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 Albion’s Seedling.)

15 thoughts on “The Trident Passes — Peacefully”

  1. This is exciting & resonant. We had, already, been born with some blood and pain, and therefore developed our identity separate from England’s, but as lovely as your title metaphor is, I think to Churchill, it was more like passing the baton to the next runner on the same team.

    (This reminds me of Winik’s take on the Civil War and the remarkable peace – if spotty & imperfect – that followed April 1865.)

    These are our myths and our histories that we take with us to Iraq – it may make us misread countries with such different histories from our own but it also makes us much more optimistic about the universality of our institutions and freedoms.

  2. There are two reasons the Americans and the British did not fight a war for “world power” in the 20th century. The first is that Americans are not, and never have been, interested in fighting wars for world domination. The second reason was World War I.

    The incredible carnage and sublime wastefulness of trench warfare in WWI convinced a generation of Americans, and more importantly, a generation of Britons, that war was an anachronism, that could no longer be justified under any circumstances, and that the only hope for humanity was pacifism. In fact, the acceptance of pacifism in America and Britain was so complete that an unprepared Britain likely would have fallen to the Germans in WWII were it not for Churchill’s leadership, and the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor forcing America to her aid. Not only were America and Britain not prepared for wars of hegemony, they weren’t even prepared for self-defense.

    The pacifist movement that was born out of the destruction of WWI was one of the most important ideologies of the 20th century, affecting America’s and the world’s view of every subsequent conflict up to the present day war in Iraq.

  3. After WWI, or ‘The Great War’, England succumbed to the malaise of the barely victorious (see Oxford society resolutions, etc). They had technically won, but it was a phyrric victory all the same. Their who social balance was bent, the upper class that had counted on to lead had been shown to be sorely lacking (technology had given them a real beating), and the entire male/female equilibrium of the 20’s was out. The Brits had lost so many men in WWI that fully a third of the marriage age women were not expected to be able to find a husband. I think England’s leaders looked around and decided that they could do without any more wins like that one. The irony is they got another one anyway.

  4. Benjamin Franklin noted many years before WWI that the U.S. would soon be a world power running most things…this is not a new idea

  5. I think the best explanation for the lack of war is that true democracies with free-market economies find it very difficult to reach a point were war appears to be the best choice.

    Free market economies are based on creating a multitude of relationships that are win-win for everyone. Both sides are better off with the relationship than without it. War would cause an immediate loss of these benefits. Widespread democracy in turn means that all those that benefit from the trading relationships will have a voice in any war decisions.

    Britain and America never went to war because neither would have gained any overall benefit from doing so.

    The marxist are completely wrong in their model of the causes of war. Wars are not about economics but instead are caused by elite militaristic minorities seeking to maintain their status within their own societies. WWI was caused by the remnants of Europe’s military aristocracies trying desperately to fight off their obsolescence by encroaching capitalism. WWII was caused by Fascist and Communist elites doing the same thing. Ditto for the Cold War and Isalmo-facsism today. In each case, people who cannot create or trade turn to destruction as their only means of maintaining their own relevance.

  6. Its also worth pointing out that the WW1 was the first conflict that the British Empire had fought against a major advance enemy since Napoleon. This was not the case for France, Germany Japan, Russia Austria and most other European countires all of whom had fought each other.

    As a result of just fighting in ferior enemies in defense of the empire, I dont think the British Empire could really “concive” how to take on major power like the US

  7. I’m not so sure the British necessarily recognized their demotion to second rank power at the time. Even by the beginning of WWI the British largely believed themselves to be 1st among nations, owing to their empire having covered a substantial fraction of the Earth’s habitable surface. I wonder if perhaps they thought of America as some sort of freak, whose power and wealth did not replace its lack of civility, culture, and empire (I’m imagining here from the British perspective). As if America were, say, some jumped up hooligan who might have a tremendous amount of money but could never truly be “rich” in a proper sense. It would be interesting to examine the history of the time closely to see the feeling of the British people with regard to America’s power.

