A scene from the TV show Dallas closely matches the description of great power transitions that Kori Schake provides in her excellent new book, Safe Passage: The Transition from British to American Hegemony. Bobby Ewing, the upstart son of oil executive Jock Ewing, thinks that his father “gave [him] Ewing Oil to run.” But when he confronts his father about the patriarch’s unilateral withdrawal of $10 million from company accounts, he’s met with a stern rebuke. “So I gave you power, huh? Well, let me tell you something, boy. If I did give you power, you got nothing! Nobody gives you power. Real power is something you take!”
What was true of a twentieth-century fictional family oil company was true for Carthage and Rome, what came before, and what came after. As Safe Passage details, “replacements of hegemonic powers in the international order occur by violence.” The one exception to that rule came in the middle of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century, when the United States slowly and peacefully took over the hegemonic role Great Britain formerly played.
By “hegemony” Schake doesn’t mean simply military or economic preeminence. Were that the case, the attainment of hegemony would be merely a race for higher GDPs and bigger armed forces. Rather, hegemony means “the ability to set the rules of international involvement and to create order among states by enforcing those rules.” Militaries and economies are obviously keys to that effort, but they alone didn’t create the American-led liberal international order that replaced the British Empire and whose potential demise we keep hearing about.
Understanding what enabled the last transition to be peaceful, and what it could mean going forward, is Schake’s goal in Safe Passage. Those efforts are made more vital if the current pessimism about the future of Pax Americana is justified.
The book provides an account of how this highly contingent, peaceful transition was based on shared understandings between the British and American governments and peoples that evolved through nine moments in time: the establishment of the Monroe Doctrine; the Oregon boundary dispute; the British decision not to recognize the Confederacy; the United States’ westward expansion; the Venezuelan debt crisis; the Spanish-American War; World War I; the 1922 Washington Naval Treaties; and World War II.
Each of these events showcases the arc of history that Safe Passage claims drove the transition: the Americans and British came to see more and more of themselves in the other. From the United Kingdom’s effective enforcement of James Monroe’s 1823 declaration against further European colonization in the Western Hemisphere; to Grover Cleveland’s 1895 decision to enforce Monroe’s doctrine against the UK herself when it sent marines to occupy parts of Venezuela; to US acquisition of former Spanish colonies; to the magnitude of resources America brought to bear on the battlefields of France—our two countries met in the middle as the United States became more of an empire and Britain became more of a democracy.
This convergence—strengthened by interests and cultural ties like history and language—allowed Britain to accept its former colony’s growing strength. That was especially true as a rising America clashed with Britain’s other imperial adversaries, thus underwriting the British order.
When US ships came into conflict with German patrols during the Battle of Manila Bay, the British fleet even shielded the Americans from fire, bolstering a friendly American dominion over the Philippines, all the while undermining a rival empire. Just a few decades later, America came to Britain’s rescue against that same empire in World War I.
World War I irreversibly weakened the British Empire. But it was still largely intact after the Treaty of Versailles, despite that weakness and despite President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points promoting independent nation-states for the peoples of the world. Other empires broke apart and formed smaller states in Central Europe, but His Majesty’s government was granted new, if temporary, dominions through a system of mandates in former German and Ottoman holdings in the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, and the South Pacific.
It took till 1922, when a newly preeminent United States dictated to a shaken United Kingdom and other powers how many and what kinds of ships would be allowed in their navies, for the American vision for the international order to dominate that of the British. Britain could no longer determine the rules on its own and acquiesced to the upstart’s demands. Thus, a newly hegemonic United States attempted to build an order based not on empire, but on self-restraint.
World War II was the death knell for the British Empire, and it crystalized America’s place as the one true hegemon while simultaneously once again allying the new and former holders of that title.
Safe Passage’s argument is that the “transition from British to American hegemony reads more like a romance than a realpolitik primer.” This should not discount the tension in the relationship, including the Union’s seizure of the British ship Trent and Great Britain’s near recognition and aid of the Confederate States of America.
But the time period covered by Safe Passage does exclude a later moment of tension that offers a plausible alternative endpoint for a history of the transition from British to American hegemony: the Suez Crisis of 1956.
Britain, with the support of Israel and France, retook the Suez Canal after its nationalization by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, only to be ruthlessly countered through a series of economic sanctions and threats by the Eisenhower administration. These efforts forced Britain, the humiliated power, to withdraw its troops from and claims to Suez. Surely this dramatic event and America’s hostile role, not a slowly consummated “romance,” marked the final rung in the ladder of America’s ascent.
Possibly. But Britain’s actions during the Suez Crisis were not direct threats of violence to America, and by 1956 Britain had been living in a world very much of America’s making for quite some time.
The terms that ended World War II gave Britain a special place in world politics, but no more special than that of France, which also had a permanent seat at the UN Security Council and occupied part of Germany. A new world trading system, given legitimacy by the United States, set the rules of commerce. Indeed, Winston Churchill described Great Britain’s role at the Tehran conference as that of a “small lion walking between a huge Russian bear and a great American elephant.”
By the end of the war, Britain could be given power. But Britain could not take power. Per Schake’s definition of a hegemon, America “set the rules of international involvement.” The Suez Crisis was a chance for America to “enforce those rules.” In this case, and crucially, without violence.
Underlying Safe Passage’s historical account is the question of the next hegemonic transition’s character. If the American order is to fall, will that fall lead peacefully to a new hegemon? Or will a new hegemon rise by force?
Schake concludes that China, the most likely successor hegemon, has ideological differences with the United States that cannot possibly appeal to America in the same way that our own once appealed to Britain. Without such ideological affinities, any hegemonic transition will require force. Just as every hegemonic transition prior had.
Peaceful or forceful, a hegemonic transition requires a would-be hegemon capable of taking the place of the current hegemon. China, and even Russia and Iran, are revisionist powers capable of challenging the American-led order. At this point, though, they are, to borrow Walter Russell Mead’s phrase, an “Axis of Weevils” and incapable of meeting Schake’s definition of a hegemon.
China could continue its rise and one day meet that definition. But, from demographic imbalances, to slowing economic growth, to hostile neighbors, to potential domestic unrest, not even China’s ascent is inevitable.
If America one day cannot set the rules of international involvement and cannot create order among states by enforcing those rules, China or any other country may not be able to, either. What then?
Wilson Shirley is a public policy professional based in Washington, DC.
Photo Credit: Detail of “They Can’t Fight,” by Frederick Burr Opper, January 1896, originally published in Puck. Source: National Archives.