's land threat to India, which consisted of a handful of colonial troops at the end of an impossible logistics tail, separated from India by some of the world's most impassible terrain. Canada, inhabited by British kith and kin, and far more vulnerable, would have required vastly more investment to even begin to defend. The fact that they didn't seriously try meant that they had already begun to accept they would never fight the USA.

The foundations of Anglosphere cooperation were laid inadvertently in 1787. The more successful Canada became, the more valuable a hostage it made itself. By the end of the 19th Century, the costs of conflict had become intolerably high. Making peace with the only power sharing a significant, vulnerable land frontier with the Empire was thus a no-brainer. Trade Canada for Guiana? I think not.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at November 28, 2005 12:03 AM

Peter and Lex,

History is often the key to understanding present problems more clearly and a policy can naturally arise from a new historical perspective. But the historical argument for the Anglosphere is a frankly sweeping view of the past that draws on only a handful of sources. These appear to be full of interesting insight. But how they are handled matters. Reviewers of Macfarlane who are experts on the Middle Ages have praised and criticized his work. Yet Macfarlane is cited in Anglosphere arguments as an expert witness to make a case. The case may be strong but other historians might view this use of history with caution.

If Anglosphere thinking takes more definite form and has more to say about the twentieth century, it could make a valuable and interesting alternative to existing interpretations of the recent past and might be worked into graduate and then undergraduate teaching. In my own research, for example, I found that the Ulster crisis of 1914 has been interpreted from the larger standpoint of "revolt of the right" theories that try to place the United Kingdom in a larger European context on the eve of World War I. I believe a case could be made that the Ulster crisis should be seen instead in terms of the history of civil war in the English-speaking world. It is on this kind of scholarship that one carefully accumulates a case for a new perspective that academic historians of the twentieth century can take seriously.

This is not to say that broader generalizations have no place. If anything we need more synoptic and synthetic understanding. Anglospherists can identify new insights, encourage them to be tested, and argue a position based on the results.

Posted by: David Billington at November 28, 2005 03:04 AM

Jim ~ your comment on the effective vulnerability of Canada to the United States, and the essential British acceptance of this vulnerability, and the Canadian resentment of this entire situation, is an important one. Keep in mind that the Fenian Raids in the late 1860s and the Riel Rebellion in the late 1880s (both seen at the time as serious threats to Canadian authority) received at least moral support from (non-official) US sources. Note also that the US War Office included an invasion of Canada in its specific war plans until the mid-1930s ("War Plan Red"). Canadians resent the United States for its overwhelming power, and its indifference to the concerns of its neighbors; it might be better to save some of that resentment for the British, who by their concentration on other parts of the Empire contributed mightily to the imbalance between Canada and its southern cousin.

Posted by: David Fleming at November 28, 2005 05:41 AM


Canadians had been told for generations that they were under the shield of the greatest and strongest empire in history. Although they were indeed under the Empire's shield, and it was indeed by many measures the greatest and strongest empire in history, this was not the whole story. Even at the height of its global strength, neither the Imperial metropole nor the Canadians themselves were willing to make the peacetime investments needed to make Canada genuinely safe from a fully-committed American invasion. At the same time, Canadians were not willing to make the economic sacrifices needed to support an autarkic Imperial trade system, but preferred a substantial degree of economic integration with the US. All internal Canadian debates were over the degree of integration, not its fact.

Britain supported Canadian confederation partly because they hoped that a self-governing Canada would raise more taxes and assume a greater degree of its self-defense burden. (The last time they had tried unilaterally imposing defense costs on a colony of settlement, it didn't work out very well. That was 1776.) But as we have seen from James McCormick's posts, the new Confederation didn't exactly rise to meet these expectations.

Of course, we can't ignore the fact that Canada and Britain did achieve their minimal aims -- Canada never was annexed to the US, as many 19th Century observers had assumed was inevitable. But in my opinion, Canada's peculiar geopolitical situation was due to the circumstances of its birth and the decisions made at that time. Neither the Americans, nor the British, nor the Canadians were willing to be explicit about the situation as it was, or fully follow out the impliations of that situation, except for the small circles of English-speaking Unionists of their day. Convenient national myths have been preferred instead. More and better might have been possible then, as it is now. let's hope the myths don[t prevail again.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at November 28, 2005 10:09 AM

Just to be clear, I am not saying that Macfarlane and the other scholars aren't onto something truly important. My concern is that the Anglosphere concept, to the extent that it has definite form, is really two things: (1) an effort to reinterpret the past by making a case for an intermediate level between the nation-state below it and Western Civilization above it, and (2) a defense of the potential of all humanity to achieve civil society that underlines the changes in society and culture that must be part of that achievement.

The two aspects are not unrelated but the second is farther along than the first and requires a different focus to be compelling. The case for the Anglosphere as a historical concept is in early liftoff, not orbit. Insofar as it is undertaken as a scholarly venture, you don't need to undertake an exhaustive research program but I think the effort you make could benefit from a more contingent attitude toward the past. The evidence and arguments that hold up will be all the stronger.

Posted by: David Billington at November 28, 2005 10:51 AM

David, I am working on a post now that will address this point. In very brief summary, the core perception of the Anglosphere perspective is not about the past, but about the present -- about the existing fact of Anglosphere exceptionalism. When I first started writing my book, I had not read Macfarlane, and I had assumed, like most people who have thought about such things, that England had undergone the transition from mediaeval familialism to modern individualism somewhere around tthe sixteenth or sevententh century -- early, but still part of a general European transition to modernity. Macfarlane's work was exciting when I discovered it, and seemed to support and deepen my conclusions greatly, but it was not the original source of the perspective. In other words, I liked Maccfarlane'ss conclusions because they were very consistent with a pattern I had already seen, not because I derived the perception of the pattern from his work. If his work were conclusively refuted (unlikely in my opinion, but possible) the Anglosphere perpective would still stand, although its roots would be shallower.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at November 28, 2005 12:13 PM

big thank

Posted by: crystal deodorant at September 19, 2006 07:37 PM
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