    Also, I think the reason America and Britain did not fight a war against each other was due to their cooperation, and concessions to each other, in WWI and WWII. Before WWI, America and Britain were very much potential, and real, rivals. Remember that the original HMS Dreadnought was built not in response to German shipmaking but, in part, to the start of construction on the USS South Carolina. This arms race has been rehistoried into the frame of a Britain vs. Germany affair due to the later war, but at the time it was very much a multi-party affair. Also keep in mind that during and after WWI, the US, Japan, and Britain very much continued their ship building race. So much so that it necessitated major international arms control agreements (The Washington Naval Treaty of 1921 and the London Naval Treaty of 1930).

  8. Ginny, the reference is to Neptune’s Trident, signalling command of the oceans. There is a painting done during Victoria’s reign, which may be on the ceiling of one of her palaces, showing Neptune handing over his trident to Brittania. So, I was carrying on the metaphor.

  9. Well, I guess to the British the passage from Neptune the god to Brittania may be a bloodless intrafamily inheritance, as they saw us (in some ways) as more child than rival. Surely Ed in Texas describes a sad but important pragmatic reason.

    Thanks for this insight, I don’t often think widely enough to notice the dogs that don’t bark .

  10. Even before WW1 Britain appears inclined toward taking a conciliatory stance towards the US.
    One example being the American insistence on arbitrating the dispute between Britain and Venezuela over the Guiana border dispute. While this assertion of “Monroe privileges” made some ministers to fume, the Cabinet decided to agree to the US demands. One minister commented: “We expect the French to hate us, and are quite prepared to repay the compliment if necessary; but the Americans, No!”

    Certainly there were pragmatic reasons for such a stance:
    – British Canada was vulnerable; it’s security depended on avoiding conflict with the US. Strategically a powerful and hostile US Navy would present enormous challenges to the Royal Navy for protecting the commercial routes to the UK, let alone connections to Canada and the West Indies.
    – US development was clearly producing a country whose wealth and population, and power potential, would rival all Europe.
    – US seemed likely to be a benign international actor; it had been open to peaceful resolutions of Canadian border disputes, and disinclined towards an imperial expansion on the scale it was capable of.
    – The US was never likely to be an existential threat to the UK; whereas a hostile European hegemon would be.
    – The US seemed likely to share with Britain an interest in a relatively open world trade and financial system, which could translate into shared foreign policy objectives: for instance in China both supported “Open Door” policies against partition proposals.
    – The greatest risk of a breach would be if British conflict with a European state involved in blockading actions that the US viewed as violation of its neutral rights as in 1812. Fortunately this was avoided in 1914 to 1917.

    But as Lex indicates, there is ultimately something more, something beyond pragmatism, and perhaps the ultimate reasons why German (Hohenzollern Imperial or Nazi) or French (Bourbon, Revolutionary or Napoleonic) ascendancies were so bitterly resisted and the American accepted.
    As the French political theorist Raymond Aron put it in “Peace and War”:
    “…in the abstract, England could have sought allies on the Continent to forestall American hegemony: yet such a thing was out of the question…A change from the pax Britannica to the pax Americana did not involve a change of universe, and pride, rather than the soul, suffered.
    A pax Germanica could not replace the pax Britannica without England resisting to the death: only a military catastrophe could have cleared the path from one to the other.”

  11. A great text on this subject is:

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

    As a general rule for English and Canadian posters, it’s probably worth skipping over to the Yale diplomatic document site for a review of actual Anglo-American treaty history and treaty terms.

    There’s no doubting that the US Republic and Second British Empire grew together in a symbiotic manner, each benefitting from the others institutional strengths and weaknesses as long as distance allowed a minimum of friction. This ended with the Atlanticist era, and subsequent attempts to find a solution that would allow co-habitation, from The League of Nations to the United Nations to NATO and on, have consistantly failed.

    As the saying goes in some US circles, Timeo Britanicuos et dona ferrentes.. etc.

  12. 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.

  13. America would surely lose against britain i dont know how but i just know they would Britain has IQ on are side and they are much more highly trained then americas forces.

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